Fracking Roosevelt County: The Boom Seeps into the Montana Hi-Line

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The 21st century boom in the Williston Basin has significantly reshaped western North Dakota, and as that region “fills up,” the boom has spread into far eastern Montana, especially along the Hi-Line corridor of U.S. Highway 2 and the historic Great Northern Railway. The photo above is along U.S. 2 on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bainville, the first place of any size you encounter as you travel west along the highway, or railroad, into Roosevelt County.
Bainville, Roosevelt Co (p84 11-14)
When I visited Bainville in early 1984 I recorded a town in decline. True, its 1950s modernist passenger depot was still there, but there had been a steady drop in population for decades. Thirty years later, the remnants of that decline were still there: abandoned brick neoclassical-styled bank; an elevator complex on the verge of collapse.
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But signs of new growth were there as well in 2013. The recently expanded public school was one thing while the large man camp then under construction just east of the town was another–and a project that really concerned local residents since the camp’s population would be larger than the town itself.
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The next town west on the Hi-Line is Culbertson, where the impact of the Williston Basin was even more noticeable. A modern school complex had replaced one that dated to the New Deal. Indeed the New Deal’s once profound impact on Culbertson–a public office building and armory–had been eclipsed not only by the modern school but also a new county office building all shiny and bright.
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The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

New county office building in Culbertson

New county office building in Culbertson


The man camps were already taking available land, even becoming a village in itself between the town’s historic cemetery and the railroad tracks. To capture the burial site of Civil War veteran Marcus A. Denney of the 6th Minnesota Infantry in the foreground and the man camp in the background by the elevators creates a snapshot, literally, of the periods of change in Culbertson over 150 years.
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Truckers and workers flying along U.S. Highway 2 in past decades would have spied the metal sculptures of Lewis and Clark near the local museum–but these iconic figures are no longer what immediately captures your eyes as you speed along the corridor.
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What you notice is everyone lined up for that human fuel that powers the commute between man camp and tracking well: the Frackin’ Java coffee stand. A true sign of the times along the eastern gateway of U.S. 2 in Montana.
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Conrad’s railroad corridor

Pondera Co Conrad signConrad, the seat of Pondera County, is a railroad town, although the town’s close proximity to Interstate I-15 means that so many have forgotten the importance of this Great Northern Railway spur line that stretches from Shelby on the main line south to Great Falls.

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img_9361The town’s 1920s Arts and Crafts/ Chalet style Great Northern passenger station, along with grain elevators, serve as a reminder of the railroad’s importance to transporting the grains from neighboring ranches.

2011-mt-pondera-county-conrad-006Facing the depot is a combination symmetrical town, with one story brick buildings, several of them classic western bars, and then a block long T-plan that connects to the historic federal highway U.S. 87.

Pondera Co Conrad

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The Orpheum Theatre (1917-1918) was barely hanging on when I visited in 1985 and then by the end of the century, it appeared that the theatre would never be the center of community life it had been in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Pondera Arts Council then acquired the building, restored, and it is now once again a centerpiece of the community, one of several signs of how Conrad has turned to historic preservation to build new futures out of its pasts.

 

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Whitefish: Transformations and Persistence

I arrived in Whitefish in May 2015 with my eyes wide open.  I had not been there since 1988, and I knew that growth had enveloped and transformed the town, with a population that doubled, lots of west coast and east coast escapees having arrived, the ski lodge business booming, and “lone eagles” having nested here for two decades.  The phrase

Flathead Co Whitefish Grouse Mountain Lodge US 93 N“lone eagles” was local–an attempt to describe those professionals “who fly to work as comfortably as most Americans drive, and whose use of computers in business lets them indulge their preference for life in the great outdoors,” as a June 19, 1994 story in the New York Times explained.

Flathead Co Whitefish Great Northern depot

During my 1984-1985 survey for the state historic preservation plan, everyone probably tired of me touting the wonders of Whitefish, especially its mid-1920s Arts and Crafts/Chalet-styled Great Northern passenger depot and offices, designed by the railroad’s Thomas McMahon.  If any building needed to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, it was this one, and not just for its impressive architectural statement.img_8128

img_8122The station along with the railroad tracks defined everything you saw in Whitefish–here in the classic Great Northern T-plan landscape was a classic railroad town–one that old-timers even called the best along the entire line.  Whitefish developed and then prospered as a division point on the mainline from 1904 to 1955–and that corporate imprint was still there to be experienced, in 1984.

img_8107Thankfully in 2015, I still found all of my favorite landmarks from 30 years earlier, even though there was little doubt that the business district had been altered, sometimes in ways that left little original fabric in place but still some two-story brick blocks stood.

The Buffalo Cafe remained in business–a mainstay when I worked in the region in the 1980s as was the Palace Bar right around the corner.  The Palace dated to c. 1915 and has a wonderful dark wood carved bar from that time–it began as a brewing company and has remained that throughout all of the recent changes.

The town still had its historic residential neighborhoods at the foot of Main Street and then both to the east and west. comprising one of the state’s best collections of bungalows, often found in railroad towns of the early 20th century.Flathead Co Whitefish Main street 24

Perhaps more importantly it still retained some of its distinctive domestic architecture–the railroad tie house (a log house made of railroad ties) and a row of shotgun houses for railroad workers.  To all architectural historians who believe that the “shotgun” house is purely a southern thing–look closely:  these houses were built quickly and cheaply to serve industrial laborers and can be found throughout the country.

Flathead Co Whitefish railroad tie house

Whitefish’s historic Lockridge medical center (1958) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright remains a distinctive modernist landmark within the business district, although now it houses professional offices.  It was listed in the National Register in 2012.

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Flathead Co Whitefish Main street FLW 7A much earlier landmark, the Classical Revival Masonic Temple from the town’s first decade still stood, and it too found a new use through adaptive reuse.

img_8171Despite the population boom over the last 30 years, Whitefish still uses its Art Deco-styled school from the New Deal decade of the 1930s, although the auditorium has been restored and updated into a community performing arts center.

Certainly my favorite landmark was the Great Northern Railway station, which provided passenger service on the first floor and administrative offices on the second floor.  In the last 30 years, the town has significantly enhanced the setting with a city park, various statues and interpretive signage, along with a historic bus that once moved passengers to Kalispell and environs and historic railroad engines.

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The enhanced railroad station is clearly interested in drawing the attention of travelers who stop here for the nearby ski lodges or for a quick stop before entering Glacier National Park.  It is viewed as the town’s center point, its primary attraction–which is as it should be because there are few more compelling Great Northern Railway towns than Whitefish.

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