Libby is the seat of Lincoln County, a typical railroad town along the historic Great Northern Railway corridor. The image above is from the town’s railroad depot, the symbolic beginning of town, from which runs a long main street of businesses, reflecting the T-plan town design, where the long railroad corridor defines the top of the T and the main street forms the stem of the T.
The depot is a good example of the railway’s “Chalet” style that it used in many of its Rocky Mountain properties, reflecting the influence of the early resorts in Glacier National Park and the railroad’s wish to connect such rural outposts as Libby with the tourism traffic it wished to generate along the line.
Libby was much like I remembered it from 1984. The town’s population had dropped by about 100, and some historic store buildings had been leveled, but a new brew pub was in operation and the historic Dome Theater was still going strong.
And I liked the New Deal impact on Libby’s public buildings, such as the WPA Deco City Hall, which is now solely the domain of the police department. Then there is the Lincoln County Courthouse, truly a story of two buildings in one as the mid-1930s Art Deco-styled
courthouse received a totally new front, in a contemporary style, in the 1970s as the town and county expanded in the wake of the federal spending in constructing Libby Dam. The rectangular blockiness, flat roof, and band of windows set within a symmetrical facade makes the courthouse one of the state’s best designs for a rural public building in the late 20th century.
I liked all of those things about Libby in 1984. Imagine my shock and disappointment to learn, as everyone else did, that Libby was one of the poisoned places in the west. In 1919, vermiculite, a natural material that contains asbestos, had been discovered outside of town, and the mines were still operating, producing 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world, under the control of the W.R. Grace company. Residue from the mines had been used in local yards and buildings for decades, a fact that was not known when I visited the town for the state historic preservation plan. When the discovery of the danger became public, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency entered into the fray in 1999, it was already too late for many residents. A federal Superfund project began, and did not conclude its work until 2015, spending some $425 million. Then in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a public health emergency, spending another $130 million to help residents and to leave a new health infrastructure in place. In a generation, Libby had been turned inside out. EPA announced in 2016 that the cleanup would continue to 2018, and that the project was the longest in the agency’s history.
The Cabinet Peak Medical Center (2014), designed by CTA Architects, represents the beginning of a new chapter in Libby’s history, as it starts its second century. It extends the city’s earlier healthcare history, represented by the historic St. John Lutheran Hospital, which opened in the 1952 and operated until 2014 when it was closed in favor of the new Cabinet Peaks center.
Despite the disaster, I saw many signs that Libby residents were determined to remain and rebuild their community. One of the most powerful examples is the conversion of one of the town’s historic schools into a new community arts center as well as school administration offices.
Then the public library–home to an active and lively genealogy group and collection–is still a point of pride and activity. The same is true for the mid-1970s Lincoln County Museum–a wonderful modern log building designed and built by the community during the American Bicentennial just outside of Libby–which remains an active part of the town’s heritage tourism offerings.
The asbestos crisis was a terrible disaster for Libby–yet residents refused to let it define their future. There are past accomplishments to acknowledge, an active railroad depot to cherish, a beautiful river and lake, the mountains all around, as celebrated in this public art mural on a downtown building. This place is here to stay, and the historic built environment is a large part of it.
Spent the summer of 2009 hiking the Cabinet Wilderness just west of Libby. Fell in love with the place and the town of Libby despite the asbestos scare. Hopefully the carcinogen can be contained and an economical solution for it’s abatement can be found. John Walker