Thompson Falls: River Town

The Northern Pacific Railroad corridor was at the center of my exploration of Thompson Falls in 1984-1985 but I did not ignore either the man for whom the town was named nor the falls that has brought the town power for more than a century.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls David Thompson monumentOn the outskirts of town, the 1920s monument to David Thompson was the centerpiece of the town’s heritage tourism attractions in 1984-1985, now it is more of an afterthought.  David Thompson was a Welsh-Canadian who established the first trading post in this river valley, called Saleesh House, for the tribe with whom this veteran of both the Hudson Bay Company and North West Company had targeted for the fur trade.  His last visit to Saleesh House came in the winter of 1812. Thompson, I thought in 1984, was a very important figure in Montana history but increasingly a neglected trader–in fact most of the early traders, like those of the American Fur Company on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, are neglected, even though significant places associated with them remain intact on the state’s landscape.

IMG_7802About one hundred years after David Thompson’s last winter at Saleesh House, an entirely different landscape emerged along the Clark’s Fork River, one that introduced the recent technology of electricity to the region.  To support and encourage the development of hydroelectric facilities, the city of Thompson Falls combined with investors to build what became known as the “High Bridge,” a way for automobile traffic to cross this gorge in the Clark’s Fork and unite settlement on both sides of the river.

IMG_7806The High Bridge was an early 20th century Montana engineering marvel.  It was 588 feet in length, designed for automobile traffic, with a 18-feet wide deck standing on a combination of Pratt and Parker trusses.  It is the longest bridge of its kind in Montana.

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The long bridge was closed c. 1980 to traffic, and it was just setting there, a huge structure neglected when I visited Thompson Falls in 1984.  The adjacent Gallatin Street bridge, which provided access to the area, remained extant as well.

IMG_7789But within two years, residents and officials combined together to place the bridges and hydroelectric facilities in the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.  They were preserved, but still not used, for a generation.

IMG_7808In 2009-2010, residents worked with local, state, and federal government officials to restore the bridge, add a pedestrian deck, and to open the bridge and either side of the bridge as a public park.  Funding in part came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, one of the ways that short-lived federal building effort benefited historic preservation in Montana small towns.

 

IMG_7791The High Bridge experience not only reconnected Thompson Falls to its river roots, it also creates an unique experience for heritage travelers.  The site is not that far different from 100 years ago, giving you the chance to cross a river and peer below but also to realize just how “wild” automobile traffic was in the 1910s and 1920s.

Sanders County: Rural Wonders

Sanders Co MT Hwy 200 7Sanders County, like many of the places that are on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, has boomed in the last 25 years, from a population over 8,000 to the current estimated population of 11,300. It is close to Missoula, the eastern side is not far from Flathead Lake, Montana Highway 200 runs from Dixon to the end of the county at Heron. With wide valleys and narrow gorges created by both the Flathead and Clark’s Fork Rivers, which meet outside the town of Paradise, Sanders County is frankly a spectacular landscape, with dramatic mountain views framing open plains, such as the image above and the awesome gorge of Clark’s Fork River, below at Thompson Falls.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls and bridges 14 - Version 2The eastern side of the county is just as dramatic just in a far different way. For centuries First Peoples hunted game and dug the camas root in the broad upland prairie that became known as Camas Prairie, crossed now by Montana Highway 28.

IMG_7876Then, leading from the county’s southeastern edge there is the beautiful Flathead River Valley, followed by Montana Highway 200, from Dixon to Paradise, and most importantly,

IMG_7704a transportation route initially carved as a trail by the First Peoples who became the nucleus of today’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe and much later engineered into a major corridor by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as it stretched westward from Missoula to the west coast.

Sanders Co MT HWY 200 NP line at lakeIn its wake, the Northern Pacific created most of the county’s townsites by locating sidings along the track. Substantial settlement arrived once the federal government opened lands for the homesteading boom in the early 20th century.

Sanders Co Dixon bar 1Dixon, named for the former Montana governor Joseph Dixon, is one of the remaining railroad/homesteading towns along the Flathead River. The fate of the community bar, above, is symbolic of the recent history of the town, one of population decline.


Decline but not despair, judging from the pride and identity reflected in the Dixon School. The classroom building dates to the end of the homesteading boom, 1919, and reflects a local contractor’s interpretation of Prairie/ Mission-style. The gymnasium, like several in rural Montana, comes from the New Deal era of the 1930s and is in the WPA Deco style often favored by the federal agencies.

Sanders Co Dixon school


The most spectacular historic rural school in Sanders County, however, lies to the northwest of Dixon in Camas Prairie. The setting itself is jaw dropping but then the tiny gymnasium is among the handful of really excellent examples of Prairie style in Montana’s public architecture.

Lake Co St. Camas Prairie school New Deal 5

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IMG_7872Local residents are being excellent stewards of this captivating property–certainly one of my favorite spots in the state combining landscape with architecture with history. The architect was the Missoula designer H. E. Kirkemo, and the school was completed in 1940, near the end of the New Deal school building programs.

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Bridges for Montana Highway 200 and the Northern Pacific Railroad cross the Clark’s Fork River at Paradise

Sanders Co Paradise railroad park

Located near the confluence of the Clark’s Fork River and the Flathead River–long a place of settlement for the Salish and later Canadian and American fur traders–is the town of Paradise, first platted by the North West Improvement Company, a group of investors aligned with the Northern Pacific Railroad, in 1908. Paradise today is one of the region’s best examples of a railroad town and served the railroad as a switching yard and division point, with lumber being the primary product shipped along the rails. The railroad opened its own Tie Treating Plant here in 1908, producing hundreds of thousands of railroad ties each year and at its peak employing 45 workers. It was one of two Northern Pacific facilities for the production of railroad ties–the second plant was on the eastern end of the line in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Sanders Co Paradise NP depot

The brick mid-20th century passenger station and office is a physical indicator of the importance of the Paradise operations to the Northern Pacific. Most small towns merited only a frame depot. No National Register-listed properties exist in Paradise.

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Let’s hope that changes soon as residents continue on their quest to preserve, restore, and transform the historic Paradise school as a community center and museum, not just of 20th century rural education but of the town and railroad history as well. Located on a hill north of town that provides excellent views of Paradise, the railroad tracks, and the river confluence, the 1910 nschool is an interesting piece of late Victorian public architecture, more Romanesque than anything else, particularly with its projecting central entrance with the arched window providing light to the hallways and staircases.

Sanders Co Paradise school 7The school had just closed its doors for good when I lasted visited but the restoration planning has been underway ever since. I look forward to my next visit to Paradise to experience the final results. Near the school is another historic community property, the Paradise Cemetery, where tombstones mark the names of those who worked so long for the railroad and for the creation of this place within the Clark’s Fork River Valley.

Sanders Co Paradise cemetery

Mineral County’s Milwaukee Road: A Superior Experience

Defined by the railroad, the highway, and the interstate, Superior overlooks the Clark’s Fork River and serves as the seat of government of Mineral County.  Since the bankruptcy

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Mineral Co Superior 2of the Milwaukee Road in 1980, the town has steadily lost population-2oo less residents in 2015 compared to my first visit 30 years earlier.  Never a large place–the town’s top population was 1242 residents in 1960–Superior has several landmark buildings from its railroad days but only one has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

IMG_7451That one place, the Superior School, is spectacular and its tall central tower has long served as a community beacon.  Built 1915-16 by contractor Charles Augustine, the high school reflected Colonial Revival style, and later community growth led to wing additions in 1925, shown above, and in 1947.

 

IMG_7445Another Colonial Revival-styled public building is the Mineral County Courthouse, 1920, complete with its colonial-inspired cupola.  Mineral County was created in 1914. This building is more complete rural interpretation of Colonial Revival style than the school.

Close by is the Mineral County Museum, which opened in 1976 as part of the American bicentennial.  It has substantially increased its collections since my first visit 30 years ago, and serves as an orientation point for the county’s heritage tourism opportunities.

Mineral Co Superior 6 movie theaterThe historic Strand Theater (c. 1915) operated in 1984 but closed in 2013 and remained shuttered when I visited in 2015, no doubt a victim of not only the home theatre phenomenon but also the switch to digital delivery of movies in this decade. This theatre, however, is a rare and important building from the homesteading era of the 1910s.

IMG_7447From the same decade, the historic Masonic Mountain Lodge still operates, serving as another community outlet and center in Superior.  The town’s population height in the 1960s led to the construction of the institutional Ranch-style of the Superior High School, one of two bits of mid-century modernism in Superior.

Mineral Co Superior high school

IMG_7471The other example dates to 1958 and represents yet another example of modern design in a rural Catholic Church in Montana. St Mary Queen of Heaven Catholic Church is also a

Mineral Co Superior St Mary Catholic 3Ranch-styled inspired design, although its stand-alone but visually and physically linked low bell tower is unique compared to other Montana Catholic churches from this era.

Mineral Co Superior St Mary Catholic 2The church is Superior’s best contribution to Montana modernism and complements well the Victorian influence found at the town’s historic United Methodist Church, built almost 50 years earlier. Note that both churches have low bell towers.

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A first look at Mineral County’s Milwaukee Road corridor

IMG_7379The two railroads and the river that shaped Missoula also carved the landscape to the northwest.  Following the Clark’s Fork River to the northwest, the Milwaukee Road passes through Mineral County, adding to a transportation corridor that, earlier, included the Mullan Road, and then later U.S. Highway 10.  It is now the route of Interstate Highway I-90 as i heads west to Idaho and then Washington State.

When I carried out the survey for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Mineral County had one property listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The DeBorgia School, built in the wake of the Milwaukee Road’s construction through the mountains in 1908, somehow survived the horrific fire of 1910 that claimed most of the county’s earliest buildings.  As the railroad’s impact declined, and school consolidation took place, the building stopped being a local school in 1956.  It has now served as a community center for longer than it was a school.  A small town library has been constructed nearby since my last visit some 30 years ago.

But what was a solitary landmark in 1985 has become a county proud of its transportation history, especially the impact of the Milwaukee Road and the towns of Superior, Alberton, and St. Regis all have National Register properties that interpret railroads, transportation, and transformation in Montana’s northwest.

IMG_7380As the interstate crosses the Clark’s Fork River near Tarkio it bypasses the earlier transportation network.  A particular marvel is the Scenic Bridge, listed in the National Register in 2010, especially how the bridge of U.S. 10, built in 1928, was designed in dialogue with the earlier high-steel bridge of the Milwaukee Road.

IMG_7378 The Scenic Bridge has been closed to traffic but is safe to walk across, creating great views of both bridges and the Clark’s Fork River–travel here has always been challenging.

Alberton also has important transportation landmarks, especially its National Register-listed Milwaukee Road passenger depot.  The railroad was why the town was established–it is so appropriate that now the railroad headquarters has been converted into city hall and other public uses.

Mineral Co Alberton MR depot

IMG_7367Twenty years historic preservationists stepped up to add numerous properties to the National Register throughout the county.  In addition to the passenger depot, the Montana Valley Book Store, above, was listed.  This two-story false front building, with attached one-story building, was once the town’s commercial heart and known as Bestwick’s Market–it has been close to the heart of book lovers for years now.  Montana Valley Book Store was a relatively new business when I first visited in 1984 but now it is one of the region’s cultural institutions, especially when a visit is combined with a quick stop at the adjacent Trax Bar.

Mineral Co Alberton school

IMG_7369The historic three-story brick Alberton High School (now the Alberton School) operated from 1919 to 1960 as the only high school facility within miles of the railroad corridor.  It too is listed in the National Register and was one of the community landmarks I noted in the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.

Mineral Co Alberton modern h.s.I gave no notice to the replacement school, the modern Alberton High School, c. 1960.  That was a mistake–this building too reflects school design ideas of its time–the Space Age of the late 1950s and 1960s, when open classrooms, circular designs, and a space-age aesthetic were all the rage.  Alberton High School is one of my favorite small-town examples of Montana modernism.

Mineral Co Alberton modern h.s.The school is a modern marvel just as the high school football field and track are reminders of how central the schools are to rural community and identity in Montana. Alberton has held its own in population in the decades since the closing of the Milwaukee Road, largely due to its proximity to Missoula and the dramatic gorges created by the Clark’s Fork River.  Change is probably coming, and hopefully these landmarks will remain in service for years to come.

Mineral Co Alberton football field 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missoula: a two-railroad town

IMG_2137The Clark’s Fork River and transportation through the valleys and over the Rocky Mountains lie at the core of Missoula’s early history.  Captain John Mullan blazed his road through here immediately before the Civil War, and a Mullan Road marker is downtown.

IMG_2130White settlement first arrived in the initial territorial years and a sawmill was the first major business.  As a river crossroads town, Missoula grew, and then became a permanent dot on the federal map with the arrival of Fort Missoula, established in 1877.  The fort, largely neglected when I conducted my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, is now a regional heritage center.

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Quartermaster building, Fort Missoula, built 1911.

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Fort Missoula overview, taken in 2007.

But so much of that you see and experience today in downtown Missoula is shaped by the arrival of two railroads, the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 and then the Milwaukee Road in 1908.  In those 25 years, much of historic environment of present-day Missoula was built, creating a north side, south side look to the city that reflects not only the central thread of the Clark’s Fork River but also the impact of the two sets of railroad tracks.

NPRR depot, MissoulaBuilt in 1901, the Northern Pacific passenger station is an impressive example of Renaissance Revival style, designed by the architectural firm of Reed and Stem, and symbolized the turn of the century dominance of the railroad over the region’s transportation and the importance of Missoula to the railroad as a major train yard. The station, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, stands at the historic “top” of downtown Missoula, which at its bare bones has the classic T-plan of a railroad hub of the late 19th century.  The Northern Pacific tracks and related railroad warehouses are the top of the “T” stretching in both directions with Interstate I-90 crossing the river bluffs to the northeast.  Two reminders of the historic railroad traffic are adjacent to the station–a steam Northern Pacific engine and a diesel Burlington Northern engine.

From the passenger station stretching into the town itself is Higgins Street,which runs in a straight line to the river.  The most important early commercial building, near the Higgins Street bridge is of course the threatened Missoula Mercantile building (discussed

Missoula Co Missoula mercantile 6

in an earlier blog), which has sections dating to the 1880s.  Higgins Street bridge crosses the Clark’s Fork, which on the south side became the street’s connection with the later Milwaukee Road.

Missoula Co Missoula Milwaukee Road depot 5The Milwaukee was not to be out-done by the Northern Pacific when it arrived in Missoula in 1908.  Railroad architect J. J. Lindstrand gave the line a fashionable Misson-style passenger station and offices, which opened in 1910.  It too is listed in the National Register.  Like the company’s stations in Great Falls and Butte, built approximately at the same time, the station has a tall tower that commanded the city’s early 20th century skyline, and made the depot easy to find. Located dramatically along the Clark’s Fork River, the arrival of the railroad and the construction of the depot led to a new frenzy of building on South Higgins Street, and a good many of those one-story and two-story buildings remain in use today.

Missoula Co Missoula south side stores

That is enough for now–the railroads of Missoula have been introduced.  Next I will explore landmarks between the two depots of Missoula.

Rural to Industrial Landscapes in Missoula County

Missoula Co Potomac school 1

Montana Highway 200 follows the Blackfoot River as it enters Missoula County from the east.  At first you think here is another rural mountain county in Montana, one still defined by community schools like the turn of the century one at Potomac above, and by community halls like the Potomac/Greenough Hall, which also serves as the local Grange meeting place.

Missoula Co Potomac Community Hall New Deal?It is a land watered by the river, framed by the mountains, and famous for its beef–which they even brag about at the crossroads of Montana Highways 200 and 83.

Missoula Co MT 200/83 jct roadside  1But soon after passing the junction, you enter a much different landscape, particularly at the point where the Blackfoot River meets the Clark’s Fork River.  This is an industrial world, defined by the company town design of Bonner and the active transportation crossroads at Milltown.  Suddenly you shift from an agricultural landscape into the timber industry, which has long played a major role in the history of Missoula and northwest Montana.

IMG_8005In 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad was approaching the river confluence.  It contracted with a company led by E. L. Bonner, Andrew Hammond, and Richard Eddy to supply everything the railroad needed but steel as it passed through the region.  Two years later the railroad provided the capital for Bonner, Hammond, Eddy, and M.J. Connell to establish the Montana Improvement Company.  In c. 1886 the improvement company dammed the rivers and built a permanent sawmill–the largest in the northern Rockies, and created the town of Bonner.  The sawmill works and town would later become the Blackfoot Milling and Manufacturing Company and eventually by the late 1890s it was under the control of Marcus Daly and his Anaconda Copper Company.  Anaconda ran Bonner as a company town until the 1970s.

Missoula Co Bonner 8Although buildings have been lost in the last 30 years, especially at the sawmill complex which had a disastrous fire in 2008 and a heavy snow damaged another historic structure in 2011, I found Bonner in 2014 to remain a captivating place, and one of the best extant company towns left in Montana.

Missoula Co Milltown MT 200 bridgeMontana Highway 200 passes through the heart of Bonner while Interstate I-90 took a good bit of Milltown when it was constructed in the 1970s.  Both Bonner and Milltown are heavily influenced by transportation and bridges needed to cross the Blackfoot and Clark’s Fork rivers.

IMG_7320The Milltown Bridge has been restored as a pedestrian walkway over the Blackfoot River.  It is the best place to survey the Blackfoot Valley and the old sawmill complex.

Missoula Co Milltown wildflowers at bridge 5The pedestrian bridge and heritage trail serve as a focal point for public interpretation, for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Mullan Road, and then the lumber industry, which all passed this way over time, a conjunction of rivers and history that lie at the heart of the local and state (Milltown State Park) effort to interpret this important place.

The industrial company town of Bonner is a fascinating place to visit.  On the south side side is company housing, a company store (now a museum and post office), and then other community institutions such as the Bonner School, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and Lutheran Church.

Missoula Co Bonner post office

Bonner Museum and Post Office

Missoula Co Bonner school 2

Missoula Co Bonner St Ann Catholic

St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Bonner.

Missoula Co Bonner Our Savior Lutheran

Our Savior Lutheran Church, Bonner.

The north side of Montana 200 has a rich array of standardized designed industrial houses, ranging from unadorned cottages to large bungalows for company administrators, all set within a landscape canopy of large trees and open green space. The mill closed in the first decade of the 21st century but the town remains and the condition of both dwellings and green space is ample testimony to the pride of place still found in Bonner.

Milltown is not as intact as Bonner.  One major change came in 1907-1908 when the Milwaukee Road built through here and then in the 1920s came U.S. Highway 10. A huge swath of Milltown was cut away when Interstate highway I-90 was built 50 years later, and once the mill closed, the remaining commercial buildings have fought to remain in business, except for that that cater to travelers at the interstate exit.

One surviving institution is Harold’s Club, which stands on the opposite side of the railroad tracks. Here is your classic early 20th century roadhouse, where you could “dine, drink, and dance” the night away after a hard day at the mills.

Missoula Co Milltown 3

The closing of the mills changed life in Bonner and Milltown but it did not end it. Far from it.  I found the residents proud of their past and determined to build a future out of a landscape marked by failed dams, fires, corporate abandonment, and shifting global markets.

 

 

The Pintler Scenic Route at Drummond

Granite Co, Drummond Front StreetDrummond is the north entrance of the Pintler Scenic Route.  The first ranchers settled here in the 1870s but a proper town, designed in symmetrical fashion facing the railroad tracks, was not established until 1883-1884 as the Northern Pacific Railroad built through here following the Clark’s Fork River to Missoula.

Then Drummond experienced a second wave of railroad-induced growth in 1907-1908 as the Milwaukee Road also followed the Clark’s Fork River on its way from Butte to Missoula, an electrified track that many surviving wood poles mark today. Served by both lines, agricultural and ranching production expanded rapidly, especially when combined by the addition of U.S. Highway 10 through the middle of the town in the 1920s.

Granite Co, MR corridor at Drummond

Abandoned Milwaukee Road corridor in Drummond

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The Northern Pacific corridor is still active as part of the Montana Rail Link.

While transportation was readily available, Drummond was surrounded by larger towns so even at its height it rarely topped over 500 residents, meaning that today its historic buildings largely document a typical Montana rural railroad town of the mid-20th century.

Granite Co, Drummond gas station, Front St, meth mural, roadsideThere is a faintly classically influenced two-story brick commercial block, a Masonic Lodge made of concrete block, various bars and cafes, a railroad water tank, and a slightly Art Deco movie theater, which was open in the 1980s but is now closed.

Granite Co, Drummond Front st and sign

Granite Co, Drummond Rough Stock Bar, Front and Main St

IMG_2042Due to the federal highway and the later Interstate I-90 exit built at Drummond, the town even has a good bit of motel roadside architecture from c. 1970 to 1990.

Granite Co, Drummond Sky Motel off Front St roadside

Granite Co, Drummond Motel, Front St, roadsideBetween the Northern Pacific corridor and old U.S. 10 is the town’s most famous contemporary business, its “Used Cow” corrals, and now far away, on the other side of the

Granite Co, Drummond stock yards, Front Sttracks are rodeo grounds named in honor of Frank G. Ramberg and James A. Morse, maintained by the local American Legion chapter.

Granite Co, Drummond fairgrounds and memorial signs

Granite Co, Drummond fairgroundsThe rodeo grounds are not the only cultural properties in Drummond. The Mullan Road monument along the old highway is the oldest landmark.   The local heritage museum is at the New Chicago School (1874), an frame one-story school moved from the Flint River Valley to its location near the interstate and turned into a museum.

Ironically the town’s historic Milwaukee Road passenger depot is extant, but in the 1980s it was moved to the Fort Missoula museum complex in Missoula for its preservation.

HPIM0709.JPGAnother local museum emphasizes contemporary sculpture and painting by Bill Ohrmann.  A latter day “cowboy artist” Ohrmann grew up in the Flint River Valley but by the 12960s he was producing sculpture and painting on a regular basis.  The museum is also a gallery and his works are for sale, although the huge sculptures might not be going anywhere.

As befitting a Montana agricultural town, community life centers on the library and town hall, the historic Methodist and Catholic churches, and especially the Drummond schools, home to the Trojans.

Granite Co, 1st street, Drummond library and community center

When I visited Drummond this decade I was glad to learn that while the population almost bottomed out following the closing of the Milwaukee Road and the general economic gloom of the 1980s, it had started to grow, and now totaled approximately 330 people–still a 20% decline over 30 years. I hope this bounce back is not short lived–Drummond remains a favorite place and a good way to end this overview of the Pintler Scenic Route, Montana Highway 1.