Townsend: A Railroad Town on the Missouri River

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Townsend is a classic Montana crossroads town, with its historic heart, and primary commercial district, centered on the intersection of U.S. Highways 12 and 287.  But a closer look reminds you of the town’s origins as a railroad town, part of the Northern Pacific route, as it moved westward from Bozeman to Helena, Montana, along the valley of the Missouri River.  The town’s layout is a good example of a T-town plan, with Front Street (now U.S. 287) forming the top of the “T” while Broadway (U.S. 12) forming the stem, as shown above.

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Grain elevators and other light industrial and transportation-related buildings the lots between the railroad tracks and Front Street.  At the corner of the highway junction is one of the town’s oldest buildings, the Commercial Hotel of 1889, which still operates today as

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a bar and restaurant.  Historically this large two-story frame building, with hipped roof dormers creating even additional rental space under the roof, would have been an attraction for travelers and business people looking for a place just off the tracks, or later the highway. It is among a handful of late 19th century railroad hotels left in Montana.

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Broadway also had its historic landmarks, especially the neoclassical-styled State Bank of Townsend, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Dating to 1918, the building’s architect was the Albert Mooreman and Company firm from St. Paul, MN. The flanking two-story classical columns root the yellow brick building to its prominent corner lot–the bank’s survival into the twenty-first century is also a rarity in rural Montana.

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Broadway also has its mix of one- and two-story business buildings, from the American Legion and another Montana Mint Bar to the Professional Building of 1911.  Despite its proximity to both Helena and Bozeman, the town has retained its commercial vitality.

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At the end of the commercial district is the Broadwater County Courthouse, a mid-1930s New Deal project that has expanded significantly in the three decades since I carried out the original historic preservation plan survey in 1984-1985.  Its understated Art-Deco styling fits well its highway location.  And as to be expected in a “T-town” plan, its location at the end of Broadway, meaning the end of the stem of the “T” reflected well the comparative power between local government and the corporate power of the railroad.

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Being a resident of Helena from 1981 to 1985, I passed through Townsend many times on my way east since US 12 was a favorite trek.  I noticed these major landmarks and the patterns of railroad town plans but I must admit that I never strayed off of either Front Street or Broadway, and that was a mistake.

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South of Broadway are several valuable late-19th or turn of the century Victorian-styled residences, some of which have found their champions and have been restored while others need that champion to see the potential jewel underneath decades of change.  One historic neighborhood school building–now a Masonic lodge–also remains, along with many different churches, most of which date to the second half of the twentieth century.

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North of Broadway is a notable exception, the Victorian Gothic styled Townsend United Methodist Church, again an important survivor from the town’s opening generation of history.

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Townsend also had a set of interesting bungalows from c. 1920 on U.S. 12 as it moves east of the courthouse.  These are made of concrete block, shaped to mimic stone masonry.  It was a popular technique to give a house a solid, permanent look, and you tend to find it more in the west than in the east.  Of course, Townsend was not far from the major concrete works at Trident–a topic for a later posting.

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Last but not least Townsend, and Broadwater County, has an active historical society and local museum, established during the American Bicentennial in 1976–and expanding ever since at its location behind the county courthouse.

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