When travelers, and most Montana residents even, speak of Silver Bow County, they think of Butte. Outside of the Copper City, however, are small towns and a very different way of life. To the west we have already discussed Ramsay and its beginnings as a munitions factory town during World War I. Let’s shift attention now to the southern tip of the county and two places along the historic Union Pacific spur line, the Utah Northern Railroad, into Butte.
The Union Pacific Railroad, by means of the narrow gauge Utah Northern extension, became the first transcontinental railroad to reach Silver Bow County, arriving in 1881. Its first stop in the county was at a freighting stop for the Hecla mines, established in the 1870s, that was renamed Melrose. This place grew as transportation and trade crossroads between the Hecla mines to the west and the Butte mines to the north.
Melrose still has several log and frame buildings typical of late 19th century mining towns gathered along Hecla Street. There is a substantial brick one-story Victorian styled commercial block and two-story brick railroad hotel facing the tracks, both reminders of
when Melrose was a substantial, busy place. This 1870s-1880s history is largely forgotten today as the town has evolved into a sportsmen’s stop off Interstate I-15 due to its great access to the Big Hole River and surrounding national forests as well as the quite marvy Melrose Bar and Cafe, a classic western watering hole.
Community institutions help to keep Melrose’s sense of itself alive in the 21st century. Its school, local firehall, the historic stone St John the Apostle Catholic Mission and the modernist styled Community Presbyterian Church are statements of stability and purpose.
The next stop on the historic Utah Northern corridor is a turn of the 20th century engineering marvel, the Big Hole Pump Station. Already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the pump station was in the midst of comprehensive documentation from a HABS/HAER team when I visited it for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.
The photo above was published in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, in part because of the preservation excitement over this landmark but also because it documented how the boom in Butte helped to transform the historic landscape on the “other side of the divide.” The pump station took water from the Big Hole River and pumped it over the mountains to the Butte Water Company–without the pump station, expansion of the mines and the city would have been difficult perhaps impossible in the early 20th century.
The pump station remains in operation but access now, due to security concerns after 9/11/2001, is restricted compared to my explorations of 1984. Divide is also distinguished by two community institutions–its one-room school, its grange hall, and its standardized post office, still in business following the threat to close many small town Montana post offices last decade.
In 2014, in reaction to the listing of Montana rural schools as a threatened national treasure by the National Trust of Historic Preservation, CBS Sunday Morning visited Divide School for a feature story. Teacher Judy Boyle told the Montana Standard of May 16, 2014: “The town of Divide is pretty proud of its school and they want to keep it running. We have a Post Office, the Grange and the school — and if you close the school, you basically close the town.”
Divide is one of many Montana towns where residents consider their schools to the foundation for their future–helping to explain why Montanans are so passionate about their local schools.