I’m taking a break from the Pintler Scenic Route to take a look at Basin, a turn of the 20th century mining town, in Jefferson County. A perceptive reader contacted me and wondered if this once very important town in Jefferson County would be discussed. Since its time-frame reminded me of Phillipsburg, I thought why not now.
When I carried out the Montana State Historic Preservation Plan field work in 1984-1985 I passed through Basin Street in the heart of “downtown” Basin quite frequently, not because of the Silver Saddle Bar–fine place it is–but because I had no choice if headed
south from Helena. Interstate I-90 was not finished then and all traffic used the old U.S. Highway 91 route (Basin Street) passing through the town.
The glory days of Basin had long since passed, although some locals and visitors would go to the Merry Widow Mine for a dose of radon, thinking it could cure their ills (of course radon exposure is actually dangerous). Led by the Butte capitalist Augustus Heinze, the town from the mid-1890s to mid-1920s had been a quite thriving place, served as both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads with its Basin Street becoming the route for U.S. Highway 91. The numerous two-story brick commercial buildings reflected that era of prominence while a decaying c. 1930 garage on the town’s outskirts documents the impact of the federal highway.
Several key community landmarks remain. The most impressive is the two-story frame Basin School, built in 1895 and still in use as a school today. Here is another great Montana rural school building–the state is so rich in this type of public architecture.
Nearby is the Community Church, another late Victorian-era styled building, with its tall bell tower and distinctive corner entrance.
The third building is Basin Creek Pottery and Gallery, located on Basin Street, which is a
poignant reminder that from 1993 to 2011–in the aftermath of the interstate’s completion and the sudden end of traffic through town–Basin was home to the Montana Artists Refuge. For 18 years a wide range of nationally significant artists made Basin their home and their studios. Board chair Sean Sheehan told the Helena Independent Record on August 10, 2011: “We’ve had internationally published authors, Guggenheim fellows — all of these people have been extraordinarily kind and open to the community. We’ve had
wonderful artists and you could just stop in their studio — artists from all over the world and country. Many national artists have done workshops at local schools. I’m really going to miss the stimulation of having such talented and gifted artists right in our community.” Few small towns in Montana have ever been blessed with such exposure to the arts.