Montana’s oil landscape

Fallon Co? MT 7 oil fieldThe last post addressed Montana’s famous ranching landscape.  Intermixed with the ranches, especially in the eastern third of the state, is a very different landscape of technology, one of pumps, storage facilities, pipelines, and refineries–the oil landscape of 20th and 21st century Montana.

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Billings is the largest city in Montana, and oil refineries along the railroad lines, are a major reason why.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Billings was not close to being the largest town in the Yellowstone Valley–both Glendive and Livingston held that honor.  But due to its railroad network, and the rise of oil from the 1940s onward, Billings had far surpassed any place in the Yellowstone, and, in fact, had become the largest city of the northern plains.  Go up on the bluffs overlooking the city and it is easy to see how oil has impacted this place.

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 13 oil

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 19 oil

Billings boomed in the mid-20th century because of oil–and the impact spread throughout the county.  The former Cenex refinery at Laurel–the next railstop to the west–dominates the town’s exit on Interstate Highway I-90.

 

Yellowstone Co Laurel Refinery 2

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Yellowstone County is the distribution center for oil and petroleum in Montana.  The production areas can be found in almost any eastern county, where companies have established wells that pump crude non-stop–there are few oil fields here but plenty of pumps within the fields of Montana.

Musselshell Co US 87 oil wells at MT 244

Sheridan Co Homestead oil well

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 2 oil

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 1 oil

The number of pumps stretched across the landscape amazed me during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan fieldwork.  I didn’t really think of oil when I thought about Montana back then. The focus 30 years ago was not on the transformative boom that had begun ten years earlier but we did know enough to consider the earlier boom from the 1920s which began at a place called Cat Creek in what became Petroleum County in central

 

Petroleum Co Winnett courthouse 2

Petroleum County Courthouse in Winnett is listed in the National Register.

Montana to the similar 1920s boom, which lasted a good deal longer, in east side of the Rockies next to the Canadian border in Toole and Glacier counties.  Cut Bank, the seat of

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Glacier County, still bragged about its role as the “north oil center” in 1984.  To the south of Cut Bank at Kevin, you can still find both active and historic resources associated with the region’s oil production.

Toole Co Kevin 7 oil

Toole Co Kevin 8 oil

The towns of Kevin and Oilmont, however, have lost hundreds of residents since the boom–their deteriorating buildings tell a common Montana story of boom and bust, the patterns of extractive industries everywhere.

Toole Co Oilmont school

The former Oilmont School.

Now I wonder what will be the fate of the sudden boom towns of the fracking excitement of the early 21st century.  When I planned my fieldwork for the revisit to the Montana landscape, I decided that I must go to the eastern counties first–places like Plentywood, Sheridan, Culbertson, etc., because they would be the next to transform due to the Baker

Roosevelt Co Bainville fracking

field expansion.  Fracking I found–like in Roosevelt County above–but fractured communities–not so much, as I have discussed in earlier posts.  And now the boom has subsided–for how long? International markets will decide.

Toole Co Kevin oil storage

No matter what happens, Montana’s oil landscape will remain, past and present, and become one of the layers of history that speaks to how technology and international markets shaped the Big Sky Country.

 

 

Baker: The Milwaukee Road’s Eastern Gateway to Montana

Fallon Co Baker Milwaukee Road corridor  - Version 2The Milwaukee Road, the last transcontinental railroad to crisscross Montana, enters eastern Montana at the town of Baker, established in 1908, which served as an important rail center for the company with the full name of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific.  When I visited Baker in 1984 i noted that many of its buildings dated from the homesteading era although there was a clear second layer of development died to the region’s oil boom of the late 1960s and 1970s.  In A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I noted “Baker’s railroad corridor is still largely intact, and the spatial arrangement created by its Milwaukee depot and the neighboring Baker Hotel, an imposing brick building dating to 1916, symbolizes the railroad’s importance to the town.” Both buildings are gone now unfortunately but an indication of the prominence of the corridor is still conveyed by the brick building below which has served the community in many commercial and professional ways over the decades.

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Insurance was just one of the services provided by this neoclassical styled building.

Today the hotel, the tracks, and the huge grain elevators along the railroad corridor remain, and the elevators still visually dominate the surrounding mostly one-or two-story built environment.  But the depot is gone, leaving a hole in the town’s historic fabric.

IMG_0402Buildings and railroad tracks were not the only legacy of the Milwaukee in Baker–there was the large lake the company developed to provide water for its trains in a largely parched region.  The Baker Lake, 30 years ago, was undergoing another improvement project, part of the town’s generation-long effort to turn a forgotten corporate remnant into a community asset.  The company built the lake c. 1908 but soon found that the water was too salty–it corroded the equipment.  And so the lake sat, until the 1950s when the Baker’s Woman Club began an effort to convince the railroad to transfer the lake to local

IMG_0462government.  County leaders became convinced that yes, Baker needed a community recreation asset, and eventually the land was transferred into the public use, and Baker Lake by the end of the century was an unique asset in southeastern Montana, and a center for recreation and special events.

Fallon Co Baker library  - Version 2The lake is not the only contribution of the Woman’s Club.  it also was central in creating, staffing, and maintaining a public library, and the contemporary-designed library from 1970 remains but also has been enlarged since 1984.

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The Fallon County-City of Baker Administration Building, 1974-1975

Indeed, I noted the recent construction of the 1970s in Baker, like the new county courthouse/city administration building where I held a public meeting, but I didn’t really process the layer of modernism in the town, a reflection of its growth from 1950 to 1970, when the population grew from 1,772 to 2,584.  The new joint administration building, designed by the Billings firm of Johnson Graham Associates, remains an impressive piece of contemporary design.  Architects Willard Johnson and Orval Graham had established the firm in 1967.  The Baker project established a connection between the firm and county that continued into the present:  the new grandstand at the Fallon County Fairgrounds is also a JGA design, from 2011.

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The tradition of county fairs dates to 1909 and today the Fallon County Fair is one of the region’s largest.

IMG_0465Historic schools are other important contributions to the town’s built environment.  Above is the Washington School, built in 1927.  It is a brick Classical Revival statement of the town’s insistence for permanence in the face of the homesteading bust. When I last visited in 2013, the school was undergoing rehabilitation to become an office building. On the other side of town stood a more modern design, the Longfellow School, built in 1968 during the height of the population boom in Baker.  Its low, rectangular mass was modern school design at its best, although since my 1984 visit the casement windows have been covered so central heat and air could be installed.

IMG_0410The second building in Baker listed in the National Register was the only one designated in 1984, and it was the pride and joy of the community:  the old county courthouse converted into the O’Fallon Museum.  Here was not only the historical exhibits typical of the area but also installations about the region’s prehistoric past and moved buildings to host special

IMG_0414collections but also to interpret the homesteading past.  I will always remember my public meeting in Baker, for the obvious pride residents had in the museum but also for the comment that they could not wait to show me “our really old stuff,” such as a 1916 homestead.  Coming from my training at Colonial Williamsburg, considering places from 1916 as really old was a notion that took some getting used to, but of course in the context of settlement and development of southeastern Montana, it made perfect sense.

IMG_0463Today I would even join into the call for the “really old stuff”–like the Lake Theatre of 1918.  It certainly deserves a place in the National Register as so few classic movie theaters remain in this part of the state.  The same could be said for this classic c. 1960 drive-in,

IMG_0404which is part of the town’s roadside architecture traditions along U.S. Highway 12, the federal road that parallels so much of the Milwaukee Road’s route through Montana.  For

IMG_0472good measure I would even dare say that it’s time to assess the significance of the oil wells and facilities along Montana Highway 7 as you enter or leave Baker.  The discovery of oil and its development in the 1960s and 1970s certainly was the major economic story of the town and county in the second half of the 20th century.

IMG_0468In 2015 Baker has retreated from that c. 1960-1970 boom.  Population peaked at 2584 in 1970.  It remained just a hundred or so under that in 1980, but changes in demand, technology and the bankruptcy of the Milwaukee meant that Baker in the last 30 years has lost residents, in 2010 down to 1741, about the same number as in 1950.  Yet I like that the lake had been restored, and it remained a vibrant part of the town, that new banks and new renovations were part of the town, and indeed, that an old car dealership and garage was now the very good Three Garages Bar.  Historic preservation can play a larger role in Baker’s future just as it did during Baker’s boom in the past.

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