Choteau, U.S. Highway 89 Crossroads

Teton Co ChoteauOne of my favorite county seats is Choteau, where U.S. Highways 89 and 287 meet.  Both of those roads were and are among my favorite to take in the state, and Choteau I quickly found had one of my favorite local dives the Wagon Wheel.  Back in the day, however, I did not appreciate how the town’s history and built environment was shaped by the Sun River Irrigation project and the overall growth in the county during the first two decades of the 20th century and later a second boom in the 1940s.

Teton Co Choteau courthouseChoteau has a different look than most towns from this era of Montana history.  The centerpiece of the towns plan is not a railroad depot but the magnificent Teton County Courthouse (1906), which occupies a spot where the two federal highways junction.  Designed by architects Joseph B. Gibson and George H. Shanley, the National Register-listed courthouse is made of locally quarried stone in a late interpretation of Richardsonian Romanesque style, similar to, but to a much lesser scale and detail, than H. H. Richardson’s own Allegheny County Courthouse (c. 1886) in Pittsburgh.

 

The courthouse defines the south end of town and then U.S. Highway 89 heading north defines Main Street.  Since my first visit to Choteau in 1982 the town’s population has only declined marginally, about 100 less residents in 2010 than in 1980.  But there is a clear pattern of building change in more recent years.  Some are successful adaptive reuse projects, such as the conversion of this old service station/garage across from the courthouse (left above) into offices.

Teton Co Choteau 6This historic neoclassical-styled bank building is now home to a coffee shop but other commercial buildings have changed very little, except for the mix of retail business.  This is not a dying business district but one with a good bit of jump, of vitality.

The historic Roxy Theater is still open, and its Art Deco-styled marquee gives a bit of flash and dash to Main Street.

Teton Co Choteau theater 12

Chateau has its share of eye-catching roadside architecture on both the south and north ends of town.  South on U.S. 89 is the Big Sky motel, little changed over 50 years but on the north end of town is a far different story

Teton Co Choteau 13 US 89 roadsidewhere the historic Bella Vista Motel–a perfect example of a 1950s motel with separate units like tiny Ranch-styled houses–has given way to a c. 2015 conversion into apartments.

The north end of town is also home to Choteau’s heritage tourism, with the local Old Trail museum significantly expanded since the 1980s with more moved buildings, artifacts, and a special focus on dinosaurs.

The stability of Choteau is reflected in its historic church buildings, defining architectural landmarks within the residential neighborhood to the west of Main Street.  Arts and Crafts style influences the look of the Trinity Lutheran Church while the United Methodist Church is a textbook example of Colonial Revival style.  St. Joseph’s Catholic church is also a revival styled building, one in keeping with a vernacular Gothic than the modern look shared by so many Catholic Church buildings in rural Montana.

East of Main Street is the railroad corridor and associated warehouses, elevators, and other industrial buildings along with the historic county fairgrounds and a pretty city park, watered by an irrigation ditch.

Stability, continuity, yet change have marked Choteau over the last 30 years–let’s hope all three traits remain for another generation.

Heading North on Montana’s U.S. 89

Teton Co Fairfield ditch south of town 1We just finished an exploration of U.S. Highway south from Great Falls to Livingston, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  Now let’s head in the opposite direction, north of Great Falls to Glacier National Park.  In the first half of this trek, one great man-made landscape dominates either side of the road–the Sun River Irrigation Project, established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1906 but not completed until the late 1920s.

 

The project has two divisions:  the smaller is the Fort Shaw division centered at the town of Simms (discussed in an earlier post) and the much larger is the Greenfields Irrigation District, over 80,000 acres, headquartered at Fairfield, which is located on U.S. 89.  On either side of Fairfield, you can see the expanse of irrigation land, framed by the Rocky Mountains.  One wonder how many travelers pass by this early 20th century engineered landscape and never give it a look.

Teton Co Greenfields irrigation district W US 89

Teton Co Fairfield Greenfields irrigation 1Feeding in and out of Fairfield are multiple canals and ditches, with the great bulk of land devoted to the production of malting barley, under

contract to Anheuser-Busch for years now.  Dominating the highway along the Great Northern spur line are huge metal granaries for all of the barley to make millions of bottles of beer.

Teton Co Fairfield Busch barleyFairfield itself is a classic T-plan railroad town.  The barley granaries dominate the trackside, where also is located the headquarters for the Greenfields Irrigation District, so designated in 1926.

Teton Co Fairfield irrigation dist officeAlong the stem of the “T” plan are all of the primary commercial buildings of the town, from an unassuming log visitor center to various one-story commercial buildings, and, naturally, a classic bar, the Silver Dollar.

Teton Co Fairfield 6 Silver Dollar BarPublic spaces and institutions are located at the bottom of the “T,” including a community park and swimming pool, a c. 1960 community hall, and an Art-Deco styled Fairfield High School.  The park, pool, and high school were all part of the second period of federal improvement at Fairfield during the New Deal era.

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Teton Co Fairfield 2

The high school and the adjacent elementary school are clearly the heart of the community, even if situated at the bottom of the town plan.  In designing Fairfield 100 years ago, the railroad, the highway, and the grain elevators were the economic focus with the vision of irrigated fields creating an agricultural paradise out of the semi-arid lands of Teton County.  But those who came and built Fairfield as a community

Teton Co Fairfield 4

understood that schools represented their hopes and identity for that future.  Today Fairfield is a few families larger in population than 1970, bucking the trend that the old reclamation towns were fated to fade into obscurity as time moved on in the northern plains.

Signs across Livingston

As a tourism gateway, Livingston is a place full of signs, designed to catch the attention of people in a hurry, and/or to give some sort of distinction to what is otherwise just another western brick building.  Whatever the reason, here is a sampling of my favorite Livingston signs.  Can’t explain why several are connected with bars–just goes with the territory I guess.

 

Livingston: the river side of town

Park Co Livingston catholic school 1Livingston’s town plan from 1882 was all about the railroad, with the adjacent Yellowstone River an afterthought, at best an impediment since it defined the south end of town.  So far from the tracks to be of little worth to anyone, few paid it any attention.  100 years later when I am considering the town for the state historic preservation, I too was all about the railroad and the metropolitan corridor of which it was part.  I paid no attention to the river.  The town’s schools were on this end, but they were “modern” so did not capture my attention.

Park Co Livingston L&C at Yellowstone 3Consequently I missed a bit part of the town’s story, the effort to reform the landscape and create public space during the New Deal era.  The Works Progress Administration (WPA) transformed this part of town from 1935 to 1938 expanding an earlier public park into today’s Sacajawea Park.

The agency built a diversion dam on the river to create the lagoon for Sacajawea Lake, and added a lovely rustic-styled stone bridge.  Later improvements came in 1981.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal pool

As in many other communities across the nation, the agency also added a modern outdoor swimming pool, and bathhouse.  Plus it built a public amphitheater–several of these still exist in Montana.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 6The major addition, however, was the large combination Civic Center and National Guard Armory, an Art Deco-styled building that cost an estimated $100,000 in 1938.  It too survives and is in active use by the community.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 1Tourists now come to this area more often than in the past due to additions made during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in the early 21st century.  The park is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Park Co Livingston L&C at Yellowstone 2

Local sources funded the additional of an interpretive memorial and statue in honor of the July 1806 stop at this place by Sacajawea and her baby Pomp. Mary Michael is the sculptor. The result is a reinvigorated

public space, not only due to the history markers about Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, and Pomp, but also the obvious community pride in this connection between town, river, and mountains.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 9

 

The north side of Livingston

Park Co Livingston north side shops 16Livingston was one of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s most important division points.  Not only did the massive and architecturally ornate passenger station, discussed in the previous blog, serve as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park, it contained various company offices, serving as a nerve center for the thousands of miles of railroad line.  If you do the typical tourist thing in Livingston, you pay attention to the depot and the many late 19th and early 20th century buildings south of the tracks.

Park Co Livingston north side shops 19But to find where the real work of the railroad took place, you have to locate the underpass that takes you to the north side of the tracks, and the extensive Northern Pacific railroad shops.  This area is not as busy as it once was, but enough buildings remain and enough activity takes place 24-7 that you quickly grasp that here is the heartbeat of the line.  In the photo above, one early shop building, the lighter color brick building to the right center, still stands.  Most others date to the line’s diesel conversion in the mid-20th century.

Park Co Livingston north side shops 11With the mountains to the south, and the outlines of the town visible as well, the shops are impressive statements of corporate power and determination, and how railroads gave an industrial cast to the landscape.

Park Co Livingston north side shops 18 - Version 2The north side, in many ways, was a separate world.  Here the homes may date to the Victorian era too, but they are not the stylish period interpretations found in numbers on the south side.  Rather they are vernacular styled cottages, or unadorned homes typical of America’s turn-of-the-century working class.

That quality carried over to the public buildings on the north side.  Its public school is an attractive building, reflecting standardized school design of the early 20th century but is built out of concrete block, resembling masonry, and not constructed of brick as the classically styled Lincoln School of the south side.

Park Co Livingston north side shops 2The school was converted into a community museum some 30 years ago, and if you visit the grand passenger station, you also need to stop at the school, to get a fuller picture of Livingston, the railroad town.

The railroad town theme is so dominant, that it can be overlooked even on the south side.  Let’s return there and look at some of the town’s more iconic commercial buildings, which, back in the day, served as railroad hotels, like the New York Hotel above, now much better known as the Mint Bar.

Park Co Livingston Montana Hotel Block 9The above block of commercial businesses was once better known as the Montana Hotel while the block below, called the Hiatt Hotel in more recent years, was the Park Hotel, opened in 1904 to take advantage of increased tourist business due to the new Northern Pacific depot.  Noted Montana architect C.S. Haire was the designer.

Park Co Livingston park Hotel J.g. Link 2These buildings served tourists in the summer months but throughout the years they relied on the “drummer” trade.  Drummers were a word used to describe traveling businessmen, who rode the rails constantly, stopping at towns large and small, to drum up business for their companies.  They too, like the machine shop workers on the south side, were a constant presence on the railroad lines of 100 years ago, and helped to make the lines hum with their travel and their stories.

Livingston: seeing the obvious but missing the big picture

Park Co Springdale NPRR corridor

In my work on the state historic preservation plan in 1983-1994, I was excited about the new insight I could bring to the state’s landscape–the impact of the transcontinental railroads and the transportation and settlement corridors that they established in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Railroads were of course not a new theme then–books abounded on the railroad barons and the romance of the rails.  But as a built environment–that was new, reflecting current scholarship from John Hudson, John Stilgoe, and Roger Grant.  So whenever I hit a major railroad division point–like Livingston–I only saw the rails and what happened around them.

Park Co Livingston

That was certainly easy enough to do coming into Livingston from the west on old U.S. 10.  The railroad tracks were directly to the north, as well older elements of the town’s roadside architecture, like the exquisite Art Deco-styled radio station, KPRK, now closed for broadcasting (the station’s signal comes from Bozeman) but listed in the National Register. William Fox, a Missoula architect, designed this jewel in 1946.

Park Co Livingston art decoContinuing west you soon encounter post-World War II service stations and motels, some updated, some much like they were, on the outskirts of town and then, boom, you are in the heart of Livingston, facing the commanding presence of the Northern Pacific depot complex with warehouses–some now converted to new uses–coming first and then

Park Co Livingston 3massive passenger station itself. Opened in 1902, the passenger station was an architectural marvel for the new state, designed by Reed and Stem, who would continue on to great fame as the architects of Grand Central Station in New York City.  The station, interestingly, is not Classical Revival in style–certainly the choice of most architects for their grand gateways along the nation’s rail line–but a more restrained interpretation of Renaissance Revival style, completed in red brick.

Park Co Livingston NP depot 12The building is not particularly inviting for locals coming from the business district to the depot–that was not its primary audience.  Rather the grand entrance is track side, where passengers headed to Yellowstone National Park could depart for food, fun, frivolity, whatever they needed before the journey into the wildness of Yellowstone.

Park Co Livingston NP depot

Park Co Livingston NP depot 9Travelers were welcome to use the grand covered walkways to enter the depot proper, or to take a side visit to the railroad’s cafe, Martin’s as I

Park Co Livingston NP depot 7knew it back in the day, a place that rarely slept and always had good pie. The cafe changed its orientation from the railroad to the road as automobile travelers on U.S. 10 began to dominate the tourist market.  Now it has been restored as a local brew pub.

Park Co Livingston NP depot 11

The interior of the passenger station once held large public spaces for travelers and then more intimate spaces themed to either men or women.

Upstairs were spaces for offices, company lodging, and other company business.  The station was the railroad’s urban outpost was what was then still the Montana frontier–its statement of taste and sophistication still reverberates today even as the depot no longer serves passengers (except for occasion excursion trains Amtrak doesn’t run here anymore) and serves as a railroad and Park County museum.

Park Co Livingston RR and Murray Hotel

Thirty years ago, the overwhelming imprint of the Northern Pacific on the surrounding built environment was all I could see.  At one corner was one of the first local historic preservation projects, an adaptive reuse effort to create the Livingston Bar and Grille (once popular with the valley’s Hollywood crowd).

Park Co Livingston bar and grilleDirectly facing the center of the passenger station was the mammoth Murray Hotel–a flea bag operation in the 1980s but now recently restored as a hipster place to be, especially its signature bar.

My throwback place back in the 1980s, however, was Gil’s.  It was next to the Murray and the place to get the cheesy souvenirs you equate with western travel in the second half of the 20th century.

MT 2007 Park County Livingston 3Imagine my pleasant surprise last year when I found that Gil’s still existed but now had been converted into a decidedly up-scale establishment, far removed from the 1980s.

Park Co Livingston Gil'sI don’t know if I have encountered a more fundamentally changed place–cheap trinkets gone, let the wood-fired pizzas come on.

Park Co Livingston main st blocksI was not so blinded in 1984 by the concept of the “metropolitan corridor” that I ignored the distinctive Victorian storefronts of Livingston–how could I since they all, in a way, fed into the tracks.  But when I got to the end of that distinctive business district and watched the town, in my

MT 2007 Park County Livingstonmind, fade into the Rockies, I had captured the obvious but had missed the bigger picture–that’s the next story.

Eastern Park County and the Yellowstone River

Park Co US 89 Horse Thief Trail bridgeTraveling south of Clyde Park on U.S. 89, you pass by the turn-off for Horse Thief Trail, where a historic steel bridge still allows for one-lane traffic over the Shields River; this bridge and snippet of road is part of the original route of U.S 89.  That means you are nearing the confluence of the Yellowstone and Shields rivers, and where U.S. Highway 89 crosses the Yellowstone River and takes you into the heart of Park County. Paralleling the modern concrete bridge is a c. 1897 steel Pratt through truss bridge, to serve the Northern Pacific Railroad spur that runs north to Clyde Park then Wilsall.  The Northern Pacific called this the Third Crossing of the Yellowstone bridge; the Phoenix Bridge Company constructed it.

Park Co US 89 Yellowstone River NPRR bridge  Before jogging slightly to the west to head to Livingston, the county seat, two places east of the Shields River confluence are worth a look.  First is the site of Fort Parker, established as the first Crow Agency in 1869 or the first federal facility in the valley.  It operated from this location until 1875.

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Interstate I-90 traffic passes directly by the fort site, which was on a low bluff overlooking the Yellowstone

In conducting the 1983-1984 survey for the state historic preservation plan, the location of Fort Parker was understood, but not explored and certainly not interpreted.  Here was a very important story of how the Crow Indians initially interacted with federal agents within 4 years of the end of the Civil War and 7 years before the battle of Little Big Horn. Nothing was marked; it was in danger of becoming a forgotten place.

MT 2007 Park County Ft ParkerGladly all of that changed in the 21st century.  As a result of another innovative state partnership with land owners, there is an interpretive center for the Fort Parker story, easily accessible from the interstate, which also does not intrude into the potentially rich archaeological remains of the fort.  The story told by the historical markers is accurate and comprehensive, from the agency’s beginnings to the land today.

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I really like how the metal tipi poles not only make the site easy to locate but it gives it a Native American centeredness, a presence, that otherwise is missing when all that the visitor finds is an interpretive marker. After all the story of Fort Parker is very much the story of the Crow Indians, and how they resisted, accommodated, and came to terms with the increasing white presence in the Yellowstone Valley in the 1870s.

MT 2007 Park County Ft Parker 1Few remnants of that early white settlement remain today; you can find some just north of Springdale, at Park County’s eastern border, on the north side of the Yellowstone River.  Hunter’s Hot Springs was the first attraction, established by Andrew Jackson Hunter in the 1870s, and receiving its last update in the early years of automobile tourism in the 1920s, as shown below in this postcard from my collection.  Today, as the Google image below also shows, there are just scattered stones and fences from what had been a showplace for the valley.

The disappearance of Hunter’s Hot Springs from the valley landscape is also reflected in marked decline at Springdale, the railroad town south of the river that provided access to the resort, over the last 30 years.  One of the Yellowstone’s famous early 20th century highway bridges once crossed here; remnants are all that remain now.

Park Co Springdale Yellowstone River bridgeCommercial businesses once lined the town side of the Northern Pacific tracks.  Nothing is open today although trains rumbled down this historic main line every day.  What does survive is impressive and worthy of

 

landmark status in my opinion:  the Springdale school.  Once nestled on the edge of town (what was then the least valuable land since everything was focused on the tracks) but now easily found from the interstate exit, this school may be the most accessible rural school in the state.  Built in 1918, it is still the town’s focus almost 100 years later.

Park Co Springdale school 4

Park Co Springdale school