The Milk River Project and its Impact on Northern Montana

Phillips Co Dodson ditch

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.

Valley Co Tampico ditch

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.

Valley Co Tampico ditch 3

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.

Hil Co Fresno dam 2

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.

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 6

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 7

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 4

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.

Hill Co Havre Wapka Chugn Site 7

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

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Hi-Line at Havre

Hill Co Havre 1st Lutheran 1

This week’s Great Falls Tribune featured a story about the heavy snowfall this here in Havre, the largest town along Montana’s Hi-Line.  The story got me thinking about this classic late nineteenth century railroad town, one of my favorite places to visit in Big Sky Country.  In past posts, I have talked about how residents moved their historic preservation agendas form a focus on the buffalo jump west of town along the Milk River to the old residential neighborhoods themselves.  I gave a particular focus to Havre’s wonderful array of domestic architecture, especially its many variations on the

Hill Co Havre residential historic district 1 Arts and CraftsCraftsman style popular in the early 20th century. It is a place where the pages of the famous Craftsman Magazine seem to come alive as you walk the tree-lined streets. But there is more to Havre’s historic districts than the homes–there are the churches, about which more needs to be said.

Hill Co Havre 1st LutheranAs my first two images of the First Lutheran Church show, Gothic Revival style is a major theme in the church architecture of Havre, even extending into the mid-20th century.  First Lutheran Church is a congregation with roots in Havre’s boom during the homesteading era.  As the congregation grew, members decided to build the present building in 1050-51, adding an educational wing by the end of the decade.

Hill Co Havre residential historic district Episcopal Church

An earlier example of Gothic Revival style is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, built in 1911 by architect Mario Riffo of Kalispell.  Noted havre architect and builder Frank F. Bossout worked for Riffo at the time and this commission may have been Bossout’s introduction to a city that his designs would so shape in the years to come.

Hill Co Havre residential historic district 1st baptist The earliest Gothic Revival styled church is First Baptist Church, constructed c. 1901, shown above.  The unidentified architect combined Gothic windows into his or her own interpretation of Victorian Gothic, with its distinctive asymmetrical roof line.

Hill Co Havre 539 3rd St-AME church 1A more vernacular interpretation of Gothic style can be found in the town’s original AME Church, built c. 1916 to serve African American railroad workers and their families, and later converted and remodeled into the New Hope Apostolic Church.

Hill Co Havre residential historic district 1st presbyterian

The First Presbyterian Church represents the Classical Revival in Havre church architecture.  Built in 1917-1919 and designed by Frank F. Bossuot, the church’s style reflected that of the nearby courthouse, which Bossuot had designed in 1915, and the town’s Carnegie Library, also from Bossuot’s hand in 1914.

Hill Co Havre St Jude catholic church Spanish Revival

Hill Co Havre St Jude catholic church 1 Spanish RevivalThe Spanish Colonial Revival style of St. Jude’s Catholic Church, however, shows us that architect Frank F. Bossuot was more than a classicist.  The church’s distinctive style sets it apart from other church buildings in Havre.

Hill Co Havre Van Orsdel MethodistThe same can be said for a church building that comes a generation later, the Van Orsdel United Methodist Church.  When the Havre historic district was established, this mid-century modernist designed building was not yet 50 years old, thus it was not considered for the district.  But certainly now, in 2018, the contemporary styling of the sanctuary has merit, and the church has a long history of service.  It started just over one hundred years ago with a brick building named in honor of the Montana Methodist circuit rider W. W. Van Orsdel who introduced the faith to Havre in 1891.  A fire in late 1957 destroyed that building, and the congregation immediately began construction on its replacement, dedicating it in 1958.

From Gothic to modern, the architecture of Havre’s historic churches reflects the town’s robust history in the first half of the twentieth century–and this is just a taste of the many interesting places to be found along the Montana Hi-Line.