Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 5: Rails,Rivers, and a Smelter

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 024Many heritage areas in the eastern United States emphasize the relationship between rivers, railroads, and industrial development and how those resources contributed to national economic growth and wartime mobilization.  Great Falls can do that too.  Situated on the Missouri River and designed by its founders to be a northwest industrial center, entrepreneurs counted on the falls to be a source of power and then on the railroads coming from Minnesota, especially the promising Manitoba Road headed by James J. Hill, to provide the transportation.

IMG_0961Paris Gibson, the promoter of the Electric City, allied his interests to two of most powerful capitalists of the region:  Marcus Daly, the baron of the Anaconda Copper Company interests and James J. Hill, the future rail king of the northwest.  Their alliance is embodied in several different properties in the city but the most significant place was where the Anaconda Copper Company smelter operated at Black Eagle until the last decades of the 20th century.  When I surveyed Great Falls for the state

preservation plan in 1984 the smelter stack had recently come down but a good bit of the surrounding industrial plant remained.  When you look at the same place today, the site has been nearly wiped clean, still closed off to the public but ripe for the day when it could be a center for public interpretation of the impact of the smelter on the city, state, and nation.

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Great Falls already has shown an ability to reimagine and find new uses for its industrial landmarks, as demonstrated by the adaptive reuse projects surrounding its railroad corridors.  Yes, railroad corridors because while the Manitoba Road and its successor the Great Northern Railway dominated the city, the Milwaukee Road also built into the city in the first

 

Cascade Co Great Falls Milwaukee Road depotdecade of the 20th century and soon erected its tall tower depot right on the Missouri River.  But wherever you go along the river you find significant buildings associated with the Great Northern and its allied branch the Montana Central Railroad, especially the downtown warehouses.  Some are still fulfilling their original function but others

have taken on new uses as offices and museums, such as the local history center and the well-regarded children’s museum.

Still at the head of the city, as appropriate for its role in creating and sustaining Great Falls in its early decades, is the magnificent depot of the Great Northern.  Montana has many small town examples of the

“metropolitan corridor” written about by historian John Stilgoe; Great Falls is superb extant example of how the corridor shaped the landscape and architecture presence of urban centers across the northern plains. These properties suggest the richness of the industrial and transportation stories associated with the rise of Great Falls and its role in western history.

 

Lewistown: at the heart of Eastern Montana

IMG_9389Lewistown, the seat of Fergus County, has been a hub for trade and government for eastern Montana since the 1880s.  Beginning as a trading post, the town next served as a crossroads for traffic going to short-lived precious metal mines at Kendall, Maiden, Giltedge, and other places.  Cattle ranches, such as the famous DHS Ranch and the N-Bar Ranch, also surrounded the place.  By the turn of the 20th century, the town had over 1,000 residents.  But by this time, railroad companies eyed the area for possible agricultural development, and within 20 years Lewistown had boomed–gaining six times its population–and a fascinating array of commercial and public buildings in the wake of the population growth.

IMG_9381The Great Northern Railway not only an understated Classical Revival depot on one end of the town, it also expanded lines throughout Fergus County like tentacles desperate to grab as many wheat crops as possible.  The depot remains today, converted into a convenience mart and gas station (an adaptive reuse you do not commonly find for railroad depots).  On the other end of town stands the other major line–the Milwaukee Road–devoted to the homesteading rush in Fergus County.  It built an even grander

IMG_0004complex as a statement to its wishful dominance of the agricultural trade.  Shortly after the closure and bankruptcy of the line in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the depot became a large adaptive reuse project, turning the Milwaukee Road complex into the Yogo Inn and convention center, where, in 1984, I attended the Montana Historical Society statewide history conference.

IMG_9400The bloom grew stale over the decades and when I visited in 2013, the Yogo was clearly on life support; I was encouraged in May 2015 to find renovations underway–maybe there will be a third life for this Milwaukee Road landmark in Lewistown.

The Great Northern and the Milwaukee created the transportation network that brought homesteaders to central Montana by the thousands. Merchants, bankers, and craftsmen then rebuilt the downtown from 1904 to 1916, and much of that flurry of construction still serves residents today in the central business historic district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

IMG_9973Classical Revival was the architectural statement of choice to this new Lewistown taking shape along Main Street.  The architects of the Montana State Capitol, Bell and Kent, designed a new Bank of Fergus County (above, on the right) in 1904.  It received another layer of classicism in the pilasters a decade later when owners wanted to match the flashy Judith Theater (1914), certainly one of the great examples of Beaux Arts design in a small Montana town movie palace.

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By 1916, however, bank officials were ready to support the town’s most complete interpretation of Classical Revival design in the new Montana Building, designed by the firm of Link and Haire.  The bank seemingly had few limits in front of it–homesteaders still arriving and agricultural prices were high.  But the boom went bust in the early 1920s and by 1924 the building had new owners, the First National Bank.  It has remained home to financial institutions ever since.

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IMG_9951The splashy Beaux Arts classicism of the banks and theater catch your eye but much more common are two-story commercial blocks, often with a more understated classicism, where retail businesses used the first floor and professionals occupied the second.  The town had a several gifted craftsmen who left their mark in these buildings and others.

Detail Masonic Temple Lewistown Fergus Co IMG_9955Croatian stonemasons left impressive stone Romanesque arches at the Masonic Lodge, a detail I photographed in 1984 (left) and 2013 (right).  The building itself is a dignified statement of both craftsmanship and purpose, combining both classical and Romanesque elements using locally available stone.  It’s one of my favorite buildings in town.

Fergus Co Lewistown masonic temple downtown commercial HD 13 - Version 2Not far away is the I.O.O.F. Hall, from 1914.  Here is an even later example of Romanesque arches highlighting a building that is both a fraternal lodge but also valuable retail space.

IMG_9966Be they multi-story or just one-story commercial businesses, this set of commercial designs convey so strongly the promise of early 1900s to thousands of Montanans.  Lewistown’s population had reached 6,000 by 1920–that generation would be shocked to know that remains the population today. Much more on Lewistown to come.

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Red Lodge: Preservation Maybes and Maybe Nots

It’s no secret that I have long admired the towns of the Yellowstone Valley.  Thirty plus years ago, the attitude across much of Montana was dismissive of this region:  I even was told by someone who should have known better that “outside of Custer, there’s really isn’t much history there.”  Not only was their history in spades–chronologically deep, thematically rich–there was this tremendous built environment that I began to explore in 1982, and haven’t stopped since.

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Admittedly I take an old school approach to the preservation of this landscape.  Red Lodge has many exemplary preservation achievements but in the 21st century success may be leading to the community losing that edge, admittedly rough edge, that once characterized this region of Montana.  Case in point:  the Snag Bar.  The image on the left is from the 1980s–on the right is an image from this summer.  I was happy that the Snag was still with us–always a cozy watering hole in the past.  But now its entrance spoke to a different audience, and the place had taken on the “Main Street Preservation” look that you can find across the country–and a bit of distinctiveness was gone.

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Red Lodge was not tipped into that preservation fantasy land right out of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.” But new infill of modern false-fronts and even a heavy mountain-like Rustic feel doesn’t help, not to mention the northern California wine bar with its set-backs and sidewalk seating.  It is just worrisome.  As is the future of this once grand movie theater,

IMG_5799which has been hanging on, seemingly by a thread, for decades.  The theater has one of the great Classical Revival facades found in the state, full of whimsy and wonderful detail.

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Its conversion into a garage was kept it alive but a conversion into a new public use:  well it is a huge building, that needs work, and Red Lodge is already blessed with a brilliant historic movie theater, the Roman.  Multiple theaters in the early 20th century made sense: today not so much.

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Red Lodge also has gotten it right in its residential historic districts.  The “Hi-Bug” neighborhood–a designation 100 years ago that spoke to the merchant class that lived in the town’s most affluent neighborhood–has made a remarkable recovery in the last 30 years, and looks great as these few images attest.

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Throughout town there are similar preservation success stories, ranging from a historic service station (that has a nifty exhibit about Yellowstone tour buses and their preservation lurking inside) and one of my new favorites, the Regis Grocery, now a neighborhood (meaning off the tourists’ beaten path of US 212) cafe worth a stop.

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IMG_5804Red Lodge does have challenges–growth that can overwhelm historic character, too many tourism focused businesses–but the changes here over 30 years are impressive achievements, sure signs of how the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act has helped to change the face of Montana.

Three Schools in Madison County: Three Preservation Solutions

Madison County, Montana, is perhaps best known as one of the key locations for the 1992 film, “The River Runs Through It.” Certainly the county has earned its trout fishing haven reputation, and its growth as one of the Montana gateways into Yellowstone National Park has been noteworthy in the last 30 years.

The county is also home to various rural schools.  Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Montana’s rural schools on the national map last week by naming the schools among the nation’s most endangered historic properties, let’s take a look at just three schools from Madison County and explore why they have survived into the 21st century.

The magnificent Classical Revival school at Pony, designed by Butte architect H.M. Patterson and built for just over $10,000 in 1902, is perhaps the best known historic school.  It lies at the center of the Pony historic district, a set of resources that span the town’s creation as a mining camp in the early territorial period to its affluence as a mining town in the early 20th century.  

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With its hillside location dominating the town’s landscape, the building is a point of pride for those who remain, a true community landmark.  The preservation strategy was traditional–the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places; it is maintained as a community shrine.  

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The money generator for upkeep and repairs is the adjacent school gym (c. 1920), a really splendid community center that reflects the early impact of the national recreation and fitness movement (what many of us remember as P.E. classes) in small town America.

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The residents of Pony established a Homecoming Club over fifty years ago, to organize and sponsor community events in the summer to keep the stories and memories of the town alive; the preservation of key buildings are the physical underpinning of their heritage preservation.

The fate of the Norris school–a typical 1920s community-plan school building–lies in its adaptive reuse, as a cafe near the junction of two key roads, Montana 84 to Bozeman and US 287 to West Yellowstone.  This one-story brick building was the first Montana school-to-cafe that I ever visited in 1981; then the conversion was relatively new, and somewhat startling.  But almost every account you read on Montana rural schools emphasize how they served as community centers.  For any of us who travel rural Montana today we know that the crossroads cafes and bars still serve as important community centers.

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The final, and best, preservation solution is the one that we often pass by, or forget about:  keep it as a school.  Although certainly altered and added to, the school at Harrison, where you turn to go up into the mountains at Pony, is still a vibrant contributor to the county–and not much else is vibrant in Harrison. 

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Harrison is among the decreasing number of elementary to high schools in the region–here generations are raised from the beginning to young adults and the place is ablaze with activity and community pride.  Sure, the school is no pristine architectural monument.  So?  Its value as a cultural heart of a rural community outweighs aesthetics. But it is among the best examples of why our rural schools matter in the connected world of the 21st century:  they maintain a dose of reality and community for our ultra-modern times.

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