The two railroads and the river that shaped Missoula also carved the landscape to the northwest. Following the Clark’s Fork River to the northwest, the Milwaukee Road passes through Mineral County, adding to a transportation corridor that, earlier, included the Mullan Road, and then later U.S. Highway 10. It is now the route of Interstate Highway I-90 as i heads west to Idaho and then Washington State.
When I carried out the survey for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Mineral County had one property listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The DeBorgia School, built in the wake of the Milwaukee Road’s construction through the mountains in 1908, somehow survived the horrific fire of 1910 that claimed most of the county’s earliest buildings. As the railroad’s impact declined, and school consolidation took place, the building stopped being a local school in 1956. It has now served as a community center for longer than it was a school. A small town library has been constructed nearby since my last visit some 30 years ago.
But what was a solitary landmark in 1985 has become a county proud of its transportation history, especially the impact of the Milwaukee Road and the towns of Superior, Alberton, and St. Regis all have National Register properties that interpret railroads, transportation, and transformation in Montana’s northwest.
As the interstate crosses the Clark’s Fork River near Tarkio it bypasses the earlier transportation network. A particular marvel is the Scenic Bridge, listed in the National Register in 2010, especially how the bridge of U.S. 10, built in 1928, was designed in dialogue with the earlier high-steel bridge of the Milwaukee Road.
The Scenic Bridge has been closed to traffic but is safe to walk across, creating great views of both bridges and the Clark’s Fork River–travel here has always been challenging.
Alberton also has important transportation landmarks, especially its National Register-listed Milwaukee Road passenger depot. The railroad was why the town was established–it is so appropriate that now the railroad headquarters has been converted into city hall and other public uses.
Twenty years historic preservationists stepped up to add numerous properties to the National Register throughout the county. In addition to the passenger depot, the Montana Valley Book Store, above, was listed. This two-story false front building, with attached one-story building, was once the town’s commercial heart and known as Bestwick’s Market–it has been close to the heart of book lovers for years now. Montana Valley Book Store was a relatively new business when I first visited in 1984 but now it is one of the region’s cultural institutions, especially when a visit is combined with a quick stop at the adjacent Trax Bar.
The historic three-story brick Alberton High School (now the Alberton School) operated from 1919 to 1960 as the only high school facility within miles of the railroad corridor. It too is listed in the National Register and was one of the community landmarks I noted in the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.
I gave no notice to the replacement school, the modern Alberton High School, c. 1960. That was a mistake–this building too reflects school design ideas of its time–the Space Age of the late 1950s and 1960s, when open classrooms, circular designs, and a space-age aesthetic were all the rage. Alberton High School is one of my favorite small-town examples of Montana modernism.
The school is a modern marvel just as the high school football field and track are reminders of how central the schools are to rural community and identity in Montana. Alberton has held its own in population in the decades since the closing of the Milwaukee Road, largely due to its proximity to Missoula and the dramatic gorges created by the Clark’s Fork River. Change is probably coming, and hopefully these landmarks will remain in service for years to come.