Railroad Towns in the Flathead Reservation

Lake Co NP  trestle Moise road

Northern Pacific Trestle at Moeise

Once the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders in 1904, tribal members were allocated acreage but lost control of much of their land to new development.  The historic Northern Pacific Railroad corridor between Ronan and Dixon, followed roughly today by Montana Highway 212 and U.S. Highway 93 is one way to explore two almost forgotten towns in southern Lake County.

The first north of Dixon is the reservation town of Moiese, created by the federal government in the early 20th century as a “model” town of bungalows with a school.  Several of the standardized design bungalows remain as does the school building, which is no longer in use.

Lake Co Moise schoolMoiese is best known, by far, as the entrance to the National Bison Range, where a general store stands nearby the refuge gate.  Created by Congress in 1908, the refuge took

Lake Co National Bison Range

Lake Co National Bison Rangeadditional land–almost 19,000 acres- from the tribes, without their consent, to create a safe haven for the remaining bison in the region.  A few hundred bison live within its boundaries today.  In 2016 the National Park Service began discussions with the Consolidated Kootenai and Salish Tribe to transfer management of the refuge to the tribe.

Lake Co Charlo elevatorEight miles north of Moiese along the railroad line is the town of Charlo, named in honor of Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, who was forced from the Bitterroot Valley to move to the reservation in 1891.  Charlo served as head chief of the Bitterroot Salish from 1870-

Lake Co Charlo 11910.  As a railroad town, Charlo is like many along the Northern Pacific, with a brief strip of businesses facing the railroad tracks, marked by the town’s sole grain elevator.  It has a classic rural bar, Tiny’s Tavern, with its brightly painted exterior of concrete block, with brick accents. Built in 1946 by Tiny Browne, it was both a motel and a tavern, and a local museum of items that Tiny thought were interesting.  Browne died in 1977 and his sister, Celeste Fagan, next owned the tavern, managed by Edna Easterly who recalled in a story in the Missoulian of April 20, 2007 that Tiny  “was known as the bank of Charlo. Tiny always carried a lot of money in his pocket and if you needed to cash a check, you went to Tiny.”

Lake Co Charlo 3Most important for its architecture, however, is the town’s public school, a wonderful example of Art Deco style from the New Deal decade of the 1930s.

Lake Co Charlo new deal school 2Ronan is a third town along the railroad corridor, named for a former white superintendent of the reservation.  The town’s demographics today are mostly white, with a little more than a quarter Native American population.  Ronan proudly proclaims its existence not only with a gate sign, connecting the business district to the sprawl along U.S. Highway 93 but also a log visitor center and interpretive park on the highway.

Ronan’s commercial area retains classic bars, like the 2nd Chance Bar, and a combination of recreational services that have been lost in too many communities–a bowling alley and movie theatre standing next to each other.

Historic church buildings from the early 20th century include the frame now covered in vinyl Methodist Church and the brick Gothic styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with an attached Ranch-style parsonage.  St. Luke’s Community Hospital provides a much needed medical oasis in what is still a rural, agricultural area. Opened in 1953, the hospital is now an oddity–in that it is community owned and still serving its rural population.  The building shown below was constructed c. 2008.


Lake Co Ronan sacred heart catholic 1

img_7971The facade expresses a confident future, which is needed in today’s uncertain economic climate for rural hospitals across the state. But my favorite building in Ronan speaks to my love for adaptive reuse and mid-20th century modern design.  The town library is an

Lake Co Ronan libraryexquisite example of mid-century modern, and was once a local bank before being converted into the library.

Lake Co Ronan library 2


Flathead Lake Landscapes

Lake County, Montana, easy, right?  It’s all about the lake, the Flathead Lake.  It is a lot about the lake, but not a simple story but one that is ancient and 20th century, and one that has changed quickly in the last 30 years.  When I first visited the county in the early 1980s, our concern as preservationists was the boom that engulfed Lake County in the 1970s, a decade when the population grew by over 30% after being fairly stable for the 30

years before that. Lakeside communities had boomed, with the actual town of Lakeside just north of Lake County in Flathead County being a good example of what was going on then, and what has happened after 30 more years of growth. The historic church on U.S. Highway 93 remains as a landmark, along with the roadside Homestead Cafe, which didn’t exist when I was last here in 1985 but was established four years later.  That makes it almost historic in Lakeside terms.

IMG_8661There is a new school and a really different lakefront of businesses, homes, and parks. The town’s population was over 1600 in 2010; it’s now 2700 and counting.

Let’s jump back from Flathead County to Lake County and the southern half of Flathead Lake.  Here the west side is not so booming.  The Big Arm community has restored its historic one-room school, an excellent example of the type with its band of windows,


which is listed in the National Register and uses it as a community and heritage center.  Here is one rural school not threatened with abandonment and decay.  The Dayton school

shows significant expansion since my last visit–although the historic core is still apparent.  Both towns have lovely views of the lake but have not experienced the boom of Lakeside located farther north on the west side of Flathead Lake.

Lake Co Dayton flathead lakeTo get the full meaning of Flathead Lake, however, you have to consider the lake’s deep time, and its long history with the Salish and Kootenai peoples.  When I surveyed the county in 1984-1985, you came away impressed with the different vision that the tribes had for the region, and what was already happened at Pablo. In 2014, however, I left Lake County was a deeper impression on what the tribes have meant to the lake and vice versa.

IMG_7962The People’s Center at Pablo is part of that lesson as it affords a powerful, lasting introduction to both the history and continuation of tribal traditions.   

lmage from Ft Connah Restoration Society

Then there is the site of Fort Connah south of Ronan on US Highway 93. Here is  1846 log building, part of a Hudson  Bay Company post that operated to 1872.  

Perhaps just as important are the signs along U.S. Highway 93–they weren’t there 30 years ago, and they help today to imprint the region with the names used by the tribes to describe these beautiful, historic places.



Then there are the wildlife crossings, a design ensuring safety in the eyes of the Montana Department of Transportation, an engineered structure design to show dignity and respect to the animals who were here long before the people in the eyes of the Salish and Kootenai.

Lake Co US 93 animal bridge

These structures, some grand, some you might not even notice, are major changes to the roadsides of Montana.  And you want to see more.Lake Co Pablo elevated walkway 3

Not that the tribes did not make an imprint on the landscapes of Lake County–they were everywhere.  But now with structures like the elevated walkway at Pablo, their physical imprint can’t be missed by residents, and especially tourists.  That is one of the best developments in the Montana landscape over the last 30 years.

Lake Co Pablo elevated walkway 1 – Version 2