Two Forts on the Bighorn

IMG_6010The Big Horn River is among Montana’s most famous as it winds its way out of the high mountains and empties into the Yellowstone River near the village of Custer.  In the southern end of Big Horn County are two forts, one barely noticeable today while the other speaks to the radically different history of the Big Horn over the last 50-plus years.

Fort smith mapThe oldest is Fort C. F. Smith, established by the U.S. Army in 1866-1868 as part of its system of defensive installations to protect travelers along the Bozeman Trail.  Named for Civil War general Charles Ferguson Smith, the post stood near the trail, as seen above, and also near a major Big Horn ferry, a location deemed almost 100 years later as perfect for a major federal dam and reservoir project.  A peace treaty between the federal government and Sioux and Cheyenne Indians who had opposed the trail and the forts led to the abode constructed fort’s abandonment in 1868.  Today, the site is marked–the Big Horn County chapter of the Federation of Montana Woman’s Clubs did so in 1933–but on private property.    It has become a forgotten place within the state’s historic landscape.

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Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service and its website on the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area.

The second Fort Smith is the name given to the government-planned town developed by the Bureau of Reclamation as part of its Yellowtail Dam project of the early 1960s.  The project was part of the massive federal reordering of the plains landscape through the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Program, an attempt to coordinate efforts between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.  The Yellowtail Dam project received Congressional funding in 1961.  The contractors included Morrison-Knudsen Company from Boise; Kaiser Company from Oakland, CA; Perini Corporation from Massachusetts, the Walsh Construction Company of Iowa, and the S Contracting Company from Butte.  The contractors received almost $40 million for the project.

IMG_5985Built from 1961 to 1966, Yellowtail Dam, named for Crow Indian Robert Yellowtail and standing at 525 feet in height, instantly dominated the surrounding landscape and turned the Big Horn Canyon into a huge lake some 72 miles along, that is managed as the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area.

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Access to the dam and its power plant was significantly curtailed after 9/11/2001.

The dam was part of an entirely new engineered landscape that defined this part of Big Horn Canyon and the Crow Indian reservation, with new ditches, the spillway, and a planned town for government employees.

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IMG_5997The town of Fort Smith was an obvious nod to the earlier army installation.  But this was not a rectangle of adobe quarters; it was a typical 1960s suburban development dropped into the middle of the Crow Reservation.  The streets are wide and circular, a concession to suburban models of planning but also taking advantage of the surrounding landscape.IMG_5980

In keeping with other suburbs of the early 1960s, the houses mixed “contemporary” styles such as split-levels and the long, horizontal Ranch house.  There were set-aside open

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spaces for recreation and parks as well as a separate commercial area.

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At the heart of the community was not a agency headquarters but a modernist styled public school–recognizing that children and their needs would help to define community among the different federal officials.

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The second Fort Smith is a fascinating landscape documenting the federal impact on the Big Horn River in the middle decades of the 20th century–a basic reordering of nature that created new impetus for recreation in the county and impacted the county seat of Hardin with its own new wave of modernist styling.  A suburb in the middle of nowhere–Fort Smith is among the state’s most distinctive places.

The Scenic and Historic Landscape of Montana Highway 78

IMG_5824Montana Highway 78 is not one of the state’s major roads nor one of its recognized special routes of scenic and cultural wonders.  Yet as the road cuts away from the Stillwater River in southern Stillwater County and heads into the bare yet compelling rolling hills of Carbon County, it cuts quite a path, a winding road that goes by historic stock barns, one-room schools, streams coming out of the mountains, and overviews suggesting the grandeur and mystery of this place.

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Gambrel-roof barn near Fishtail, Highway 78

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Classic center-aisle stock barn with side extensions, Highway 78 outside of Roscoe

IMG_5819The Hogan School is a turn of the twentieth century delight, the model one-room schoolhouse design of that period.  The Hogan family had established the county’s first rural school in 1887; this later building served the surrounding ranch kids until 1967.  Its preservation today is an excellent example of local stewardship by the property owner.

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There are several different pull-offs along the road, with one dedicated to two very different historic markers.  One interprets how the Bozeman Trail cut through this landscape in the 1860s:  it is the historic Montana Highway Historic Marker, part of the program documented by Glenda Bradshaw and Jon Axline in their work, and dates back to the mid-20th century when the state got serious about developing heritage tourism experiences for visitors. Next to the rustic-themed state marker is a private marker, honoring J.E. Madson, an influential early Lutheran pastor in the region.  Its Art Deco styling is totally different from the historical marker but it also ties into the highway aesthetic of the mid-20th century.

IMG_5833Roscoe is my favorite hamlet along Highway 78, in part because of the local effort to preserve such key landmarks as the schoolhouse along the highway and because of the preservation of historic commercial buildings from the town’s heyday 100 years ago.

IMG_5825The real reason I always visit Rosecoe whenever possible is the same reason generations of Montanans come here–the Grizzly Bar.  I first discovered the Grizzly in 1984 and loved its look, its hospitality, its community feel, and oh yeah, its steaks.

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IMG_5828Thirty years later, thank goodness the grizzly bear sculpture still dominated the facade, although the sign itself had been modernized.  The place also had expanded in size–but its feel remained much as it was in the 1980s and 1990s:  mostly a community gathering place particularly on the weekend that also could be flexible and accommodating enough to welcome us visitors in the summer.  It is one of the best rural bars in the state.

IMG_5711Another highway pull-off provides one of those “Scenic Overlooks” found through the state.  This one perhaps not as spectacular as others but also giving travelers a sense of what this landscape is like, and what awaits them as they continue down to Highway 78’s southern terminus at Red Lodge, where the preservation ethic and the successes over 30 years will be the next topics of the blog.