The Milk River Project and its Impact on Northern Montana

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Milk River Irrigation Project Ditch at Dodson, Phillips County

In today’s New York Times (June 15, 2020), Montana Jim Robbins reported on the looming disaster facing Montana’s northern states if the St. Mary’s canal, which recently collapsed, is not repaired.  The informative, insightful story focuses on the beginnings of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Irrigation Project, its pathway through southern Alberta, and its emergence in central Montana’s Hill County.  It included several wonderful images of Havre, the seat of Hill County, and discussed the wide-ranging disaster faced by ranchers and small towns along the Hi-Line if the ditch did not get its long overdue repairs–to the tune of $200 million.

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The Great Northern, the Milk River Project, and original U.S. 2 at Tampico

Robbins’ story immediately took my mind back to my travels throughout the Milk River Valley, from Hill County to Valley County, in 2013.  The story of how modern transportation and engineering combined to transform the northern plains is so fundamental to the region’s history, yet it remains a story seldom told (another reason Robbins’ New York Times story matters).  The image above represents the forces that led to the settlement and development of the Milk River Valley.  Taken outside of the village of Tampico in Valley County, it centers the ditch between the two transportation systems–the Great Northern Railway on the left and the original route of U.S. Highway 2 on the right– that served the settlers drawn by the water.  The image below shows the village of Tampico from the perspective of the ditch–the place would not exist without the ditch.

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Valley Co Tampico Milk river bridge hwy markerOne of the very few historical markers in Montana that touches on the state’s irrigation history focuses about a historic bridge that once stood nearby at Tampico.

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Hil Co Fresno reservoirLarge man-made lakes capture water to reserve it for use throughout the growing season.  The images above are of Fresno Reservoir, on a rainy morning, in Hill County.  While the two images below are of Nelson Reservoir, on a typically bright sunny day, many miles downstream in Phillips County.

Phillips Co Nelson reservoir sign irrigation

Phillips Co Nelson Reservoir USBR 1The Milk River Project shapes so much of the Hi-Line, it has become just part of the scenery.  I wonder how many travelers along U.S. Highway 2 in Phillips County even notice or consider the constant presence of the ditch along their route.

Phillips Co Milk river irrigation ditch near Robinson ranch

Not only are their scattered small towns along the Milk River Project, early agricultural institutions are often centered on the project.  A great example is the Phillips County Fairgrounds, outside of Dodson, and the question may be well posed–why there?  Dodson

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co FairgroundsPhillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 3is a tiny place, almost 20 miles from the county seat of Malta.  But at the time of the Milk River Project, Dodson was vital; the ditch neatly divided the town into two halves, and a major diversion dam was just west of town.  Here was a perfect place, at the turn of the century, for a fairgrounds.  And it is a gorgeous historic fairgrounds.

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Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 7

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My first encounter with the Milk River Project and the beautiful valley it serves came in February 1984 when Eleanor Clack took me on a tour of the bison kill historic site just west of downtown Havre.  It remains an excellent place to see how the waters of the Milk have nurtured countless generations of peoples who called this place home.

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Just last week I posted about two other Milk River Project towns–Lohman and Zurich–in Blaine County.  My next post will continue this second look at the Milk River Project as I revisit Chinook, the Blaine County seat, where the ditch once again is almost everywhere, but rarely given a second thought.

Blaine Co Chinook Milk River ditchs of cemetery

 

 

 

 

 

Zurich and Lohman: Two Hi-Line Towns in Blaine County, Montana

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Zurich, Montana, taken north of town looking south, 1984.

I have always enjoyed exploring Blaine County, Montana.  In earlier posts I have discussed such famous places as the Fort Belknap Reservation, and Harlem, its north gateway town, as well as Hays near the south end of the reservation and Cleveland, one of my favorite places in the region.  Chinook, the county seat, has been featured in a couple of posts, and I might add another one yet.  then the Chief Joseph Battleground of the Bear’s Paw has gotten a considerable deal of attention, due to the national significance of the place, and the recent improvements to the battlefield from the National Park Service.  Why so much on Blaine County places?  Regular readers of this blog know of my interest in the irrigation systems of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in

Blaine Co Milk River s of Chinook

the early twentieth century.  The Milk River system was an important project, and the towns along U.S. Highway 2 and the Great Northern Railway mainline prospered, temporarily, because of the growth of the system.  Plus the Milk River, in my opinion, doesn’t get the attention of many–and it is a spectacular river valley in many places.

Blaine Co Lohman GN corridorLehman, west of Chinook adjacent to both the Milk River and U.S. Highway 2, has almost totally disappeared as a place along the tracks.  What is left of the town–this deteriorating commercial building in 2013–might even be gone today.

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Zurich, west of Chinook and also abutting the river and the highway, has fared somewhat better.  I have earlier commented on the existing street names–Park Avenue highlighted here–and the hopes for the future of the very names chosen at the turn of the century.  Compared to my visit in 1984, the town has lost business and population over the last 30 years.

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The Spa Bar still operated sporadically when I visited last in 2014.  I wonder if it still opens its doors today.  I love the name–a sly reference to Zurich, Switzerland, which is internationally known for its many spas.

Blaine Co Zurich 7 Spa Bar

What appears to be an old rural church–or was it a school, or both?–still stood, its gable front slowly coming apart.

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But across the street was the modern Zurich Elementary School–an attractive touch of modern school design in such a small place.  According to the public schools website,

Blaine Co Zurich 2 school

Zurich had 23 students in 2020–while another internet source said the school was permanently closed.  I hope that has not happened–if the school goes Zurich will be yet another Hi-Line ghost town quickly.

Back on the Hi-Line: Culbertson

The Hi-Line is Montana’s major northern transportation corridor–first carved by the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway in the 1880s and then extended by the Great Northern Railway a decade late.  Today most travelers use U.S. Highway 2, which largely parallels the railroad, to traverse the Hi-Line.  The first place you encounter of more than 500 people is Culbertson, established in the 1880s and named for Alexander Culbertson, who was once the factor (the manager) of the Fort Union fur trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

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The Great Northern depot at Culbertson

Earlier in this documentary blog on the Montana landscape, I discussed Culbertson as part of the landscape of oil and fracking then taking place in the region.  Today I want to share images of community institutions that link the town’s more than 130 year history to the present.  Historic churches are a good place to start.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 1st UM Church

The United Methodist Church reflecting a vernacular Gothic type that can be found all across the northern plains in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The Community of

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God Church shares that similar vernacular Gothic style and retains its bell tower.  Mid-20th century modern style can be found in St. Anthony Catholic Church.  As regular readers of the blog may recall, I have explored the diocese’s choice of mid-century Roosevelt Co Culbertson St Anthony Catholicmodern style for many Catholic churches in eastern Montana.  The Culbertson church is a good example of that pattern.  Another church that belongs to the modern design era of the 20th century is Trinity Lutheran Church, especially as this distinguished building expanded over the decades to meet its congregation’s needs.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson Trinity Lutheran

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One of the most interesting buildings in Culbertson is the Armory, part of the significant impact that New Deal agencies had on the built environment of Roosevelt County in the 1930s.  Justified as part of the nation’s war preparedness efforts in the late 1930s, so many armories across the country have found second life as public buildings, serving local government and community events.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson armory New Deal

In my earlier post about Culbertson I should have focused more on surviving commercial buildings from the early 20th century–the time of the homesteading boom.  The beautiful cast-iron cornice on the Moen Building (1908) is impressive, one of the best examples of that Victorian commercial style still extant on the Hi-Line.

Roosevelt Co Culbertson 7 C.S. Moen Block 1907

Some of the extant two-story commercial buildings from the homesteading boom show some architectural styling, like the two below, but then a former town bank is impressive in its detail and masonry as any in the region.  Culbertson had high hopes in the 1910s.

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On either side of the town center are two additional important institutions.  The Culbertson Museum serves as a community heritage center but also as a visitor center for travelers entering Montana.  Its outdoor sculpture of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a reminder to all travelers that traces of the Corps of Discovery can be found along so much of the Hi-Line.

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Roosevelt Co L&C sculpture Culbertson museumOn the west side of town is its historic cemetery, the Hillside Cemetery.  At first glance, it seems unimposing, more quaint that important.  But the cemetery is the oldest historic

Roosevelt Co Culbertson cemetery

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resource in Culbertson, and in fact is the the burial place of two former Union soldiers, one from Illinois and one from Minnesota, who fought in the Civil War.  The markers are a reminder that the mid-19th century roots of Montana are never far away, even at the small town of Culbertson.

 

 

Sheridan County In 1988

After my comprehensive work in Montana from 1984-85 I returned in 1988 to revisit and add new places to my visual understanding of the state. Here are most of the color slides I took in Sheridan County on my second trip to Plentywood and environs.

I particularly looked at the railroad corridors–big surprise I know. Above is the Great Northern depot at Medicine Lake and below is a similar combination of Great Northern depot and elevators at Antelope.

The other railroad corridor I wanted to look at was the Soo Line, which operated a short spur line into the county in the early 20th century. I’m glad I did since hardly any buildings exist along this route today. Below is the T-town plan of Outlook.

Outlook in 1988 still had its classic Soo Line combination depot, with both passenger services, baggage warehouse and station office wrapped in one building. Below is the Outlook railroad corridor.

The station was in fair condition then (it is gone now) and I took a couple of images along with a close-up of the two-seat privy.

Other “towns” on the Soo Line had nothing left but deteriorating elevators. Here in 1988 was what was left in Raymond.

In Plentywood, the county seat, I took images of the great fairgrounds sign and the New Deal-era Sheridan County Courthouse.

I also was so happy to see the Orpheum movie theater still in operation.

Finally I always have found it fascinating that at Plentywood’s main intersection stood 3 bank buildings at the three corners–and at Montana’s best known socialist county in the early 20th century.

And in 1988 I also took care to document the town’s Northern Pacific depot. Railroads and banks dominated the county at its founding.

Last scenes: the Flandrem community monument on Highway 16 and a bit of badlands scenery along Highway 5 (the image is from my original trip in 1985, this the bit of snow, taken February 1985).

An end of the century trip to Central Montana

The vast majority of my effort to document and think about the historic landscapes of Montana lie with two time periods, 1984-85 and 2012-16. But in between those two focused periods, other projects at the Western Heritage Center in Billings brought me back to the Big Sky Country. Almost always I found a way to carve out a couple of additional days to get away from the museum and study the many layers of history, and change, in the landscape by taking black and white images as I had in 1984-85. One such trip came in 1999, at the end of the 20th century.

In Billings itself I marveled at the changes that historic preservation was bringing to the Minnesota Avenue district. The creation of an “Internet cafe” (remember those?) in the McCormick Block was a guaranteed stop.

But my real goal was to jet up highways 191 and 80 to end up in Fort Benton. Along the way I had to stop at Moore, one of my favorite Central Montana railroad towns, and home to a evocative set of grain elevators.

Then a stop for lunch at the Geraldine bar and the recently restored Geraldine depot, along a historic spur of the Milwaukee Road. I have always loved a stop in this plains country town and this day was especially memorable as residents showed off what they had accomplished in the restoration. Another historic preservation plus!

Then it was Fort Benton, a National jewel seemingly only appreciated by locals, who faced an often overwhelming task for preserving and finding sustainable new uses for the riverfront buildings.

It was exciting to see the recent goal that the community eagerly discussed in 1984–rebuilding the historic fort.

A new era for public interpretation of the northern fur trade would soon open in the new century: what a change from 1984.

I beat a quick retreat back to the south, following the old Manitoba Road route along the Missouri and US Highway 87 and back via highway 89 to the Yellowstone Valley. I had to pay a quick tribute to Big Timber, and grab a brew at the Big Timber

Bar. The long Main Street in Big Timber was obviously changing–new residents and new businesses. Little did I know how much change would come in the new century.

One last detour came on the drive to see if the absolutely spectacular stone craftsmanship of the Absarokee school remained in place–it did, and still does.

My work in Tennessee had really focused in the late 1990s on historic schools: few matched the distinctive design of Absarokee. I had to see it again.

Like most trips in the 1990s to Billings I ended up in Laurel–I always felt this railroad town had a bigger part in the history of Yellowstone County than

generally accepted. The photos I took in 1999 are now striking– had any place in the valley changed more than Laurel in the 21st century?

Adaptive Reuse and Montana’s Depots

When I carried out the 1984-1985 survey of Montana as part of the state historic preservation planning process, one resource was at the forefront of my mind–railroad passenger stations.  Not only had recent scholarship by John Hudson and John Stilgoe brought new interest to the topic, there had been the recent bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, and the end of passenger service in large parts of the state, except along the Hi-Line of the old Great Northern Railway (where Amtrak still runs today.)

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The mid-20th century standardized design for Great Northern stations at Chester on US 2.

Some of the passenger stations in the major cities had already been converted into new uses, such as restaurants, offices, and various downtown commercial uses. The lovely turn of the twentieth century stations for the Great Northern (left) and the Milwaukee Road (right) in Great Falls showed how the location of the buildings, plus their

architectural quality and the amount of available space made them perfect candidates for adaptive reuse.  While the tenants have changed over the past 30 plus years, both buildings still serve as heritage anchors for the city. While success marked early adaptive reuse projects in Great Falls and Missoula, for instance, it was slow to come to Montana’s largest city–the neoclassical styled Northern Pacific depot was abandoned and

Billings 2006 002deteriorating in the mid-1980s but a determined effort to save the building and use it as an anchor for the Montana Avenue historic district has proven to be a great success in the 21st century.

In the 1984-1985 I documented hundreds of railroad depots across Big Sky Country.  From 2012-2015 I noted how many had disappeared–an opportunity to preserve heritage and put a well-located substantial building for the building back to work had been wasted.  But I also came away with a deep appreciation of just how many types of new lives train stations could have.

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Turning iconic buildings into community museums is a time-honored tradition, as you can find at the magnificent Northern Pacific station at Livingston, shown above.  A handful of Montana communities have followed that tradition–I am especially glad that people in Harlowton and Wheatland County banded together to preserve the

IMG_9725.JPGMilwaukee Road depot there, since Harlowtown was such an important place in the railroad’s history as an electric line.

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But there are so many other uses–as they know in Lewistown.  Already in the mid-1980s investors in Lewistown had turned the old Milwaukee Road station, shown above, into a hotel and conference center, the Yogo Inn.  When I visited Lewistown in 2013 the Yogo was undergoing a facelift after 30 years as a commercial business. The town’s other

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historic depot, a substantial brick building (above) from the Great Northern Railway, was a gas station, convenience mart, office building, and store, all in one.

 

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Deer Lodge MT 2006 002

Deer Lodge is blessed with both of its historic depots.  The Milwaukee Road depot has become a church while the Northern Pacific depot became the Powell County Senior Citizens Center.  Indeed, converting such a community landmark into a community center is popular in other Montana towns, such as the National Register-listed passenger station shown below in Kevin, Toole County, near the border with Canada.

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One of the most encouraging trends of this century is how many families have turned depots into their homes–you can’t beat the location and the long, horizontal nature of the often-found combination depot (passenger station and luggage warehouse in same building) means that these dwellings have much in common with the later Ranch-style houses of the 1950s and 1960s.

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A former Great Northern depot in Windham.

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A Milwaukee Road depot turned into a home in Rosebud County.

But in my work from 2012-15 I found more and more examples of how local entrepreneurs have turned these historic buildings into businesses–from a very simple, direct conversion from depot to warehouse in Grassrange to the use of the Milwaukee Road depot in Roundup as the local electric company office.

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As these last examples attest–old buildings can still serve communities, economically and gracefully.  Not all historic preservation means the creation of a museum–that is the best course in only a few cases.  But well-built and maintained historic buildings can be almost anything else–the enduring lesson of adaptive reuse

Reserve, Montana: a Sheridan County Railroad Town

Sheridan Co Reserve 4

Readers of this blog have been generous, sharing thoughts, and history about the many fascinating places of the Big Sky Country.  Most recently I had an inquiry about a place that even most Montanans do not know about–Reserve, Montana.  When I earlier wrote about railroad towns in Sheridan County I briefly mentioned this place of a couple dozen residents today–and the inquiry has led me back to the images I took in 2012 and wish to share more about this place. The image above shows the town in its entirety–a rather common Great Northern town in the northern plains.

img_7471The town’s grain elevators really are its landmark–the town is along the railroad spur and sits off Montana Highway 16–without the elevators you might not even notice it.

img_7472Agriculture defines the use of the largest buildings of the town, and while it is a tiny place Reserve serves a much larger region of ranches located between Plentywood, the county seat, to the north and Medicine Lake, to the south.

img_7474This larger audience for services in Reserve helps to explain the survival of the Reserve Post Office–so many tiny Montana towns have lost the one federal institution that had been there since the town’s beginning.

img_7475But naturally I will urge you to make a stop, however brief, at the Reserve Bar.  This concrete block building, with its period glass block windows, is a friendly place, and a great way to talk with both residents and surrounding farmers.

Headlines and Kremlin, Montana that is

Multiple news stories and headlines at the end of 2016 spoke of the federal government’s warm relationship with those residing in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia.  Have no idea of what the federal government’s new relationship with the Kremlin in Moscow might mean, but it did get me thinking that, perhaps, on the off chance, it might bring new federal attention to the Montana Kremlin–a tiny Great Northern Railroad town in Hill County.

Hil Co Kremlin 7 sign

The federal government first impacted this place in 1911 after it threw open the old Fort Assiniboine reserve to homesteading.  The railroad had maintained a stop here as early as 1901 but with the federal opening of new land, permanent settlers came to carve out their new homesteads.

Hill Co Kremlin 2Kremlin never grew to be much, perhaps 300 residents at its height (around 100 today), not because it never participated in the region’s agricultural boom–the decaying elevators speak to prosperity but a tornado and then drought doomed the town to being a minor player along the Great Northern main line.

During the Great Depression, the federal government made its second impact on the town.   New Deal agencies installed a new water system. Funding from the Public Works Administration led to the construction of a new school in 1937-38, an institution, with changes, that still serves the community.

 

Hil Co Kremlin school

Hil Co Kremlin school 1

Hil Co Kremlin possible WPA kitchen?

I have wondered if this separate building on the school yard was built as the lunchroom–it is similar to lunchroom buildings I have found in the South, or was it built as a teacher’s residence.  You find that in the northern plains.

The early history of Kremlin is marked by one architecturally interesting building–this rectangular building covered with pressed tin–when new it must have gleamed in the

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sun.  Note the classical cornice at the top of the roof line–this entire decorative scheme belongs more to the late 19th century but here it is, in Kremlin, from the 2nd or 3rd decade of the 20th century.

Hil Co Kremlin 6 pressed tin

Kremlin’s Lutheran Church (below) in 2013 was holding services every other week in the month, while the Methodist (?) Church had already seemingly closed its doors.  Religious freedom thrives in Montana’s Kremlin, probably not so much in that other Kremlin.

Hil Co Kremlin Lutheran Church

Hil Co Kremlin check notes

Nor would that other Kremlin in the past have cared a whit about the Montana Farmers Union, which has shaped the life and economy of Kremlin and its neighbors for the decades.  That other Kremlin, however, would like the oil………

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The last time Kremlin directly felt the hand of the federal government was in this decade, when the U.S. Postal Service, which had been building new small-town facilities like the one in Kremlin below for a decade, announced that it needed to close hundreds of rural post offices.

Hill Co Kremlin post office

Kremlin residents joined their neighbors in protest: and the federal backed down. When I last visited Kremlin 3 years ago, I mailed a letter from its post office.  Persistence, commitment, community mark the Montana Kremlin–maybe that’s why I would rather hear about this place in Hill County than that other one, which suddenly new decision makers are courting.

 

 

Augusta, more than just a rodeo

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot Augusta 005My friends in the environs of Helena have been surprised that after 300 something posts I had yet to say anything about Augusta, a crossroads town in northern Lewis and Clark County along U.S. Highway 287, during my revisit of the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan. They knew that I loved the open range drive to Augusta, whether approaching from U.S. 287 or U.S. Highway 89.

Teton Co US 89 to gilman and AugustaThen, the various businesses and bars along Main Street represented not just a favorite place in rural Lewis and Clark County, but also document a classic western town with great roadside architecture such as the Wagon Wheel Motel.

The annual rodeo in Augusta is one of the state’s best, but Augusta is worth much more than just a summer visit during rodeo season.  When I returned in 2014 I found one key building missing–the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station, shown below from a 1984 image.

Created with GIMPAugusta began as a crossroads town for neighboring ranches; the later extension of a railroad spur to nearby Gilman spurred competition between the two towns.  But Augusta Teton Co US 89 August and Gilman hwy marker 1won that battle–today not much outside of the Montana Highway Historical marker, a steel bridge, and a disappearing railroad corridor remains of Gilman.

Augusta has several significant properties, starting with its historic high school building, a bit of neoclassicism on the northern plains.

img_9066But I like the football field almost as much as the historic school–could a more neighborhood setting even be imagined?

Lewis & Clark County Augusta football field 1Then there are historic commercial buildings from the early 20th century–several with National Register qualities, especially the F. M. Mack General Merchandise store–a frame building with paired bracketed cornice.

img_9073Over 300 people call Augusta home today, a slight increase since my work 30 years ago.  The community not only has kept the historic buildings noted above, residents also have opened the Augusta Area Museum–heritage is clearly part of the town’s future.

Lewis & Clark County Augusta museum

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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