Nestled within the Tobacco Valley of northern Lincoln County is the town of Eureka, which serves as a northern gateway into Montana along U.S. Highway 93. I first encountered the town in 1982, as I returned from a jaunt into Alberta, and immediately thought here is a classic linear town plan, a landscape created by a spur line of the Great Northern Railway.
As I would come to find out, on two return trips here in 1984, the town was much more than that, it was a true bordertown between two nations and two cultures. The two trips came about from, first, a question about a public building’s eligibility for the National Register, and, second, the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan, where such obvious landmarks as the National Hotel and Eureka passenger depot were noted. Thirty
years later I was pleased to see the National Hotel in much better condition but dismayed to see the Great Northern passenger station–a classic example of its early 20th century standardized designs–is far worse condition that it had been in 1984.
Otherwise, Eureka has done an impressive job of holding together its historic core of downtown one and two-story commercial buildings. In 1995, owners had the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, built in 1907, placed in the National Register. Walking the town, however, you see the potential of a historic district of this turn of the 20th century place.
Oh yeah, what about that second reason for two trips in 1984? That would be the Eureka Community Hall, one of the last public buildings constructed by the Works Progress Administration in Montana in 1942.
Located on a hill perched over the town, the building was obviously a landmark–but in 1984 it also was just 42 years old, and that meant it needed to have exceptional significance to the local community to merit listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Eureka had been a logging community, and the depression hit hard. The new building not only reflected community pride but also local craftsmanship, and it became a
foundation for community resurgence in the decades to come. The building was listed in 1985, and was the first to have my name attached to it, working with Sally Steward of the local historical society. But credit has to go to Pat Bick and especially Marcella Sherfy of the State Historic Preservation Office for urging me to take it on, and to guide me through the maze of the National Register process. Today, it has experienced an adaptive reuse and serves as a rustic log furniture store.
During those visits in 1984 I also held a public meeting in Eureka for the state historic preservation plan, where I learned about the Tobacco Valley Historical Society and its efforts to preserve buildings destined for the chopping block through its museum village on the southern edge of town. Here the community gathered the Great Northern depot (1903) of Rexford, the same town’s 1926 Catholic Church, the Mt. Roberts lookout tower, the Fewkes Store, and a U.S. Forest Service big Creek Cabin from 1926.
But thirty years later I found new public interpretation not just in the museum village but in the town itself, as Eureka introduced visitors to its history and setting and also told its
border story of such fascinating people as Joseph Peltier, who built the first dwelling at the town site in 1891, and especially the cross-border entrepreneur Sophie Morigeau, who was trading in the area as early as 1863.
The Peltier log dwellings came within a year of each other, 1891 and 1892, and their size, finish, and log notching speak to the region’s rapid development. His 1891 low pitched roof, v-notched cabin is typical, throughout the mountain west, of first homes–quickly constructed shelter. The second house, with its hewn log exterior and crafted corner notching speaks to permanence. The settler was here to stay in 1892.
Eureka has held its population steady over 30 years, just a few families over 1,000 residents, a sizable achievement considering the change in both railroading and logging over that time. I think community pride and identity has to be contributors, because you see it everywhere, and I will close with two last examples. The town’s library and nearby veterans park, and then the magnificent Art Deco-influenced high school–yet another New Deal era contribution to this special gateway town.