Canton, a forgotten Missouri River town

Canton was one of the early Missouri River towns in what is now Broadwater County, Montana. Canton was never much of a place but it had enough people and vision to build one of the first landmarks in this part of the Missouri River valley, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in 1875-76.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the church served local residents from almost the beginning of the town’s settlement through the homesteading boom of the early 20th century. The Northern Pacific Railroad ran along the other side of the River, diminishing the importance of Canton but never really indenting the significance of the church as a territorial-era landmark and as a compelling example of vernacular church architecture. Regularly held services continued until 1954.

The church faces the River (now Canyon Ferry Lake)

It really is a splendid bit of craftsmanship. The Gothic influenced bell tower entrance dates to the homestead boom of the early 20th century while the rounded arches over the windows well express its late 19th century roots.

Determined residents saved the church from destruction in 1954. They had the building moved to this place, higher ground away from the lake and lakeside developments created by Canyon Ferry Dam and Reservoir. The grand Bureau of Reclamation project totally reshaped Broadwater County. The town of Canton was erased but St. Joseph’s remained.

Thirty years later when I stopped at the church in 1984, it was ragged and needed attention. Residents did that in the 1990s and ever since the church has stood as a quiet but imposing marker of the territory days of Montana.

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