West Yellowstone and Dillon are Montana’s best examples of railroad towns developed by the Union Pacific. Dillon is the oldest, established as the company’s spur line, the Utah and Northern, pushed north from the main line and headed into the rich mining country of Silver Bow County and environs. Not only is the historic Union Pacific depot–part of the railroad’s Oregon Short Line–extant, and used as a county museum and theater, so too is the symmetrical town plan of the early 1880s, with the town’s primary commercial blocks facing the tracks.
This birds-eye view of the town is at the Beaverhead County Museum at the railroad depot. It shows the symmetrical plan well, with two-story commercial blocks facing the tracks and depot, which was then just a frame building. To the opposite side of the tracks with more laborer cottages and one outstanding landmark, the Second Empire-style Hotel Metlen. The Metlen, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains today, one
of the state’s best examples of a railroad hotel. I recognized the building as such in the 1984 state historic preservation plan and my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, included the image below of the hotel.
This three-story hotel served not only tourists but especially traveling businessmen–called drummers because they were out “drumming up” business for their companies. The interior has received some restoration work in the last 30 years but little has changed in the facade, as they two images, one from 1990 and the other from 2012, indicate.
The same can be said for the ornate cast-iron Victorian-styled cornices on the commercial buildings directly across from the depot. First is a black and white image, c. 1990: note the middle cornice. The next image, from 2012, shows that the details have been lost in the last 30 years although most of the cornice is intact.
The Dingley and Morse Block from 1888–seen in the historic image of the town at the museum above–has been well preserved and is a significant example of how cast-iron facades defined the look of businesses in Montana’s late 19th century railroad era.
This brief look at Dillon as a railroad town is just the beginning of our exploration of this southwest Montana county seat. Today Dillon is known as the home of the Patagonia outlet–certainly a key business development here in the 21st century. But the town’s
built environment has many stories to tell.