A Return to Fort Peck


For sheer scale and audacity nothing in Montana built environment rivals the transformations wrought on the Missouri River and the peoples who for centuries had taken nourishment from it than the construction of Fort Peck Dam, spillway, powerhouse, reservoir, and a new federally inspired town from the 1930s to the early 1940s.



The mammoth size of the entire complex was just as jaw-dropping to me as it had been to the New Dealers and most Americans in the 1930s.  That same spillway, for instance, had been the subject of the famous first cover of Life Magazine by Margaret Bourne-White in 1936.


When she visited in 1936 the town of Fort Peck housed thousands but once the job was over, the town quickly diminished and when you take an overview of Fort Peck, the town, today it seems like a mere bump in what is otherwise an overpowering engineering achievement.

Valley Co Fort Peck

Coming from a state that had headquartered another New Deal era transformation of the landscape–the even larger Tennessee Valley Authority project–I understood a good bit of what Fort Peck meant as I started my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.  A good thing I knew a little because outside of a Montana Historic Highway marker and a tour of the power plant there was little in the way of public interpretation at Fort Peck thirty years ago.

IMG_8115First came efforts to better interpret the Corps of Discovery and their travels through this section of the Missouri River 15-20 years ago. The theme was Lewis & Clark in the Missouri River Country, but by the 2010s the region’s demanding weather had taken its toll on the installation.


IMG_8003At the lake’s edge are additional markers encouraging visitors to imagine the time before the lake when the Big Dry River often meant exactly what it said–the reservoir keeps it full now.

IMG_8024New interpretive markers combine with a well-defined pull-off to encourage travelers to stop and think about the loss of life that occurred in building the dam.  Many of the massive infrastructure projects of the New Deal have similarly sad stories to tell–but few of them do.

IMG_8025You can explore the landscape with the assistance of the highway markers to a far greater degree than in the past.  Even if today it is difficult to “see” the transformation brought about by the massive earthen dam, there are informative markers to help you.

The new visitor center at the Fort Peck powerhouses takes the site’s public interpretation to a new level.  Just reading the landscape is difficult; it is challenging to grasp the fact that tens of

Valley Co Fort Peck Dam Reservoir 18

workers and families were here in the worst of the Great Depression years and it is impossible to imagine this challenging landscape as once lush with thick vegetation and dinosaurs.

Valley Co Fort Peck Dam Reservoir 20

Through fossils, recreations, artwork, historic photographs, recreated buildings, and scores of artifacts, the new interpretive center and museum does its job well.  Not only are the complications of the New Deal project spelled out–perhaps a bit too heavy on that score, I mean where else do you see what the “Alphabet Agencies” actually meant–but you get an understanding of worlds lost in the name of 20th century progress.

Is everything covered?  Far from it–too much in the new public interpretations focuses on 1800 to 1940, and not how Fort Peck has the harbinger of the Cold War-era Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin reject that totally transformed the river and its historic communities.  Nor is there enough exploration into the deep time of the Native Americans and what the transformation of the river and the valley meant and still means to the residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  There’s still work to be done to adequately convey the lasting transformation that came to this section of Montana in the mid-1930s.

Canyon Ferry and the transformation of the Missouri River Valley


Canyon Ferry Lake is the third largest in Montana.  A good part of it lies just east of Helena, the state capitol, while the bulk of the lake stretches southward into Broadwater County.  Living in Helena during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, and often driving U.S. 287/12 which parallels the lake, you would think that the lake and its history would have played a major role in that initial plan.  Such was not the case–rarely did I or anyone else give it much of a thought.  Canyon Ferry Lake in 1984 was just 30 years old–it was not “historic.”



But its historic impact can’t be ignored.  As part of the massive federal plan to conquer the Missouri River, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944 was justified by wartime conditions–it would create new sources of hydroelectric power–but actual construction did not get underway until the later 1940s and 1950s.  Historians have studied the act’s disastrous impact on Native American tribal lands in the west, and the environmental consequences of building some 50 dams on the Missouri and its various tributaries.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic ditch

For Lewis and Clark County and Broadwater County, you can see the relationship between the dammed Missouri and irrigation, as shown above along Montana Highway 284, and you can find remnants of how the project displaced towns, landmarks, and people along the length of the river. No longer was the Missouri the river that the Corps of Discovery had traversed at the beginning of the 19th century.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic NR 1St. Joseph Catholic Church, perched now on a barren bluff facing the lake, was moved about 2.5 miles east to its present location in 1954.  Originally near the river in what was then known as the Canton Valley settlement, the church building is one of the state’s oldest, dating to 1874-1875 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The proud Gothic styled church is the remnant of one of the valley’s earliest settlements.

Broadwater Co St Joseph Catholic 6

Not far from the church is another remnant of the early 20th century settlement boom during the early 20th century homesteading era after the creation of the county in 1897.  Located along Montana Highway 284 this one-room school is typical of the type found throughout the state from 100 years ago, as adaptive by communities and school boards with the small gable-end extension creating storage space and a barrier between the cold winds of the outside and the inside of the classroom itself.

Broadwater Co MT 284 school

These vernacular buildings and landscapes compare starkly with what the U.S. Corps of Engineers built at Canyon Ferry in the 1950s.  It is a Colonial Revival styled federal village–an architectural choice wildly out of step with regional traditions, and a reminder to anyone that here was the federal government, in the midst of the Cold War, placing its imprint on the land.

Lewis & Clark Co Canyon Ferry USBR 3 - Version 2

In 1984-1985 I ignored this new public landscape of a school, administrative building, work buildings, and village.  Thirty years later, of course I see Canyon Ferry as a very distinct historic district, symbolic of the entire Pick-Sloan project and a significant example of an architectural aesthetic from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.




The Canyon Ferry headquarters of the mid-1950s is not listed in the National Register but it could be–an evocative grouping of buildings that helps to document that 60 years we were assured and more than a bit arrogant in our power and mastery of technology.  We were convinced hat as we controlled the world, we could also control nature.



Montana’s Community Gymnasiums

The state basketball tournaments have been all of the talk in Montana newspapers and communities over the last three weeks, and in places like Belt, in Cascade County, they are celebrating state championships this March morning.

Cascade Co Belt school

Gyms were not on my mind particularly when I carried out the 1984-1985 historic preservation plan survey for the Montana State Historic Preservation Office, but even then I picked up on some of the community gyms created by the WPA during the New Deal, such as the one in Virginia City, an unassuming building if there ever was one, and then

VC gym, rear

VA City WPA gym, community center

the tiny log construction gym for Sanders, a tiny community in Treasure County, seen below.  Both the Virginia City and the Sanders gyms are listed in the National Register of

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 2

Community Hall Sanders Treasure Co 4

Historic Places, but the state has dozens of other worthy community gyms, that are very much at the center of recreational, sports, and social life in these towns and counties. Some await new fates and new futures, such as the gyms in Pony, Madison County, also on

Pony school gym

the National Register, and the more architecturally distinct Craftsman-styled community gym built for Whitehall in Jefferson County.

Gym, facade, Whitehall

Others date to mid-century and their more modern styles reflect their function–the half-barrels roofs–but they also dominate the one buildings around them, such as the high school gym in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, seen below.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs school 2

Then there is the frankly spectacular modern-style gym of Twin Bridges, in the state’s southwest corner, with its sweeping overhanging roof.

Twin bridges gym

But wherever you encounter community gyms, you can tell from their location and maintenance, these are buildings of local pride and achievement, and places necessary to community life when so much else is scattered and disconnected.

McCone Co Circle school 3

Gymnasium in Circle, McCone County.

Powell Co HS Gym

Powell County High School Gym, Deer Lodge.

Lake Co Polson gym

High School Gym, Polson, Lake County.

Phillips Co Malta old gym

The “Old Gym” in Malta, Phillips County

Communities across Montana are clearly proud of their gyms, and even when new ones come along, they find new uses for the stately buildings, like the conversion of the old gymnasium below, located in Boulder, into a fine arts theater, which is just one example of this type of adaptive reuse project in the state.

Gym facade, Jefferson County high school, Boulder

Here’s to new futures, grounded in meaningful pasts, for these community, and often times architectural, landmarks across the Big Sky Country. As a group, they are powerful reminders of the importance of community spaces in the counties, both urban and rural, of Montana.

Flathead Co Kalispell high school gym 1

Art Deco styled gymnasium, Kalispell, Flathead County