Carbon County’s Bearcreek and the Smith Mine Disaster

IMG_5696Red Lodge prospered as a railroad/coal town because rich seams of coal existed all around it, especially to the east along Bear Creek, now followed by Montana 308.  Active exploitation of these resources started at the beginning of the 20th century, and continued, on a significantly reduced scale, into the 1970s.

IMG_5688Bearcreek, the town that served these mines, was not much a place when I first visited in 1984, with the mines having been closed for a decade, many had left.  It had that abandoned look of other Montana mining towns where mining had ceased. Over 300 people lived there during World War II; in the 1980s about 60 residents could be counted.

IMG_5689Today, population has slightly ticked up–to almost 80 residents–but little remains of historic Bearcreek and its boom from 1905-c.1925, except for buildings made with stone from nearby sandstone quarries or flashier commercial buildings with pressed tin exteriors.

IMG_5683

IMG_5690Bearcreek is a sliver of what it had been due to the growth of the Colstrip mines and the railroad shift from coal to diesel power from 1925 to 1950.  But its fate, so closely intertwined with the mines, took a terrible turn for the worst in early 1943 when methane gas combined with lax safety procedures to led to the explosion of the Smith Mine.  With 74 miners dead, along with one first responder who died from injuries attempting to save the miners, the Smith Mine explosion is counted as Montana’s most deadly coal mining disaster. (Ironically due to the demand for coal during World War II, the mine stayed in production, in spite of the disaster, until the end of the war).

IMG_5702When I visited in 1984 the mine site was abandoned, deteriorating, but it did have public interpretation in the shape of a wooden highway historical marker, and the hulk of buildings did suggest a solemn memorial to those who had lost their lives.

IMG_5705

IMG_5710

Since that time, the deterioration of the site has continued, as it is open to the elements.  But the Montana State Historic Preservation Office has worked with property owners to create the Smith Mine Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.  Plus, the preservation office and Montana Department of Transportation have added their own public interpretation markers to the highway historical marker, and these attract tourists on a regular basis to think about and remember those who died to fuel the nation’s war machine during World War II.

IMG_5701Frankly I think that is a good place for the Smith Mine site to be:  a decaying yet compelling industrial memorial to coal, miners, and the constant need for mine safety.

Red Lodge: Preservation Maybes and Maybe Nots

It’s no secret that I have long admired the towns of the Yellowstone Valley.  Thirty plus years ago, the attitude across much of Montana was dismissive of this region:  I even was told by someone who should have known better that “outside of Custer, there’s really isn’t much history there.”  Not only was their history in spades–chronologically deep, thematically rich–there was this tremendous built environment that I began to explore in 1982, and haven’t stopped since.

Snag Bar (1901) Red Lodge Carbon Co  IMG_5715

Admittedly I take an old school approach to the preservation of this landscape.  Red Lodge has many exemplary preservation achievements but in the 21st century success may be leading to the community losing that edge, admittedly rough edge, that once characterized this region of Montana.  Case in point:  the Snag Bar.  The image on the left is from the 1980s–on the right is an image from this summer.  I was happy that the Snag was still with us–always a cozy watering hole in the past.  But now its entrance spoke to a different audience, and the place had taken on the “Main Street Preservation” look that you can find across the country–and a bit of distinctiveness was gone.

IMG_5725

IMG_5716

Red Lodge was not tipped into that preservation fantasy land right out of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.” But new infill of modern false-fronts and even a heavy mountain-like Rustic feel doesn’t help, not to mention the northern California wine bar with its set-backs and sidewalk seating.  It is just worrisome.  As is the future of this once grand movie theater,

IMG_5799which has been hanging on, seemingly by a thread, for decades.  The theater has one of the great Classical Revival facades found in the state, full of whimsy and wonderful detail.

IMG_5782

IMG_5785   IMG_5783

Its conversion into a garage was kept it alive but a conversion into a new public use:  well it is a huge building, that needs work, and Red Lodge is already blessed with a brilliant historic movie theater, the Roman.  Multiple theaters in the early 20th century made sense: today not so much.

IMG_5797

Red Lodge also has gotten it right in its residential historic districts.  The “Hi-Bug” neighborhood–a designation 100 years ago that spoke to the merchant class that lived in the town’s most affluent neighborhood–has made a remarkable recovery in the last 30 years, and looks great as these few images attest.

IMG_5751

IMG_5812

IMG_5815

Throughout town there are similar preservation success stories, ranging from a historic service station (that has a nifty exhibit about Yellowstone tour buses and their preservation lurking inside) and one of my new favorites, the Regis Grocery, now a neighborhood (meaning off the tourists’ beaten path of US 212) cafe worth a stop.

IMG_5737

IMG_5804Red Lodge does have challenges–growth that can overwhelm historic character, too many tourism focused businesses–but the changes here over 30 years are impressive achievements, sure signs of how the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act has helped to change the face of Montana.

Red Lodge’s Commercial District: Turn of the 20th Century Masonry in the Yellowstone Valley

IMG_5789Red Lodge’s commercial district is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  While the construction dates in the district span over 100 years, from the 1890s to more recent modern-era “in fill” buildings, the most notable pattern is the number of two-story stone or brick commercial buildings from the turn of the 20th century.

IMG_5728The landmark Pollard Hotel is a good example.  Opened in 1893 as the Spofford Hotel, the building was an instant business landmark, a hotel located halfway between the depot and the heart of the new city.  As the boom intensified at the turn of the century, Thomas Pollard bought the place and doubled its size in 1902. The Pollard served as that “booster” hotel, designed to show businessmen and investors that Red Lodge was an up and coming place.

IMG_5775

The Pollard was not alone in defining the city’s look.  Facing it were long blocks of two-part mostly brick commercial buildings, with retail and sales on the first floor and residences and offices for a growing professional class on the 2nd floors.

IMG_5776

IMG_5791

Carbon Co Red Lodge 26 - Version 2

The decorative cornices proudly proclaimed that the new buildings were part of the new century, and a promising era for all involved.  Of course commercial design in more settled areas to the east and west had already moved away from the heavy masonry typical of the 1880s–but Red Lodge was largely a Victorian commercial district for what would be a 20th century mining boom town.

IMG_5718

While two-story, two-part commercial blocks set one pattern in historic Red Lodge, another is created through the rhythm of the large commercial enterprises and the less ambitious one-story brick buildings of the district.

IMG_5720

Here is another building material found in abundance, rusticated concrete block meant to mimic stone masonry, and the stuccoed top half of the bakery building is another reminder that some owners used imitation materials to fit into Red Lodge’s streetscapes.

IMG_5730

While the commercial district retains much of what made it a special place when I first visited over 30 years ago, it has lost some of that small town Montana feel as owners increasingly cater to those tourists passing through.  The challenges of preservation in Red Lodge will be the next topic.

Th

Red Lodge: Coal Town on the Clark’s Fork River

Clark's Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

Clark’s Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

When the Northern Pacific Railroad entered the Yellowstone Valley in the 1880s, officials and investors immediately began the search to find and acquire locally available deposits of coal.  First there came the Klein mines north of Billings and then by the end of the decade, the first move toward mines to the south, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, at what would become Carbon County with its major town of Red Lodge. Development began slowly, with the Depression of 1893 intervening, but as the era’s financial and railroad magnates combined the Great Northern, the Burlington Route, and the Northern Pacific into one huge co-operative venture, they selected a new place in the Yellowstone Valley, a town called Laurel at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone rivers, to connect the three railroads. In short order, a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line was built down the Clark’s Fork to the place called Red Lodge–U.S. Highway 212 follows this route–and the boom was on.

IMG_5759Entering Red Lodge from the north via U.S. 212 you encounter immediately the town’s roots as a railroad town, as the historic Northern Pacific depot remains rooted at the head of the town.  Here is where my long-interest with the Red Lodge story began in 1984 when

IMG_5760I met with a small group of local historians, preservationists, and civic leaders determined to keep Red Lodge and its still intact historic environment together. The group’s vision for the depot was for it to be a visitor center, an arts center, but more than anything a community center, a visible sign of the turnaround that could happen.  Already, at the head of town artist Peter Toth had begun the new tradition with his mammoth wood sculpture, “In Honor of a Proud and Noble People,” installed in 1979, a theme of the region’s

IMG_5764Native American history and proximity to the Crow Indian Reservation that also was captured in a much more commercial way by the neon sign of the Red Lodge Cafe then, and still to my mind, the best place in town.  The neon, like Toth’s sculpture, was designed

IMG_5723

to attention of the one course of heritage tourism income that locals recognized:  that summer traffic coming out of Billings and off the interstate heading to Yellowstone National Park via U.S. 212 and the Beartooth Pass, one of the true highway wonders of the United States.  How to get people to stop, and how to restore pride and hope for the town itself: those motivated the group I met in 1984 moreso than any well meaning goal of merely preserving history and pretty buildings.

IMG_5758To say that the initial depot project was successful would be an understatement.  Thirty years later the depot is a public space that includes a gazebo, outdoor art, and a setting of history and culture rarely rivaled in the region.  As you move south from the depot, you also immediately encounter several of the dreams the groups discussed in 1984:  a National Register of Historic Places historic district (there are now more than one); restored and treasured public buildings such as the Carnegie Library and Carbon County Courthouse;

IMG_5746

IMG_5734

and their biggest goal of all in 1984, the acquisition, preservation, and transformation of iconic Labor Temple into a history museum and heritage center for the Carbon County Historical Society.

IMG_5740

The group understood the power of the Labor Temple:  they could tell a story not just of railroad magnates and economic development but could look at this history from those who came and labored in the mines, and built the town.  The building dated to the decade of Red Lodge’s height, 1910-1920, when the town’s population reached 5,000 but especially once the Northern Pacfic opened new mines at Colstrip to the east in the 1920s,  the town had been in a decades long period of population decline, where less than 2,000 people lived in 1980.  Many had given up, obviously, but those who stayed saw the bones of a possible community renaissance–and preservation was a big part of that.  That more recent story comes next.

The Scenic and Historic Landscape of Montana Highway 78

IMG_5824Montana Highway 78 is not one of the state’s major roads nor one of its recognized special routes of scenic and cultural wonders.  Yet as the road cuts away from the Stillwater River in southern Stillwater County and heads into the bare yet compelling rolling hills of Carbon County, it cuts quite a path, a winding road that goes by historic stock barns, one-room schools, streams coming out of the mountains, and overviews suggesting the grandeur and mystery of this place.

IMG_5818

IMG_5838

Gambrel-roof barn near Fishtail, Highway 78

IMG_5831

Classic center-aisle stock barn with side extensions, Highway 78 outside of Roscoe

IMG_5819The Hogan School is a turn of the twentieth century delight, the model one-room schoolhouse design of that period.  The Hogan family had established the county’s first rural school in 1887; this later building served the surrounding ranch kids until 1967.  Its preservation today is an excellent example of local stewardship by the property owner.

IMG_5841 IMG_5840

There are several different pull-offs along the road, with one dedicated to two very different historic markers.  One interprets how the Bozeman Trail cut through this landscape in the 1860s:  it is the historic Montana Highway Historic Marker, part of the program documented by Glenda Bradshaw and Jon Axline in their work, and dates back to the mid-20th century when the state got serious about developing heritage tourism experiences for visitors. Next to the rustic-themed state marker is a private marker, honoring J.E. Madson, an influential early Lutheran pastor in the region.  Its Art Deco styling is totally different from the historical marker but it also ties into the highway aesthetic of the mid-20th century.

IMG_5833Roscoe is my favorite hamlet along Highway 78, in part because of the local effort to preserve such key landmarks as the schoolhouse along the highway and because of the preservation of historic commercial buildings from the town’s heyday 100 years ago.

IMG_5825The real reason I always visit Rosecoe whenever possible is the same reason generations of Montanans come here–the Grizzly Bar.  I first discovered the Grizzly in 1984 and loved its look, its hospitality, its community feel, and oh yeah, its steaks.

Created with GIMP

IMG_5828Thirty years later, thank goodness the grizzly bear sculpture still dominated the facade, although the sign itself had been modernized.  The place also had expanded in size–but its feel remained much as it was in the 1980s and 1990s:  mostly a community gathering place particularly on the weekend that also could be flexible and accommodating enough to welcome us visitors in the summer.  It is one of the best rural bars in the state.

IMG_5711Another highway pull-off provides one of those “Scenic Overlooks” found through the state.  This one perhaps not as spectacular as others but also giving travelers a sense of what this landscape is like, and what awaits them as they continue down to Highway 78’s southern terminus at Red Lodge, where the preservation ethic and the successes over 30 years will be the next topics of the blog.

South of the Yellowstone in Stillwater County

2011 MT Stillwater county 012

The Yellowstone River, along with the parallel tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, divides Stillwater County, with the south side of the county more mountainous but with the rich Stillwater River Valley coming out of the mountains to meet the Yellowstone at Columbus, the county seat.  Let’s talk about two towns along the river valley that were once down but now more vibrant than 30 years ago due to the population growth in the southern end of the county.

IMG_5857Absorkee began in the mid-1890s after another taking of lands from the Crow Reservation.  The Oliver Hovda house, a Classical Revival-styled residence on the main artery of Woodard Street, dates to c. 1900 and was built by local carpenter Jacob Wagner.  Listed in the National Register, the big yellow house, as it is known locally, remains the town’s primary domestic architecture landmark.

IMG_5862

IMG_5858

IMG_5863Just steps away are an array of masonry commercial buildings, not finished to the degree that you find north in Columbus but still substantial buildings from c. 1910-1920 that reflect the determination of town boosters to show permanence and seriousness in this small country town. The 5 Spot is the town’s iconic bar, just as welcoming in 2014 as it had been in 1984.

IMG_5848

IMG_5854The town’s school is its pride and joy (I apologize for the distance images with fences but school was in session when I visited in May).  Among the historic school buildings is a 1903 two-room section, see below, and then what is known as the Cobblestone School, a more modern building constructed in 1921 with river cobblestones as the primary exterior wall treatment.  W. R. Plew, an engineer at Montana State University, promoted good rural school designed and is credited with this striking building.

IMG_5850Historic churches also define Absorkee’s built environment, no more so than the historic Emmanuel Lutheran Church, with its soaring Gothic steeple but also its modern c. 1970 concrete block screen, an unusual but effective combination of styles and materials.

IMG_5844Further south along the Stillwater River is Fishtail, a place that in 1984 I noticed more for its sleepy general store (c. 1900) but now a town that is much more alive with residents and visitors.  The re-energized store, who got new owners in 2000, is a large part of that as is the general boom in recreational opportunities and offerings in the Fishtail to Nye section of the Stillwater River Valley.

IMG_5845

IMG_5846The rustic-styled front to the Community Hall speaks to the permanent residents while the sprawling Cowboy Bar attracts visitors and locals.  The south side of Stillwater County may be cut off from the mainstream of Montana life since the railroad and interstate are north of the Yellowstone River, but in the last 30 years its sense of itself has grown and is embodied by the care shown many of its community landmarks.

Sandstone Masonry and Historic Landmarks in Columbus, Montana

IMG_5866Columbus, the seat of Stillwater County, has long served as an architectural and settlement landmark in the Yellowstone Valley.  Today when you drive down old U.S. highway 10 (Pike Street) next to the very active tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, two patterns stand out.  First, the town retains its historic depot and a well-defined railroad corridor–reminding everyone that here is one of the valley’s original railroad towns, from 1882-1883.  In a state where so many small town depots have been lost in the last 30 years, I always stop in Columbus just to see if its depot remains.

IMG_5910

This historic NP caboose is part of the displays at the Stillwater County Museum, which sits in a new building near the schools in the north end of town.

This historic NP caboose is part of the displays at the Stillwater County Museum, which sits in a new building near the schools in the north end of town.

The second feature is the striking stone masonry, found not only along the primary commercial blocks of the town but also throughout the residential neighborhood.  This beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century work is largely attributed to Michael Jacobs, a native of Italy who anglicized her name from the original Jacobucci.  Jacobs was a principal in the Montana Sandstone Company, a firm that not only built Columbus’s historic buildings but also took on commissions in Billings and Butte and its most famous project, the Montana State Capitol in Helena.  Jacobs’ imprint on the town was part of its recovery from the

IMG_5912Depression of 1893, which had rocked towns all along the Northern Pacific line.  But Colubmus recovered and rebuilt frame buildings in stone from c. 1900 to 1920 as the homesteading boom spread through the region.  in Italy, the Montana Sandstone Company provided facing stone to numerous buildings in Butte, but it was the contract for the Montana State Capitol that put the company on the map and established Jacobs’ fame and fortune.

New Atlas Bar Columbus

My favorite Jacobs building is the New Atlas Bar, which I first visited in 1982 and then made it tradition to introduce this special place to anyone traveling through the valley with me on fieldwork.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the bar dates to 1915-1916, and was designed by Curtis Oehme.  For almost all of the 20th century it was operated by the same family who opened it, the Mulvihill family.  Known in the 1980s as the “See ‘Em Dead Zoo,” the historic interior features dozens of stuffed trophies, of all sorts of animals from the region.

IMG_0858

IMG_0855

IMG_0854 IMG_0860

But its historic interior of back bars and ladies lounge is intact, and although the place doesn’t quite have the vibe of 20 years ago, it is still a community gathering spot along historic Pike Street.

IMG_5876Michael Jacobs’ stately Victorian residence is another example of the firm’s craftsmanship as are a series of remarkable tombstones in the town’s Mountain View Cemetery.  The carvers of these monuments are either Jacobs or another firm employee Pasqual Petosa.

IMG_5887 IMG_5889

The county courthouse, however, is not of sandstone, but still it is an impressive Classical Revival statement in its porticoed Ionic entrance and symmetrical facade.  Located in the north end of town, the courthouse, designed by Warren Dedrick, remains an anchor for the county’s history during the homesteading boom.  It first opened its doors in 1921.

IMG_1236

Unfortunately the courthouse faces an uncertain future.  This year proposals have come forth to replace the building, or to modify it significantly with additions, due largely to the county’s population growth and need for greater public space in the last 15 years.  The local preservation commission called for discussions and full consideration before the town, and county, loses such a heritage asset as this striking historic landmark.