Harlowton and the Milwaukee Road Division Point

In my work of 1984-85 for the state historic preservation plan, there were few places in Montana that fascinated me more than Harlowton, a division point for the Milwaukee Road and the place where the railroad began its electric line to the west.

from the Milwaukee Road Depot Museum at Harlowton.

The line abruptly stopped work in 1980 and declared bankruptcy, devastating not only Harlowton but many other towns and villages in the west. By the time I began my work in 1984 the dismantling of the railroad was well underway, and I was playing catch-up as track was ripped up for the steel and buildings began deteriorating.

Colleagues in the preservation field had been at work on documenting and understanding the railroad’s history. Dale Martin produced an insightful overview of the railroad and its landmarks for the Montana Historical Society Press in the 1980s. Others carried out preservation studies and in the cities key landmark depots became restored office buildings, restaurants, and other businesses.

But the complex in Harlowton–despite its overall significance to the railroad’s story and its national significance–withered. Compared to the resources in Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls, where the depots were already under preservation and adaptive reuse, the task at Harlowton just seemed to be overwhelming, and some said impossible. Below are copies of some of the images that I took from the mid-1980s to c. 1990, which mark the deterioration of the division point complex but also the fact that resources were there–they just needed help.

the passenger station from the rail yard c. 1985
passenger station and abandoned tracks, c. 1985
the roundhouse and maintenance shops c. 1985
roundhouses and maintenance shops c. 1985
interior of roundhouse c. 1985
interior of roundhouse c. 1985

The division point complex was listed in the National Register in 1988 and by the 1990s some preservation efforts and underway, with the installation of a historical marker and some repair work on the passenger station.

repair work from the town (street side)
repair work and roundhouse in background, c. 1990

Would enough help come in time to preserve this nationally significant place–by start of the 21st century I thought not. Imagine my complete delight in 2021 when visited the magnificently restored passenger station, which had become a well-conceived and executed museum, not just about the Harlowton division point but a place of research for the entire line.

passenger station and railcars from the rail yard
Part of the archives and library room for researchers.
The Winnecook post office has been moved to the site as another museum building

What has been in accomplished in the last few years is impressive and must be commended. What an achievement by a group of dedicated volunteers and residents. Finally, one of Central Montana’s most important stories can be fully explored. But, still, there is work to be done, on the roundhouses and maintenance buildings.

I look forward to my next visit to Harlowton and the continued preservation and interpretation of this nationally significant property in the railroad history of not just Montana but the United States.

Red Lodge Cemetery, Carbon County, Montana

As you leave downtown Red Lodge on Montana Highway 78 heading towards Roscoe, you find the Red Lodge Cemetery high on the bluffs overlooking the town, and not far from the gateway to the county fairgrounds. The cemetery is remarkable. A few years ago residents worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office to place the Red Lodge Communal Mausoleum, from the 1920s, in the National Register of Historic Places. The impressive Classical Revival styled building is certainly the centerpiece of the cemetery.

Red Lodge Mausoleum

But as the grave markers in the front of the building document, the cemetery itself makes a powerful statement of the ethnic diversity of Red Lodge, especially during its coal mining era from the late 1880s into the middle of the 20th century. Twenty years ago Bonnie Christensen’s book on the ethnic groups who worked in and around Red Lodge, mostly in coal mines but not always, documented how local history went against the stereotypes of the mythic West. A walk through this cemetery, with grave markers from residents who came from the United Kingdom and Ireland or Central Europe or the Mediterranean and especially from Scandinavia, makes history books like that of Christensen become jarringly real.

Two of the more interesting markers bookend the mausoleum and mark the lives of immigrants from Italy who were also members, judging from the markers’ form and style, of the Woodmen of the World.

The mausoleum is not the only crypt. Located behind the mausoleum and facing the mountains to the west is the Powers grave house, built of concrete.

Scattered throughout are child grave markers from the early 20th century, perhaps none more poignant that the hand-scripted concrete marker for Angjelka Grubisic who died not even one year old in 1923.

The concentration of ethnic markers around the mausoleum and to the north of the building is the central pattern of the cemetery. But to the southwest of the mausoleum is the veterans section, marked by an American flag, which documents the long tradition of military service from the 20th century, and 21st century, residents of Red Lodge and Carbon County.

The veterans section in the center of the cemetery is a powerful reminder of what the United States is about. We are a nation of nations–here that reality is loud and clear–but when faced by the enemy, we bind together and sacrifice for the good of the country.

Boulder Cemetery, Jefferson County, Montana

Boulder (population 1200 in 2020) is the seat of Jefferson County. Since the time of my historic preservation survey of Montana in 1984-1985, Boulder has lost about 200 residents (the state’s closure of the historic Montana Development Center a few years ago definitely didn’t help). But there remains a vibrancy and hope to the place, centered as it is within easy distance of a larger rural boom in Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, and Gallatin counties.

Note the streetscape improvements as you enter Boulder from the north on Highway 69.
Jefferson County Courthouse, listed in the National Register.
The local heritage center in a stone building faced with brick.
The historic Northern Pacific Railroad depot still serving the community as a senior center.

The cemetery is on a hill overlooking the town with the entrance modern by a modern sign formed out of stones from the Boulder River. The view from the top of the cemetery provides a great overview of the town’s residential, commercial, and government areas.

Boulder Cemetery, looking southwest.

As observed in many other Montana cemeteries that date to the nineteenth century, the Boulder Cemetery has several family plots marked by Victorian posts and fence, even though over time some of the fencing may have been replaced by other wire panels.

McDonough family plot, c. 1891

The cemeteries have many Victorian-themed grave markers as the previous images have shown. The urn-topped marker for Michael Lynch, a native of Ireland who died in 1910, is an excellent example of Victorian grave art in the cemetery.

There are several historic markers for veterans of the Indian Wars of the 19th century, and a beautiful stone marker for John Norman, who died in a World War I training camp in 1918.

The Boulder Cemetery could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a marker of early settlement and development of the town and for its cemetery art. But then a simple boulder marker tells of a more contemporary significance. The Boulder Women’s Club restored the cemetery from 1972-1976 as its contribution to the American Bicentennial commemoration. The Bicentennial saw thousands of history projects and events take place all over the nation. Here is a place that local women carried out a preservation project that clearly created a new place for community pride and identify, marking a unique and lasting contribution to the Bicentennial period. Impressive.

Ryegate Cemetery, Golden Valley County, Montana

Ryegate, facing north

During a break in the infection rates of the pandemic in the late spring of 2021, I was able to get to Montana and spend a bit over a week considering historic cemeteries in places large and small. Many of these towns I had visited multiple times, such as Ryegate, the seat of Golden Valley County along U.S. Highway 12. A town that developed along the mainline of the Milwaukee Road about 115 years ago, Ryegate is a small town, population 223 in 2020, nestled between the railroad tracks, highway, and the bluffs of the Musselshell River.

Ryegate’s Main Street MT 238), on a quiet weekday midday

The cemetery is located on a rising set of hills as you travel south on Montana 238, perhaps a mile or so south of the railroad tracks. A white picket fence marks it and a metal gate allows access.

There are no grave markers that are large and pretentious, a reflection of the hard life but solid values of a rural community of ranchers and homesteaders. With markers covering every decade of the twentieth century, the cemetery is an understated but telling marker of community continuity, faith, and pride.

The family plot marked by a low concrete wall topped by local rocks–a tradition you find more in the south than in Montana.
This early sandstone marker is one of the very few disfigured by time in the cemetery.

Decision Point on the Missouri River

Confluence of Marias and Missouri Rivers

In my 1984 field study for the Montana state historic preservation plan, there were many places that were “known” to Native American tribal historians, students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and scholars of the northern plains fur trade. But few of these places were provided public interpretation. much less public access. Such was the case with the Lewis and Clark campsite of early June 1805 at the confluence of the Missouri and Marias River.

Location of Lewis and Clark Expedition campsite

The campsite became known as decision point because as the expedition rested and regrouped there, they also decided which river to follow. After initial investigations, the members chose correctly and soon found themselves at the great falls of the Missouri River.

When I carried out my 1984 work, everyone knew that the confluence was at Loma, seen in the background of the photograph above. But access to the actual location and significant public interpretation was still to come. As I have written in numerous prior posts, one of the most significant changes from 1984-1985 and my recent work in Montana from 2012 to 2021 is the amount and quality of public interpretation and public access to significant historical landscapes. There has been a huge improvement, and Decision Point is an excellent example of federal agencies working with landowners and state and local government as part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks project.

The image above tells the story of the steamboat Ophir and the amount of river trade that once marked the Missouri River. The interpretive marker below tells the story of the early American Fur Company trading post known as Fort Piegan.

Fort Piegan site

Even if you are not into the history of the region, the overlook created and maintained by the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a beautiful vista, and conveys strongly the landscape as encountered by generations of Native Americans and then in much more rapid succession by the Lewis and Clark expedition, American and Canadian fur traders, steamboat travelers, and by the 1880s the tracks of the Great Northern Railroad. An absolutely stunning historic site.

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.

Buffalo, Montana: the town, not the mammal

I had not been to Buffalo in Fergus County, Montana since 1984–some 37 years ago in the summer of 2021. The place dates to the late 19th century with a post office and trading post. In 1908 it took on the town plan you find today–elevation at the head of town along with railroad line and the public school at the other end of town–as it became part of the Great Northern Railroad route between Billings and Great Falls.

The same landmarks I found in 1984 still defined the town. The First State Bank of Buffalo (there was never a second one) was slowly ebbing away then; the bank had closed during the Great Depression, when so many Montana towns from the homesteading boom had their economic life sucked away. In 1921 I was frankly amazed that it still stood, missing a roof and part of a wall but still expressing its small-town neoclassical style with pride.

Buffalo bank in 1984

Buffalo bank in 2021

The Buffalo school was another statement building from the homesteading era, its two-story brick construction expressing not only the need of a rapidly booming place but how the residents valued public education. The school was the community’s statement of pride.

The community church made a statement of faith and community spirit for the 21st century. The town numbers less than 200 inhabitants but actually that number had grown in recent years. The Craftsman-styled church is extremely intact for a 100 year old plus building–the maintenance of the church is a credit to its members.

Not everything was as it had been in 1984. The community hall had fallen on lean times indeed.

But the hipped roof post office–the one civic building–hadn’t changed a bit. Here was a statement of continuity, and thanks to everyone who fought the good fight last decade to keep post offices alive in rural Montana.

Klein’s Cemeteries, Part 2: Miracle Lodge #84 Cemetery

On the east side of U.S. Highway 87, directly across from the UMW Cemetery in Klein, is the Miracle Lodge #84 cemetery. Fraternal lodges meant much to the early generations of Montana settlers, and all types of organizations were active in the state in the early 20th century, when this cemetery was established.

Klein, Montana.
Looking southwest of the cemetery toward Klein

Miracle Lodge #84 was affiliated with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that began in the United States in 1819 when the first lodge organized in Baltimore, Maryland. The organization was designed to take care of members in illness and in old age, and provide burial services. There are numerous I.O.O.F. grave markers in the cemetery. There also are several markers related to the Endeavor Rebekah Lodge #71, which was the women’s side of organization. The Odd Fellows allowed for women members in 1851, with most male lodges having associated Rebekah lodges.

Miracle Lodge #84 Cemetery is a large, sprawling cemetery, that is still active. Among its most distinguishing features are the numerous family plots, outlined with low, concrete walls, which sometimes have several grave markers within, or no markers at all, with probably wooden or metal markers lost over the decades.

Miracle Lodge #84 Cemetery
From Miracle Lodge Cemetery looking west to UMW Cemetery

Together these two cemeteries, nestled in the foothills of the Bull Mountains and facing each other on U.S. Highway 87, are powerful historic sites, reminding us of mining communities long forgotten as well as the stunning diversity of the settlers who made up the founding generations of so many Montana communities.

Klein’s Cemeteries: Documenting a forgotten mining community

UMW Cemetery, U.S. Highway 87, Klein, MT

Without the striking cast-iron front gate proclaiming the U.M.W. of A. Cemetery, passengers in the cars and trucks roaring along U.S. 87 in Musselshell County would have no idea that they were passing through mining country. Outside of Red Lodge in Carbon County, Colstrip and Decker in Rosebud County, and Belt in Cascade County you don’t hear much about coal mining in Montana. The focus in the state’s history has always been squarely on the more extensive, and lucrative, mining in precious minerals, especially in western Montana. But here in the Bull Mountains north of Billings, investors were interested in the coal deposits as early as the 1880s. Significant investment didn’t come, however, until the Milwaukee Road decided to drive its transcontinental railroad line through the Musselshell Valley, just north of the coal deposits in and around the Bull Mountains.

In 1907 Republic Coal Company opened its first mine, but it was mine no. 2 that became the great producer, with miners at the peak bringing up 150 cars of coal a hour–and the production rarely slowed for the next 20 years until the Milwaukee Road lost interest in coal as it transformed its engines to diesel fuel and the depression came in 1930.

Most miners lived in Klein while others boarded at nearby Roundup, the county seat. Klein reached an estimated 1500 residents at its peak. Republic No. 2 stayed open to 1956, 25 years later the Milwaukee Road had abandoned the line and the region.

Klein is still here, greatly diminished by the closing of the mines and railroad in decades past. But the town’s cemeteries convey stories of those who lived, worked, and died there. The UMW and Miracle Lodge #84 face each other on U.S. 87 and are worth exploring in some depth.

The setting of the UAW cemetery is beautiful, nestled between the highway and the foothills to the west. The graves are facing east and most of the grave markers are small to medium in size; little ostentatious display by the families here.

Mary Bedel (d. 1919).
The shroud over the Carr family stone
Cristina Basso gravemarker

Although the cemetery dates to the early 20th century, it has a few examples of Victorian-styled cast-iron fences to define family plots or in the case of the second image, to highlight the death of a child.

But throughout the cemetery, you are drawn to the many ethnic names, members or at least supporters of the United Mine Workers, who came to America to find a new life, and lie buried in this rural cemetery in central Montana.

Barber, a disappearing Milwaukee Road Town

Barber, Montana

I first visited Barber, a Milwaukee Road-associated town in the Musselshell River Valley, in 1984. Now almost 40 years later, I revisited the place to see, particularly, if the landmark Grace Lutheran Church still stood. Yes, indeed, it has survived another four decades, but now had a handicap access ramp to better serve its aging congregation.

Grace Lutheran Church photo from 1984
Grace Lutheran Church, Barber, MT
Grace Lutheran Church, Barber, MT

This vernacular Gothic styled building dated from 1917–the one decade of Barber’s prosperity–and when I visited in 1984 it was the smallest American Lutheran congregation in the country. Its defining Gothic architectural elements–the Gothic window hoods and the tracery in the gable ends–remain intact. Clearly the surrounding ranch families are effective stewards for this National Register-listed jewel of a rural northern plains church.

Barber, MT

I noted in 1984 that a store still operated–but now it is barely hanging so, with the foundation has failed and you wonder how much longer its false-front facade will remain standing. I observed that all that was left of the town bank was the vault–that is still there–but a two-story turn-of-the-century house is now abandoned, almost on its last legs.

Abandoned Victorian-styled house, Barber, MT

The Milwaukee Road created scores of towns similar to Barber across the plains in the first two decades of the twentieth century. One hundred years later–some 40-plus years since the railroad went bankrupt–a few buildings remain at these spots on the map, physical reminders of the homesteading boom and bust of that era. Hats off to the residents keeping Grace Lutheran Church alive–as along the church remains, there will be a Barber, Montana.