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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week’s wildfire was terrible in its damage to buildings, structures, places, and landscapes in central Montana. The newspaper coverage focused on the burning of historic grain elevators in Denton, in Fergus County. I have included three images of those elevators that I took in 2013.
It is sad to lose these sentinels of the plains because the shipping of grain via railroads were the primary reasons the towns came into existence in the first place.
I have earlier written about Denton’s amazing historic bank buildings and other community landmarks. It was good news indeed to learn that most of the damage happened along the railroad corridor. Prayers and best wishes go out to everyone who suffered losses from these terrible fires.
In the winter/spring of 2020, a new German newspaper contacted me about using several images from the website taken at Lennep, a small Milwaukee Road Town, along Montana 294 in Meagher County. The newspaper wanted to consider its American counterpoint, its isolated location in Montana, and is history. The editors named the story Ghostown Lennep.
I won’t provide a translation of the entire article, but the author Leon Hohmann provided me a transcript in English, from which I learned quite a bit about Lennep, Montana. The author wrote:
“But the history of the small town begins with another person: Martin T. Grande settled in 1877 in the place that was probably still nameless at that time. This is what history books tell us. He was the first white man in this area an immigrant from Norway who made his living by keeping 3000 sheep. Shortly afterwards, other settlers from Grande’s home village came to the mountain region, worked on his ranch or built their farms.
But this arrival does not seem to have gone very smoothly: A descendant of the first settler reported in an interview that Indians had burned down the first buildings because the border between the area of the natives and the immigrants was moved further and further to the west. Thus the territory of the Indians became smaller and smaller.
In the following years, Martin T. Grande’s ranch became bigger and bigger, more Norwegians came, whom he gave work, and he took an increasingly important position. His countrymen called him “good old patriarch”.
But quite fast the contemplative collection of some ranches and farms became a bigger village. Almost overnight the actual town of Lennep, west of Martinsdale, was built along the Jawbones railway line and served as a small stopover, according to a dissertation on the history of the region. That must have been in 1899. It was also the year that an auditor from the operating company Montana Railroad travelled there and named the place after his German homeland. His name: Johann Wilhelm Fuchs “
Since interest in Lennep, Montana, has an international audience and it has always been among my favorite Milwaukee Road places, I made plans to revisit in 2021–ten years since my last visit–and see the condition of the town.
I started with a resource given a brief look in 2011–the town cemetery, which is well maintained as the Lennep Memorial Park. The names of the early settlers such as the Grande, Hoyem and Hereim families are prominent as are the Thompsons, who were Masons. The wives–not named–of Andrew Berg have a distinctive obelisk grave marker.
Leon Hohmann continued with the story of Johann Fuchs–who became Wilhelm Fuchs in his new adopted town of Lennep, Montana. Hohmann wrote:
“Johann Wilhelm Fuchs was born on September 2, 1859, in Lennep, Sarah Baldy from the Remscheid town archive found out. His parents: Hermann Fuchs from Elberfeld, who was a teacher at the higher citizen school in Lennep, and his wife Elise a born Hilger.
Growing up on Munsterplatz, he was a young adult when he decided to train as a businessman, which was quite astonishing since his father did not have this profession. But Sarah Baldy has an idea why young Johann Wilhlem took this path: Because his maternal grandfather, Johann Wilhelm Hilger, who died only a few months before the birth of his grandson, was a merchant.
The archivist suspects that this Johann Wilhelm Hilger founded the company Gebrüder Hilger with his brother Daniel. Around 1856 the brothers built a large cloth factory in Wilhelmsthal in Radevormwald, where up to 600 people worked at times. After a fire in 1890, the company had to file for insolvency. Later, the cloth factory became a paper mill, whose production was only stopped on November 30 1970. Since then, the main building has been empty and neglected.
To what extent Johann Wilhelm Fuchs became active in his grandfather’s business has not been communicated. If he did, then probably not for too long. For at the age of 23, he left his home country to start a new life in the United States of America. This is the conclusion drawn from data in the North Rhine-Westphalia State Archive.
He arrived as Johann Fuchs on August 11, 1882, on Ellis Island, New York with two pieces of luggage. He started his journey from Antwerp on the Belgenland I of the Red Star Line as passenger number 23. What he did after his arrival is unclear.
His name only reappears around 1894, when Montana Railroad is founded as the third railway company in the state. At that time, however, he called himself Wilhelm J. Fuchs. He is said to have already planned a train route from Helena to the East with Montana Railroad President Richard A. Harlow. In 1899, in the course of the construction of the Jawbones Railroad, he also travelled to the village of the settlers from Norway. He named the railway station there “Lennep”. Whether he also lived in Lennep is not known, however. His trace is finally lost in 1904 after the operating company of the Montana Railroad had left.”
The buildings that remain today appear to date to the decade of the railroad’s arrival, from c. 1907 to 1917. Certainly that decade marked the height of population and activity here. The wind-swept setting of Trinity Lutheran Church is unchanged. This Gothic Revival church remains the town’s commanding landmark, and remains the active community center. Hohmann noted: “In 1914, the beautiful building was constructed from wooden shingles. The invitation to tender for the church was published in The Harlowtown News on 25 July 1913 with the aim that the construction should be completed by 15 November of the same year. But apparently, the structure of the Trinity Lutheran Church had been delayed. The new building cost 4300 dollars, paid by the Lutheran church congregation, which was founded in 1891.”
The old town general store remains closed, and it has been mothballed to a degree with plywood over damage windows, I suspect. Hohmann wrote about this building: “The train line was necessary for the inhabitants of the ranches around Lennep because the trains supplied the grocery store with food. The goods were not only sold to the people of Lennep, but also inhabitants of the neighbouring villages. Also, the gold-digger camps in the Castle Mountains to the north are said to have supplied from Lennep. At least some hobby historians in American internet forums suspect this. Furthermore, a gravel road connected the village with the Cumberland Mine. Silver and lead were mined there.” The building clearly was a center point for trade and communication. Some deterioration has occurred, but relative minor repairs and a new coat of paint would correct that. The congregation renovated the church in 2016 and at that time added the new porch and handicap access ramp.
The school house–which has not had students since 2011– remains in decent condition although some missing roof shingles could pose water problems. Water and moisture is not the threat in this part of the west as I am accustomed to in the east but a leaky roof is never a good thing. A nearby dwelling has that modern replacement metal roof–it too stood quiet at the time of my visit in June 2021 but appears to be in solid condition.
The dwelling between the store and school, however, is in danger of serious deterioration. Half of its shingles are missing–the deck is not in great shape. You wonder if this building is not the next to disappear from Lennep.
Yet, when you stand back at the church and took back southeast toward the railroad line and town, the view of the buildings and landscape is little changed in ten years. Lennep might be a ghost town but it is still there, as a marker of the impact of the Milwaukee Road on the Meagher County landscape.
A final marker to the east can be found by continuing on Montana Highway 294, which closely follows the old Milwaukee Road corridor for several miles before the track and the highway diverge.
That would be the brick powerhouse necessary to power the electric engines that the Milwaukee Road used in this section of its route. Cows might surround it today but in the early 20th century the brick powerhouses scattered along the line were signs of modernity, of the electric power that distinguished the Milwaukee from all of the other transcontinental railroads in Montana.
The sixth ward in Helena in the late nineteenth century was a focal point for the new capital city of Montana. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the location of its railroad yards some mile and a half southwest of Last Chance Gulch created a new part of the city with plenty of bars and cafes for rail workers and travelers but also a historic neighborhood that often gets forgotten.
The architecturally expressive Northern Pacific passenger station of 1903-1904 led to new investment of brick buildings in the neighborhood but many small vernacular dwellings remained in use and today the neighborhood retains a railroad workers’ feel.
Hap’s Beer Parlor transformed from a rail workers’ hangout to a neighborhood institution. It was a popular place when I lived in Helena almost 40 years ago—it remains legendary.
In 2016 the city of Helena established the Railroad Urban Renewal District which encouraged new investments in the neighborhood and its immediate environs, such as the Vanilla Bean coffee shop and bakery. Another key addition was the Sixth Ward Garden Park, an impressive example of the community garden movement.
The changes in the neighborhood are promising but also challenging as new businesses such as Headwaters brewery move to the outskirts. Let’s hope the modern does not crowd out the historic in Helena’s Sixth Ward.
Over eight years ago I wrote about Phillipsburg as a Victorian mining town that had the “bones” to become a heritage tourism magnet along the Pintlar Scenic Route.
I was astounded at the number of people there in early June 2021 Thursday—not the weekend. Certainly the reputation of the Sweet Shop has grown, and grown. it was a busy place.
The other attraction was just under construction when I visited in 2012. The Phillipsburg Brewery, located in the late 1880s Sayres Building, is a great local micro brewery but you can taste its wares at restaurants statewide.
It’s an impressive adaptive reuse project for even the interior still retains a late 19th century. Not over built or over restored. Just re-energized to serve the town again.
There was a historic change from 2012 at the most unlikely place—the city cemetery. In 2012 I commented on the Victorian theme of several of the burial plots. It remains a remarkable place for that artwork in cast iron.
What was new? A commendable effort to address the silences of the past, in the case of Phillipsburg the large Chinese community who once lived there, worked there, and many prospered there during the mining boom of 1890-1920s.
The Granite County Historical Society in 2014 placed an interpretive marker in the cemetery to tell the story of the Chinese burial ground—located in a corner far from the Victorian center of the cemetery. We are now challenged to learn more about the names on the plaque and understand better their contributions.
The marker stands alone, as did the Chinese community in the era of racial segregation. The burials in this section range from the late 1880s to 1932. When were the headstones removed? I don’t know yet. But here is the place, several names are listed in primary sources. The next steps to end this silence await.
I always enjoy driving along US Highway 12 in the Musselshell Valley. It is lightly traveled plus it was the historic route of the Milwaukee Road. Ever since the railroad ceased operations in 1980, the small towns along the line began to fade away.
Shawmut was one of those towns but in 1984 it still operated an elementary school, then about 50 years old, having been built during the New Deal of the 1930s. Towns that retained enough population and commitment to keep their school but had a chance.
Shawmut school district, as shown above, continued to renovate the building and make it last for another generation. The school made it into the 21st century but closed in 2015 due to declining enrollment.
As I traveled through Montana in 1984 documenting the state for its historic preservation planning, I photographed all sorts of structures. None were more compelling than the 40-foot plus brick silos between the west side of Canyon Ferry Lake and US Highway 12/287 north of Townsend.
At that time, they were the only remnants of the ranching operation of A. B. Cook, constructed about 1920 as he and his ranch hands were raising sheep along a stretch of the Missouri River. The construction of Canyon Ferry Dam in the 1950s forever changed that landscape, but the silos were an important reminder of the earlier past.
Thirty-seven years later, the Silos are no longer just lonely reminders of a sheep ranch. They are the landmarks for a lake-focused suburb of Townsend. The community embraces the brick structures and has recently carried out preservation and restoration. May The Silos remain a landmark along this federal highway for generations to come.
I’m looking to the time when I can resume my exploration of Montana’s historic places, hopefully in the late summer when travel may be easier as the pandemic eases it impact on everyone. In the meanwhile, I wanted to make several posts about Montana properties that are listed as National Historic Landmarks–the highest possible federal designation for national significance. Montana has its fair share of NHLs because so much nationally significant history has happened within the state, and so many nationally historic individuals has passed its way for its centuries of history.
Burton Kendall Wheeler (1882-1975), however, does not carry the name recognition, say of Lewis and Clark. However, as a national political leader of the first half of the 20th century, Wheeler more than made his mark just on the West. He served four terms in the U.S. Senate, from 1923-1947, and ran as the Vice-Presidential nominee for the Progressive Party third party candidacy of Robert La Follette of Wisconsin in the 1924 presidential campaign. He strongly supported the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, but then emerged as an isolationist as the storm clouds of World War II gathered from 1939 to 1941.
His bungalow on Butte’s E. 2nd Street is known locally as the “blue house,” for obvious reasons. Wheeler began his career in Butte c. 1905 and was elected to the Montana legislature in 1910. He served as U.S. Attorney in Butte later that decade and ran as the Democratic nominee for governor in 1920 but lost that election to Joseph Dixon.
Grain elevators not only record the industrialization of plains agriculture; they also show you places–where the railroad left a siding and some sort of town, mostly gone now, took root over 100 years ago. Kevin is in northern Toole County, maybe 20 minutes south of the Canadian border. This lone elevator documents its homesteading era, that with the bust of the 1920s gave way to a boom in oil production in the middle decades of the 20th century. several oil tanks still remain from that era.
Kevin is the outlier–the rural grain elevators of Toole County record places that were once large agricultural communities, and have not been in population decline for decades. But elevators, both from the early days and from more modern times, remain as the sentinels of Toole County.