A Return to Fort Peck

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For sheer scale and audacity nothing in Montana built environment rivals the transformations wrought on the Missouri River and the peoples who for centuries had taken nourishment from it than the construction of Fort Peck Dam, spillway, powerhouse, reservoir, and a new federally inspired town from the 1930s to the early 1940s.

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The mammoth size of the entire complex was just as jaw-dropping to me as it had been to the New Dealers and most Americans in the 1930s.  That same spillway, for instance, had been the subject of the famous first cover of Life Magazine by Margaret Bourne-White in 1936.

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When she visited in 1936 the town of Fort Peck housed thousands but once the job was over, the town quickly diminished and when you take an overview of Fort Peck, the town, today it seems like a mere bump in what is otherwise an overpowering engineering achievement.

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Coming from a state that had headquartered another New Deal era transformation of the landscape–the even larger Tennessee Valley Authority project–I understood a good bit of what Fort Peck meant as I started my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.  A good thing I knew a little because outside of a Montana Historic Highway marker and a tour of the power plant there was little in the way of public interpretation at Fort Peck thirty years ago.

IMG_8115First came efforts to better interpret the Corps of Discovery and their travels through this section of the Missouri River 15-20 years ago. The theme was Lewis & Clark in the Missouri River Country, but by the 2010s the region’s demanding weather had taken its toll on the installation.

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IMG_8003At the lake’s edge are additional markers encouraging visitors to imagine the time before the lake when the Big Dry River often meant exactly what it said–the reservoir keeps it full now.

IMG_8024New interpretive markers combine with a well-defined pull-off to encourage travelers to stop and think about the loss of life that occurred in building the dam.  Many of the massive infrastructure projects of the New Deal have similarly sad stories to tell–but few of them do.

IMG_8025You can explore the landscape with the assistance of the highway markers to a far greater degree than in the past.  Even if today it is difficult to “see” the transformation brought about by the massive earthen dam, there are informative markers to help you.

The new visitor center at the Fort Peck powerhouses takes the site’s public interpretation to a new level.  Just reading the landscape is difficult; it is challenging to grasp the fact that tens of

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workers and families were here in the worst of the Great Depression years and it is impossible to imagine this challenging landscape as once lush with thick vegetation and dinosaurs.

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Through fossils, recreations, artwork, historic photographs, recreated buildings, and scores of artifacts, the new interpretive center and museum does its job well.  Not only are the complications of the New Deal project spelled out–perhaps a bit too heavy on that score, I mean where else do you see what the “Alphabet Agencies” actually meant–but you get an understanding of worlds lost in the name of 20th century progress.

Is everything covered?  Far from it–too much in the new public interpretations focuses on 1800 to 1940, and not how Fort Peck has the harbinger of the Cold War-era Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin reject that totally transformed the river and its historic communities.  Nor is there enough exploration into the deep time of the Native Americans and what the transformation of the river and the valley meant and still means to the residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  There’s still work to be done to adequately convey the lasting transformation that came to this section of Montana in the mid-1930s.

Glasgow on the Hi-Line

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Glasgow, the seat of Valley County, has a rich small-town urban landscape, among the best along the Hi-Line of U.S. Highway 2.  Although businesses and population has struggled since I spent time there during my 1984 fieldwork (the population dropped from 4,455 in 1980 to 3,250 in 2010), the town retained an edge of vibrancy and vigor.

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Many of the patterns shaping life in the northern reaches in Montana are still on display within Glasgow, starting with the original impact of the Manitoba Road, then Great Northern Railway.  The combination passenger station continues to serve travelers, who if they wish to step off the train will find a classic strip of bars and cafes facing the depot.

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The railroad corridor has deeply imprinted the town, with giant elevators dominating the skyline while even the highway as it dips under the tracks by means of the New Deal-era underpass pays tribute to the true “right-of-way” through Glasgow.

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So too has the federal government left a deep imprint on the town, from the irrigation projects of the U.S. Reclamation Service to the construction of Fort Peck Dam in the 1930s and then the Glasgow Air Force Base in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Glasgow Post Office and Federal Courthouse lies at the heart of downtown, reflecting in its blocky massiveness and Art Deco styling the federal presence.

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Just as important, the building tells the federal side of the local story through the New Deal mural, “Montana Progress,” by artist Forest Hill that adorns the lobby.  It is one of the state’s six extant New Deal post office murals. Here the coming era of progress–symbolized by railroads, irrigation (the sugar beet factory), Fort Peck Dam and electric power–supplants cowboys, Indians, and the rural landscape itself.

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Another landmark featured in the mural is the Glasgow Civic Center, part of the larger effort to create community institutions in the face of the often overwhelming sense of change and despair during the Great Depression.  The Civic Center still serves as a town anchor, an important part of Glasgow’s public landscape.

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The federal imprint left a decided modernist turn to the townscape, although preservation efforts in the last generation have kept earlier classical or revival-inspired buildings part of the town, such as the Goodkind Block, the First National Bank, and especially the Rundle Building, which may be the town’s most distinctive architectural statement from its initial settlement and development era.

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The highway corridor shows the modernism of the 1950s most graphically through restaurants, bank buildings, and signs designed to grab the attention of all those who entered.

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Glasgow’s built environment tells the story of how federal programs, from irrigation to New Deal to the Cold War, could leave marks still apparent in the 21st century.

 

 

Fort Peck Dam and the Transformation of Valley County, part 1

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The southern end of Valley County has forever transformed by the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, Powerhouse, and Reservoir during the New Deal of the late 1930s.  The huge construction project, building an earthen-filled dam across the river near an old fur trading post, employed tens of thousands of Depression-era workers and left a permanent federal imprint in the lake, the huge, iconic concrete spillway, and the village of Fort Peck.

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The massiveness of the project–reflecting the boundless ambition and optimism alike of government planners, engineers, and workmen–is difficult to grasp.  As you drive across

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the top of the dam, the high vantage point of the Montana plains is spectacular, and a reminder of just how radically the dam changed the Missouri River Country.  An interpretive kiosk–in need of repair and refreshening–tells of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and what it found and learned.  But as soon as you turn to the east, it is not a open, wild landscape, but one dominated by the soaring towers of the power plant turbines, two concrete and steel obelisks to the 1930s ability to transform, and that decade’s faith in hydroelectric power.

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The Corps of Engineers has recently opened a full interpretive center, not only about the dam’s construction but of the environment and wildlife of the region.  But the story of the federal imprint is most graphically portrayed in the village of Fort Peck, built for the key administrators and officials of the project as well as important guests in the 1930s. We will look at that story next.