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


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.


Butte modernism

In the state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985 I was hardly alone when I gave scant attention to resources between World War II and the Vietnam War.  At that time, the “50-year rule” of the National Register meant that officially, at best, we should be only considering buildings from the very first years of the New Deal.  The state office already had gone beyond the so-called rule, however, with nomination projects in Essex and Eureka, Montana.  We understood that the “rule” was really a guideline.  But still no one thought about the 1950s and 1960s–too recent, and not as threatened as the resources from the Victorian era through the turn of the 20th century, especially in Butte.

IMG_1175You don’t think Montana modernism when you think of Butte, but as this overview will demonstrate, you should think about it.  I have already pinpointed contemporary homes on Ophir Street (above). The copper mines remained in high production during the Cold War era and many key resources remain to document that time in the city. For discussion sake, I will introduce some of my favorites.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 051

Uptown Butte’s D. A. Davidson Building:  a spaceship has landed on Main Street.

Certainly I should have paid more attention to such Art Deco landmarks as the Emmanuel Conception Church, by J. G. Link Company, 1941, or even in Uptown the classic corporate design of the Firestone Tire Center and service station.

Firestone Station, ButteI looked at schools constantly across the state in 1984-1985 but did not give enough attention to the late 1930s Butte High School, a classic bit of New Deal design combining International and Deco styles in red brick.  Nor did I pay attention to the modernist buildings associated with Butte Central (Catholic) High School.

Butte HS, Platinum St, New Deal

Butte High School, a New Deal project of late 1930s


Then there are two really interesting schools from the late 1950s and 1960s:  John F. Kennedy and the Walker-Garfield elementary schools.  I have already discussed in an early post about the JFK School.

JFK School, Butte, 1959


JFK School, 1959, 4

Walker-Garfield, 3, Butte, 1960s

Walker Garfield School, Montana St, Butte, 1960s

Walker-Garfield, 2, Butte, 1960sYou would think that I would have paid attention to the Walker-Garfield School since I stopped in at the nearby Bonanza Freeze, not once but twice in the Butte work of 1984.  I

Bonanza Freeze, 1947, Montana St, Butte, roadsidenever gave a thought about recording this classic bit of roadside architecture either. Same too for Muzz and Stan’s Freeway Bar, although maybe I should not recount the number of stops at this classic liquor-to-go spot.

Freeway Bar, c. 1968, Placer St. at I-90, Butte, roadside

Uptown has its modern era jewels, like the D.A. Davidson building above, but largely in how owners tried to give older structures facelifts with contemporary designs in the 1960s and 1970s.  Back in 1984 we dismissed such building as “remuddlings” and sometimes they were exactly that.  But when you step back and consider it, the additions were new layers of history added to those of the past, creating a physical document with chronological depth, and interest.

Garages were not new to the city in the post-World War II era but automobile ownership increased in the post-war years, and the demand for downtown parking from residents who had moved into the suburbs never slacked for years.  The demand led to a lot of parking lots in place of historic buildings but it also led to the Silver Arrow Garage and shopping centers, one of my favorites from that time.

Silver Arrow Garage, S. Montana, Butte

Probably my favorite Uptown modernist building is both an office and production facility–the sleek International-style Montana Standard Building.  Not only is the Standard the touchstone for community news, the building is an important addition to the city’s 20th century architecture.

Montana Standard, 25 W. granite, international style


Butte public buildings also embraced the new era in design.  The Butte Public Library is not so successful, with its understated classicism in a modern setting being neither particularly effective nor compelling.  The Uptown Butte Fire Station however is an excellent example of contemporary style.

There is such a thing as Butte Modernism.  While the city may not have the number of classic 1960s and 1970s buildings of, say, Billings or Great Falls, it has enough to mark those years of change and transition from the first half to the second half of the twentieth century in the Copper City.


The Civic Center is another great modern era building from J.G. Link Company.

Bozeman’s neighborhoods

The quality of Bozeman’s historic residential area between downtown and Montana State University was apparent even to me in 1984-85–someone at the time much more in tune with public buildings, industrial corridors, and downtown blocks than the mix of Victorian, vernacular, and 20th century revival styles that you find in Bozeman’s historic neighborhoods.

Gallatin Co Bozeman Willson Ave 5 Willson House

Everyone at the state historic preservation office was excited about the 1985 listing of the Burr Fisher House, designed in distinctive Spanish Colonial style by Bozeman architect Fred Willson, and wherever you looked you saw potential for many other properties, if not entire neighborhoods. Passing decades had left to neglect, perhaps not the wisest choices in treatments or tenants, but the potential remained to be tapped.

As indicated by the above before and after photos, with the 1985 image on the left and the 2015 image on the right, the last 30 years have been a time of transformation and restoration in many of the downtown neighborhoods.  Indeed, where there were no historic residential historic districts, there are now multiple districts, crisscrossing the city and creating a real foundation for community stability, pride, identity, and growth.

What I didn’t notice as well in 1985 as I did last year was the neighborhood’s imprint of Montana modernism from the New Deal era, represented so well by the Longfellow School

and its long horizontal massing and stylish entrance, to the contemporary styles of the 1960s into the 1970s, as seen below, in the Grand Avenue Catholic Center, and the contemporary style house on Story Avenue.

Gallatin Co Bozeman Grand Ave Catholic Center 1950s

Gallatin Co Bozeman Story Ave 1950s modern

These dwellings are truly just a taste of the richness and diversity of architectural statements in the town’s historic neighborhoods from Main Street to the university.  Bozeman’s successful neighborhood districts represent one of the lasting achievements of historic preservation and property owner engagement in Montana over the last 30 years.


Traveling the historic Manitoba Line, from Havre to Big Sandy


The impact of the Great Northern Railway on the settlement of northern Montana really can never be over-emphasized–its mark on the settlement landscape and later transportation routes is that important.  Most travelers, and many residents, do not realize that the railroad, then named the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, did not initially strike straight across the plains to Glacier National Park.  In 1887 it turned at Havre and headed southwest towards Great Falls, creating a distinct modern landscape along Big Sandy Creek that you may still follow today.


The first important stop was Fort Assinniboine, a U.S. army base established in 1879, before the first settlers arrived. The army maintained this major base until the 1910s and later in that decade its land and buildings became the Northern Montana demonstration farm, allowing state and federally supported agricultural reformers learn and demonstrate best practices in farming techniques and crops for the region.  Today it remains part of the state’s extension service, which has adapted some buildings for new uses while keeping others preserved as part of the nationally significant story of the U.S. military and its occupation of the northern plains.  

Image Image 

When I visited the fort site in 1984, the highway marker was the primary interpretation.  The farm’s administrators have since worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation office to locate interpretive markers outside of several buildings.  Tours of the complex are also available by reservations.


Image Image

 As part of the federal process of transforming the landscape of Big Sandy Creek, the homesteading boom left its mark everywhere in the 1910s.  But also in 1916 the federal government established the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation for the Chippewa Cree.  The Manitoba Road’s intersection with the reservation came at Box Elder, at the border between Hill and Chouteau counties.  In 1984 one of the early Great Northern-era combination depot still stood at the town, although it seemed destined for destruction. Imagine my surprise in 2013 when the depot still remained, but barely so. 

Image Image

The gas station’s roadside architecture also faces an uncertain future.  But St. Anthony’s Catholic Church remained a key landmark and along U.S. 87 in the reservation stood a new architecturally distinctive building:  the Northern Wing Casino.  




Big Sandy is easily the largest town of northern Chouteau County, a place that abounds in surprises.  In 1984 the town’s old homesteader hotel remained, and so many other Montana towns had lost these artifacts of the early 20th century settlement. 




Thirty years later, the hotel remains in place, as do several other architecturally important buildings, from the Northern Monana State Bank, a vault-like neo-classical style building to the modern contemporary styling of St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church.



 Impressive adaptive reuse projects also had taken place, with the community turning the historic Great Northern depot into a center for its historical society and museum.  Big Sandy has a t-town plan, with its stem lined by businesses and other ventures, such as the false front Odd-Fellows Lodge or the recently established coffee shop.




The town’s New Deal era school remained, although the building’s original International Style design was somewhat muted by a new roof and other cosmetic changes. Yet, here was the school that nurtured Jeff Ament, who moved to Seattle and gained fame as part of the internationally significant band, Pearl Jam.  


Big Sandy has steadily lost population since 1984–600 people remained in the 2010 census–but key landmarks remain standing and in use.  Impressive.  The days of the Manitoba Road are long gone but this early railroad town still makes a powerful historical statement.

Modernist Architecture in the Diocese of Great Falls

Bishop William Joseph Condon is a pivotal figure in the history of the Catholic Church of eastern Montana.  As Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls (which became the Diocese of Great Falls and Billings in 1980) in the mid-twentieth century, he presided over the growth of the church in Great Falls and Billings, due to the influx of federal defense dollars and the impact of the petroleum boom.  Bishop Condon also presided over the construction of remarkable new church buildings across the region, from tiny towns like Highnam to rural county seats such as Roundup.  Then there was the construction of the 1950s modernist landmark, the College of Great Falls [now University of Great Falls], which has arguably the state’s most coherent set of c.1960 “contemporary” style buildings.

Over the next few months I will explore the churches associated with the diocese’s expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, giving particular attention to the buildings at  the University of Great Falls.  These compelling resources frankly were not on my radar screen in 1984-1985:  like many others the buildings were too recent, and being devoid of easily classified architectural elements, I ignored them in favor of the historic Gothic and Classical revival church sanctuaries in the region.  But more than a generation later, you can readily appreciate the dignity and the beauty of the churches.  In most cases the congregations have been solid stewards, and the buildings still convey their original design and intent.



St. Benedict’s Catholic Church, Roundup.

One reason I really like the Roundup church is that it faces, across Main Street (US 87), another modern landmark in eastern Montana:  the New Deal-funded Art Deco-styled Musselshell County Courthouse.  


My second example for today’s post comes from tiny Hingham, a Great Northern railroad town in Hill County.  In 2010, its population was just over 100 but the town and surrounding ranch families have carefully kept the Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church as a truly 1960s landmark.  I apologize for the dark rainy images, but everyone that day on the Hi-Line rejoiced in the rain, and offered me a place to stay if I returned every May and brought rain.




Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church, Hingham, Hill County