Eureka!! It’s a Lincoln County Town

Flathead Co Eureka MT hwy marker

Nestled within the Tobacco Valley of northern Lincoln County is the town of Eureka, which serves as a northern gateway into Montana along U.S. Highway 93.  I first encountered the town in 1982, as I returned from a jaunt into Alberta, and immediately thought here is a classic linear town plan, a landscape created by a spur line of the Great Northern Railway.

Flathead Co Eureka streetscapeAs I would come to find out, on two return trips here in 1984, the town was much more than that, it was a true bordertown between two nations and two cultures.  The two trips came about from, first, a question about a public building’s eligibility for the National Register, and, second, the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, where such obvious landmarks as the National Hotel and Eureka passenger depot were noted.  Thirty

Flathead Co Eureka National Hotel 1907

Flathead Co Eureka GN depot 2years later I was pleased to see the National Hotel in much better condition but dismayed to see the Great Northern passenger station–a classic example of its early 20th century standardized designs–is far worse condition that it had been in 1984.

Flathead Co Eureka GN depotOtherwise, Eureka has done an impressive job of holding together its historic core of downtown one and two-story commercial buildings.  In 1995, owners had the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, built in 1907, placed in the National Register.  Walking the town, however, you see the potential of a historic district of this turn of the 20th century place.

Flathead Co Eureka bank

Oh yeah, what about that second reason for two trips in 1984?  That would be the Eureka Community Hall, one of the last public buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration in Montana in 1942.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 2Located on a hill perched over the town, the building was obviously a landmark–but in 1984 it also was just 42 years old, and that meant it needed to have exceptional significance to the local community to merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places.  Eureka had been a logging community, and the depression hit hard.  The new building not only reflected community pride but also local craftsmanship, and it became a

img_8239foundation for community resurgence in the decades to come.  The building was listed in 1985, and was the first to have my name attached to it, working with Sally Steward of the local historical society.  But credit has to go to Pat Bick and especially Marcella Sherfy of the State Historic Preservation Office for urging me to take it on, and to guide me through the maze of the National Register process. Today, it has experienced an adaptive reuse and serves as a rustic log furniture store.

Flathead Co Eureka WPA community hall 4During those visits in 1984 I also held a public meeting in Eureka for the state historic preservation plan, where I learned about the Tobacco Valley Historical Society and its efforts to preserve buildings destined for the chopping block through its museum village on the southern edge of town. Here the community gathered the Great Northern depot (1903) of Rexford, the same town’s 1926 Catholic Church, the Mt. Roberts lookout tower, the Fewkes Store, and a U.S. Forest Service big Creek Cabin from 1926.

But thirty years later I found new public interpretation not just in the museum village but in the town itself, as Eureka introduced visitors to its history and setting and also told its


border story of such fascinating people as Joseph Peltier, who built the first dwelling at the town site in 1891, and especially the cross-border entrepreneur Sophie Morigeau, who was trading in the area as early as 1863.

The Peltier log dwellings came within a year of each other, 1891 and 1892, and their size, finish, and log notching speak to the region’s rapid development.  His 1891 low pitched roof, v-notched cabin is typical, throughout the mountain west, of first homes–quickly constructed shelter.  The second house, with its hewn log exterior and crafted corner notching speaks to permanence.  The settler was here to stay in 1892.

Eureka has held its population steady over 30 years, just a few families over 1,000 residents, a sizable achievement considering the change in both railroading and logging over that time.  I think community pride and identity has to be contributors, because you see it everywhere, and I will close with two last examples.  The town’s library and nearby veterans park, and then the magnificent Art Deco-influenced high school–yet another New Deal era contribution to this special gateway town.




Libby: Disaster and Persistence

Lincoln Co Libby stem of T planLibby 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.

Lincoln Co Libby old city hall police station

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

Lincoln Co Libby New Deal courthouse 1

img_8345courthouse 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.

img_8348 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.

Lincoln Co Libby hospital 4

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.

Lincoln Co Libby hospitalDespite 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.

Lincoln Co Libby library

Lincoln Co Libby museum 5The 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.




Libby Dam and the Transformation of Lincoln County


Kootenai River at Libby Dam

In 1966 the U.S. Corps of Engineers began the construction of one of the largest dam projects of that decade–the massive Libby Dam and Lake Koocanusa reservoir.  By 1972, the project was complete, and the entire center of Lincoln County had been transformed.


img_8338The dam is 422 feet tall and stretches across the river for 3,055 feet–well over a 1/2 mile.  It creates a huge reservoir, extending 90 miles to the north and into British Columbia, among the ten largest reservoirs in the nation. And like that, a historic river valley became a recreational lake in a joint project between the United States and Canada.

The impact of the project on Lincoln County was immense–especially the boom it created in the county seat of Libby, which will be explored in the next post.  But the lake did create new recreational opportunities, and led to the establishment of a federal scenic route along Montana Highway 37, which the project also created.

img_8322The Lake Koocanusa Bridge, which provides access to a Mennonite community and a backroad way to Yaak, is the state’s longest, and in many ways, its most spectacular multi-truss bridge.  The bridge is 2,437 feet long, and stands, depending on water level, some 270 feet above the lake.


img_8330There was no interpretation at this bridge in 1984, but the scenic highway designation has led to the placement of overlooks and interpretive markers at some places along the lake. One wishes for the same at the Montana town that the lake displaced, Rexford.  This once

img_8316small river town had to move, or be inundated.  And since the move took place in the mid to late 1960s, the town embodies the mid-century modern aesthetic, both in the design of many buildings but also in the town plan itself as the federal government finished relocating Rexford in the early 1970s.

Here is another place in Montana worthy of National Register consideration as a landmark of mid-20th century modernism and the lasting, transformative impact of federal construction projects on the state’s rural landscape from that same era. The Rexford


img_8318school by itself is a fascinating statement of both design but also a community’s determination to stay, no matter what the federal government threw their way. Needless to say, in 1984 I paid Rexford no attention–nothing historic was there, it was all new.  But now it is clear what a important place in Lincoln County’s 20th century history Rexford came to be.




U.S. 2 & Kootenai Falls in Lincoln County

Lincoln Co Libby US 2 east of Libby ranches 2U.S. Highway 2 enters northwest Montana in Lincoln County and from there the federal highway stretches eastward through the towns of Troy and Libby with vast rural stretches along the way to Kalispell.  Paralleling the highway is the historic route of the Great Northern Railway, which brought timber and mining industries to this corner of Montana.

img_8355Before you encounter the towns, however, there is a spot that is among my favorite in the state, and a place that I discussed in some depth in the book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History:  Kootenai Falls.


Kootenai Falls, 1984 image.

The river and the falls were a natural dividing line between the Upper and Lower Kootenai Indians.  Both groups shared the falls and considered it sacred.  David Thompson, the North West Company fur trader, visited the falls during own of his sojourns from Canada into northwest Montana in the early 19th century and left an early description. But in 1984 it took some dedication to gaze upon this most sacred and beautiful landscape.  There was sort of a pull-off from the highway and then you meandered across the forest, carefully crossing the Great Northern tracks, to then find a good vantage point.

Today there is the 135-acre Kooteenai Falls Park, one of the best improvements in Montana’s heritage development over the last 30 years.  Not only is access to the falls much safer but public interpretation explains the site’s vital importance to Native American peoples who were here long before the railroad, the logger, the miners, and the town builders.

Lincoln Co US 2 Kootenai Falls 19


Lincoln Co US 2 Kootenai Falls 29The falls is spectacular, no matter what time of the year you visit.  But do stop and consider the mountains and bluffs that surround it.  The entire landscape is what mattered to the Native Americans as they navigated through the area, or took vision quests at isolated places, or stopped to fish along the banks or hunt the wild game who also came to the falls for nourishment.

img_8363  There are few less untouched places than Kootenai Falls.  The county park provides access and information.  It is then up to you to explore, stop, and think about how humans have interacted with this places, taking aways thoughts and messages that we can only guess at, for thousands of years.



Lake County Landscapes, 2

Lake Co Hwy 35 Flathead Lake drive 8Flathead Lake is a beautiful body of water and my favorite way to explore it by automobile is to take Montana Highway 35 north from Polson to Bigfork in neighboring Flathead County.  Why is this winding, often slow, somewhat dangerous two-lane route my fav?


Lake Co Hwy 35 Flathead Lake drive 13Because it takes you by one of Montana’s most unique roadside landscapes–the orchard stands that sell Flathead cherries during the summer months.  There isn’t really a Flathead cherry–the name comes from the lake region, especially this east side of the lake that has proven perfect for growing the sweet treat once Harry Chapman started the first orchard here around the turn of the 20th century.

There is an amazing range of roadside stands, from the architecturally ornate to the metal shed roof stand that looks like a converted chicken coop.  Taken as a group, and as an interrelated landscape between orchards, roadside, and individual retail, there are few more interesting rural historic districts in Montana than Highway 35.

A detour from Highway 35 to Finley Point State Park is highly recommended, not only for the great views of the lake from this park.  But along the way you encounter more cherry farms and the cherry growers warehouse complex, which had once been in Kalispell but moved to this location c. 1985.



The Transformation of Polson

Lake Co Polson courthouse 1935 New deal 1

Polson is the county seat of Lake County, a town that when I visited as part of the state historic preservation plan survey in 1984 had experienced a bit of recent growth, inching closer to 2800 residents after a 20 year period of being in the mid-2000s.  In all, a typical small town Montana county seat, complete with the New Deal era courthouse, c. 1935,

designed in an understated Art Deco style by architect Fred Brinkman. The solid condition and conservation of this landmark was good to see in 2015, as well as the continuation of one of the state’s great roadside architecture landmarks, Burgerville, on U.S. Highway 93 south of the commercial core.

Lake Co Polson BurgervilleBut in the last 30 years, Polson has boomed as a lakeside resort town, with a population of 4700 today compared to the 2800 of the 1980s.  Key landmarks remain but nothing has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since my 1984 visit, even the great New Deal modern courthouse above.

As the collage above shows, the town has historic buildings still serving the community after 100 years of history, with historic businesses, homes, the town gymnasium, and churches among those landmarks.  The Flathead-Poison Historical Museum has operated since the 1960s.  The gymnasium has been a community center for recreation and sports since the mid-20th century.

Lake Co Polson gym


Certainly I have my favorites such as the flashy Art Deco style of the Beacon Tire and Garage on the old highway 93 route and especially the historic grandstand of the Lake County Fairgrounds on the outskirts of Polson.

Lake Co Polson fairgrounds 2

img_8685These landmarks need to be treasured because a new Polson is emerging all around town–and could crowd out the places that frame the community’s identity.  Right now there is a balance between old and new, but a tipping point is around the corner.

Those who crowd the farmers market in downtown during the warm weeks of the year need to realize how fragile that small town feel and landscape can be today.

Lake Co Polson farmers market





Railroad Towns in the Flathead Reservation

Lake Co NP  trestle Moise road

Northern Pacific Trestle at Moeise

Once the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders in 1904, tribal members were allocated acreage but lost control of much of their land to new development.  The historic Northern Pacific Railroad corridor between Ronan and Dixon, followed roughly today by Montana Highway 212 and U.S. Highway 93 is one way to explore two almost forgotten towns in southern Lake County.

The first north of Dixon is the reservation town of Moiese, created by the federal government in the early 20th century as a “model” town of bungalows with a school.  Several of the standardized design bungalows remain as does the school building, which is no longer in use.

Lake Co Moise schoolMoiese is best known, by far, as the entrance to the National Bison Range, where a general store stands nearby the refuge gate.  Created by Congress in 1908, the refuge took

Lake Co National Bison Range

Lake Co National Bison Rangeadditional land–almost 19,000 acres- from the tribes, without their consent, to create a safe haven for the remaining bison in the region.  A few hundred bison live within its boundaries today.  In 2016 the National Park Service began discussions with the Consolidated Kootenai and Salish Tribe to transfer management of the refuge to the tribe.

Lake Co Charlo elevatorEight miles north of Moiese along the railroad line is the town of Charlo, named in honor of Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, who was forced from the Bitterroot Valley to move to the reservation in 1891.  Charlo served as head chief of the Bitterroot Salish from 1870-

Lake Co Charlo 11910.  As a railroad town, Charlo is like many along the Northern Pacific, with a brief strip of businesses facing the railroad tracks, marked by the town’s sole grain elevator.  It has a classic rural bar, Tiny’s Tavern, with its brightly painted exterior of concrete block, with brick accents. Built in 1946 by Tiny Browne, it was both a motel and a tavern, and a local museum of items that Tiny thought were interesting.  Browne died in 1977 and his sister, Celeste Fagan, next owned the tavern, managed by Edna Easterly who recalled in a story in the Missoulian of April 20, 2007 that Tiny  “was known as the bank of Charlo. Tiny always carried a lot of money in his pocket and if you needed to cash a check, you went to Tiny.”

Lake Co Charlo 3Most important for its architecture, however, is the town’s public school, a wonderful example of Art Deco style from the New Deal decade of the 1930s.

Lake Co Charlo new deal school 2Ronan is a third town along the railroad corridor, named for a former white superintendent of the reservation.  The town’s demographics today are mostly white, with a little more than a quarter Native American population.  Ronan proudly proclaims its existence not only with a gate sign, connecting the business district to the sprawl along U.S. Highway 93 but also a log visitor center and interpretive park on the highway.

Ronan’s commercial area retains classic bars, like the 2nd Chance Bar, and a combination of recreational services that have been lost in too many communities–a bowling alley and movie theatre standing next to each other.

Historic church buildings from the early 20th century include the frame now covered in vinyl Methodist Church and the brick Gothic styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with an attached Ranch-style parsonage.  St. Luke’s Community Hospital provides a much needed medical oasis in what is still a rural, agricultural area. Opened in 1953, the hospital is now an oddity–in that it is community owned and still serving its rural population.  The building shown below was constructed c. 2008.


Lake Co Ronan sacred heart catholic 1

img_7971The facade expresses a confident future, which is needed in today’s uncertain economic climate for rural hospitals across the state. But my favorite building in Ronan speaks to my love for adaptive reuse and mid-20th century modern design.  The town library is an

Lake Co Ronan libraryexquisite example of mid-century modern, and was once a local bank before being converted into the library.

Lake Co Ronan library 2