When the Northern Pacific Railroad entered the Yellowstone Valley in the 1880s, officials and investors immediately began the search to find and acquire locally available deposits of coal. First there came the Klein mines north of Billings and then by the end of the decade, the first move toward mines to the south, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, at what would become Carbon County with its major town of Red Lodge on Rock Creek. Development began slowly, with the Depression of 1893 intervening, but as the era’s financial and railroad magnates combined the Great Northern, the Burlington Route, and the Northern Pacific into one huge co-operative venture, they selected a new place in the Yellowstone Valley, a town called Laurel at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone rivers, to connect the three railroads. In short order, a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line was built down the Clark’s Fork Valley to the place called Red Lodge–U.S. Highway 212 follows this route–and the boom was on.
Entering Red Lodge from the north via U.S. 212 you encounter immediately the town’s roots as a railroad town, as the historic Northern Pacific depot remains rooted at the head of the town. Here is where my long-interest with the Red Lodge story began in 1984 when
I met with a small group of local historians, preservationists, and civic leaders determined to keep Red Lodge and its still intact historic environment together. The group’s vision for the depot was for it to be a visitor center, an arts center, but more than anything a community center, a visible sign of the turnaround that could happen. Already, at the head of town artist Peter Toth had begun the new tradition with his mammoth wood sculpture, “In Honor of a Proud and Noble People,” installed in 1979, a theme of the region’s
Native American history and proximity to the Crow Indian Reservation that also was captured in a much more commercial way by the neon sign of the Red Lodge Cafe then, and still to my mind, the best place in town. The neon, like Toth’s sculpture, was designed
to attention of the one course of heritage tourism income that locals recognized: that summer traffic coming out of Billings and off the interstate heading to Yellowstone National Park via U.S. 212 and the Beartooth Pass, one of the true highway wonders of the United States. How to get people to stop, and how to restore pride and hope for the town itself: those motivated the group I met in 1984 moreso than any well meaning goal of merely preserving history and pretty buildings.
To say that the initial depot project was successful would be an understatement. Thirty years later the depot is a public space that includes a gazebo, outdoor art, and a setting of history and culture rarely rivaled in the region. As you move south from the depot, you also immediately encounter several of the dreams the groups discussed in 1984: a National Register of Historic Places historic district (there are now more than one); restored and treasured public buildings such as the Carnegie Library and Carbon County Courthouse;
and their biggest goal of all in 1984, the acquisition, preservation, and transformation of iconic Labor Temple into a history museum and heritage center for the Carbon County Historical Society.
The group understood the power of the Labor Temple: they could tell a story not just of railroad magnates and economic development but could look at this history from those who came and labored in the mines, and built the town. The building dated to the decade of Red Lodge’s height, 1910-1920, when the town’s population reached 5,000 but especially once the Northern Pacfic opened new mines at Colstrip to the east in the 1920s, the town had been in a decades long period of population decline, where less than 2,000 people lived in 1980. Many had given up, obviously, but those who stayed saw the bones of a possible community renaissance–and preservation was a big part of that. That more recent story comes next.