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.

Transformations in Fort Benton, part 1

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In the spring of 1984, there was no doubt that I would spend considerable time looking at the historic preservation issues at Fort Benton, a small county seat today but one of the most important places in all of the northern plains before the age of the railroad.  Here at this bend in the river, shown in a postcard I bought there in 1984, was basically the last stop for Missouri River boat traffic heading west.  The fort dated to the late fur trade era and as the rush for precious metals overtook Montana Territory in the 1860s and 1870s here developed a major trade and outfitting post, with roads running from Fort Benton in all directions.  But the place was a sleepy, almost forgotten town, as the railroads changed routes and the interstates bypassed it by miles and miles.  Landmarks too were there but the old fort had been slowly coming apart, only a recent determined effort by save what remained and then, ambitiously I thought 30 years ago, to rebuild the lost fort and tell fully the story of the fur trade and the significance of the Upper Missouri.

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My guide was John Lepley, who was spearheading the local efforts and a member of the SHPO board.  Another key leader was Joel Overholser. And no doubt, there was some heritage tourism and historic interpretation infrastructure in place.  The Chouteau House, a classic river hotel, was still open, rough on the edges but the place where I stayed and took meals. (It was closed when I visited last in 2013).

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Nearby was the home of I. G. Baker, a pivotal figure in the region’s history.  It was open, and paneled interpretation in place but certainly a property that could “say” more.

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Various monuments and markers could be found throughout the riverfront:  the Mullan Road, the Whoop-Up Trail, and especially the recently installed (1976) State of Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial, a monument piece of public art, sculpted by Bob Scriver with the base by Shorty Shope, another well regarded Montana artist.  The memorial was an American bicentennial project led by the Fort Benton Improvement Association, which Lepley and Overholser served on as commissioners.  Indeed, the state also had donated one of the keelboats used in the film “Far Horizons,” a Hollywood take on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The waterfront told a story, one dominated by Lewis and Clark.

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postcard of Far Horizons boat, c. 1984

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The amount and quality of the public art along the riverfront was impressive, but what struck me as speaking most strongly to the town’s future were two completed projects (the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Missouri River Bridge) and the almost completed restoration of the Grand Hotel, a remarkable Victorian building that spoke to the town’s hopes in the late 19th century.

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I left Fort Benton convinced of two things:  the town had clear preservation needs, not just the fort site but buildings from the Victorian era were decaying too.  But compared to other places that I would visit in 1984, I thought Fort Benton had the one key trait for success–vision, the realization that the steps of the 1970s were just first steps, and many more needed to be taken in the years to come.  Let’s next come back to Fort Benton 30 years later and see how far that vision has reached.

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