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.

Philipsburg: Victorian Town in the Pintlers

Granite co, Phillipsburg, BroadwayMiners first began to gather at what is now Philipsburg in the late 1860s; the town was later named for Philip Deidesheimer, who operated the Bi-Metallic Mine works. As the Bi-Metallic Mine and Mill expanded operations in the 1880s, a rapid boom in building

occurred, creating one and two-story brick buildings with dazzling Eastlake-styled cast-iron facades. The town was incorporated in 1890.

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IMG_2333The quality of the Victorian commercial architecture still extant in Phillipsburg, such as the 1888 Sayrs Block above, astounded me during the 1984-85 preservation work. So much was intact but so much needed help. Residents, local officials, and the state preservation office understood that and by 1986 the Philipsburg Commercial historic district had been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Granite Co, McLeod and Doe Blocks, PhillipsburgWhat is exciting is that in this decade, entrepreneurs are building upon early successful renovations and adaptive reuse project to launch new businesses and create new jobs. The town’s population is growing, after 30 years of decline.

No business has been more central to this transformation than the Sweet Palace, shown above, which is next door to the two-story brick Masonic Lodge.


Another key to recent success has the resurrection of local hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, along with the staging of various summer productions at the town’s Opera House Theatre, built in 1896, making it the longest continuous operating theater in the state. These properties give visitors a reason to stay longer, and not just stop at the Candy Store, grab a brew at one of the town’s historic bars, and then move along.

The town has recently added an amphitheater, located behind the historic school building, that also serves summer events that drive ever-increasing numbers of people to visit this mountain mining town and to spend more time and money there. This is modern-day heritage development at work.

Amphitheater, PhillipsburgThe new developments in Philipsburg are interesting and invaluable changes since 1984-1985. At the same time, I am happy that residents have still embraced their historic public buildings in a similar fashion.  The photograph I used in my book about the town in 1985

Phillipsburg HS, Granite Co (p84 59a-28)was the Philipsburg School, with its soaring tower symbolizing the hopes that residents had for Philipsburg’s future in the 1890s. The historic school, which is listed in the National Register, remains although the community built a new building adjacent to the historic one in 1987. (you can see a corner of the new building at the lower left).

IMG_2317When I first visited in 1984 the only building in Philipsburg listed in the National Register was the Queen Anne-styled Granite County Jail of 1902.  It also remains in use.

IMG_2145But now the Classical Revival-styled Granite County Courthouse (1913) is also listed in the National Register.  Designed by the important Montana architectural firm of Link and Haire, this small town county courthouse also speaks to the county’s early 20th century ambitions, with its stately classical columned portico and its central classical cupola.

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Granite Co, Phillipsburg, courthouse, 1912-13, Link and HaireBy climbing the hill above the courthouse you also gain a great overview look of the town, reminding you that these rather imposing public buildings are within what is truly a modest urban setting that is connected to the wider world by Montana Highway 1.

Overview of Phillipsburg, facing S

A couple of final thoughts on Philipsburg.  Its range of domestic architecture from c. 1875 to 1925 is limited in numbers but impressive in the variety of forms, from brick cottages to brick Queen Anne homes to textbook examples of bungalows and American Four Squares.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the M.E. Dow House is a frame Queen Anne home, modest considering the flamboyant Eastlake-styled cast-iron front to his downtown business block.

IMG_2118The Philipsburg Cemetery, which like so many that I ignored in 1984-1985, was a revelation, reflecting the quality of Victorian period architecture found in the town.

IMG_2341The beauty and serenity of its setting were impressive enough, but then some of the family plots and individual markers reflected Victorian era mortuary art at its best.

Phillipsburg Cemetery 5  This cast-iron gate, completed with urns on each post and the music lyre gate, is among the most impressive I have encountered in any small town across America.  And this cemetery has two separate ones.

Phillipsburg Cemetery, metal gateMany grave markers came from local or nearby masons but others, like these for the Schuh and Jennings families, were cast in metal, imitating stone, and shipped by railroad to Philipsburg.

Other markers are not architecturally impressive but they tell stories, such as the one below, for Mr. George M. Blum, a native of Germany, who was “killed in runaway at Phillipsburg” in 1903. I look forward to a future visit to this cemetery for further research.

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Telling Butte’s Stories

Archives and fire station, ButteLet me just jump right in:  I do not know of another town in Montana that has done more with the concept of heritage development than Butte in the last 30 years.  Heritage development, in brief, means that a community identifies the stories and places that define their past and sense of identity and then uses them as tools for community revitalization and growth.  The stories and places must be authentic, meaningful, real–fake pasts don’t get you very far.  In 1981, out of fears that its storied and nationally significant history would be lost in the haze of late 20th century urban renewal and economic change, Butte created as part of local government the Butte-Silver Bow Archives–everyone I knew were excited about its potential and its early discoveries at the time of the state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985.  Now that institution is one of the key rocks upon which Butte’s future lays.  Above is the conversion of a historic firehall into the modern archives/heritage center the institution is today–in itself a great example of adaptive reuse and historic preservation at work.

Professional staff and volunteers, all led by Ellen Crain, keep both the community and scholars engaged–the number of strong histories, public projects, and exhibits that have come, in whole or in part, from this place in the last 30 years is very impressive.  Plus it is

IMG_1105a vibrant institution, always in touch as its community room hosts other heritage groups and special programs throughout the year.  The archives is just around the corner from one of the most important, and solemn,  places in the city, the location of the Butte Miners’ Union Hall, which was bombed in 1914.

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Now an interpretive monument talks about the union, the bombing, and addresses directly a chilling chapter in the long struggle between labor and capital in Butte. Installed c. 1993 near the “top” of Main Street, this site sets the stage for the amount of public interpretation found in the city today.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 033Heritage development has become part of the basic sinews of Butte. Along with its active archives board, the city also maintains an effective historic district commission, and provided seed money for several key projects over the past generation.  The Original Mine site below, the city’s first copper mine, not only serves as part of the city’s public

interpretation efforts, it is also a place for community gatherings, such as the Montana Folklife Festival in recent years. It is important to note that the marker at the Original just doesn’t celebrate the technology it also notes how many men–43–died at that mine.  The progress of Butte happened on the back of its working class miners.

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Here is another promising change:  the willingness to landmark and discuss the human costs of mining.  Butte’s most infamous event was the Granite Mountain/ Speculator Mine disaster of 1917 in which 168 miners died–still the single most deadly disaster in American hard-rock mining history. Not that the event was ignored at the time.  In fact the North Butte mining company erected the memorial above to those who perished in Mountain View Cemetery, far from the scene, shortly thereafter.  Who knew this memorial existed?  There were no signs marking the way there–you had to search to find it.

IMG_1230Today the Granite Mountain site is one of the best interpreted mining properties I have encountered.  The miners’ stories are told–often with the words they were able to write down before dying from the lack of oxygen–and their multiple ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged, and celebrated.

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IMG_0977The interpretive memorial overlooks the mine, and is located high over town.  But when I visited in May 2012 a school group was there too, along with visitors like me.

ARCO, along with public partners, funded the site in this century, as part of the general Superfund cleanup of the mining district.  But the park was long overdue as well as the recognition that some 2,500 miners lost their lives in the Butte district.  The marker’s statement–“you are standing on hallowed ground”–is typically reserved for military parks.  Within the context of Butte, however, it is totally justified, and an important point to remember wherever you are in the city.

The reality that Butte’s mines contributed significantly to American war efforts in the 20th century is recalled through a public art mural near a public transit stop.  Public sculpture also interprets what was and what has been lost in Butte.

Through the efforts of the state historic preservation office, and its commendable program of providing interpretive markers for National Register properties, the residential side of Butte’s story is also being told.  You have to love the “blue” house, associated with U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, one of the New Deal era movers and shakers.

I-15 interpretive markers, ButteAll of these efforts considerably enhance earlier efforts at public interpretation, be they along Interstate I-15 and its overview of Butte or the visitor center maintained just off the

Butte Visitor Centerinterstate by the local chamber of commerce.  The center, yet another change in the last 30 years, is an attractive reproduction of a classic railroad depot design.  It also provides a useful perspective of the city from its south side, giving special prominence to the soaring clock tower of the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Butte overview from visitor centerThe Berkeley Pit in 1984 was a giant hole in the earth, with a viewing stand.  It too now has a more comprehensive heritage experience with a small visitor center/ museum adding to the public understanding of the massiveness and significance of the pit.

Berkeley Pit, entrance, Butte

Then of course, designed for highway travelers and tourists, there is the now classic World Museum of Mining, established in 1965 around the Orphan Girl mine.  The WMM lets rusting industrial artifacts convey part of the story while the existing mining buildings are open, allowing you to get a more physical experience of what the head frames and mines were really about.  And, as typical of Montana museums of the 1960s and 1970s, there is the attached “frontier village,” interpreting what early Butte was all about. Don’t get me

wrong: there are many things to like about the WMM–it is rich in artifacts, as the miners items above suggest (and more about it in another post).  But it is a controlled, sterile experience, and I would hate for that to be the only takeaway visitors have about Butte and its significance.  The museum is away from uptown Butte, and visitors who stop here may never go explore the deeper story within the town and its historic neighborhoods.

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Old Butte Historical Adventures on Main Street is just one group of heritage entrepreneurs who provide visitors with a “up close and personal” viewpoint and experience of Butte’s historic landscape.  Walking tours of Uptown along with various special theme tours engage visitors and residents with local history in a way different from traditional monuments, markers, and historic sites.

But one must be aware that the pressure to commercialize can also distort, and demean, the significance of it all.  What happens at the Dumas Hotel–a historic brothel–will be interesting to watch.  The story of prostitution is very much part of the fabric of the city, but one that for many years people did not want to tell, except with snide references and a snicker or two.  Let’s hope that changes as the Dumas is restored and opened as a heritage venue:  addressing the sex trade and role of women and men accurately and in context would add immeasurably to the sense of authenticity, of realism, in the Butte story.

Butte Greenway towards Walkerville

The most exciting part of Butte’s heritage development to my mind are the series of greenways or trails that link the mines to the business and residential districts and that link Butte to neighboring enclaves like Centerville (shown above).  Recreational opportunity–walking, jogging, boarding, biking–is a huge component of livable spaces for the 21st century.  When these trails are enhanced by the stories they touch or cover,

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they become even more meaningful and valuable.  If you have lived in Montana for 6 months or 60 years, it is time to return to Butte and take the Montana Copperway (trailhead shown above) –not only would it be good for your health, it also gives you a lasting perspective of a mining town within the vast Northern Rockies landscape, and how men and women from all sorts of backgrounds and nations established a real community, one that has outlasted the mines that first created it.

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Last notes on Bozeman, for now

IMG_6984Few places in Montana, or for the nation for that matter, have benefited more from historic preservation and heritage development than Bozeman. To see a grain elevator complex find new uses and life in a century where grain elevators are typically a relic of a bygone era, tall hulking figures on the northern plains landscape, you discover that so much of our historic built environment can be re-imagined and put back into use.

No doubt Bozeman has changed markedly in this century–as the 2007 photo of the  Masonic Lodge and Army-Navy store (a place I frequented in the 1980s) as given way in 2015 to a bike and ski shop. Yet the landmark sign–with the horse rearing up as if to say what the hell is going on here–remains, a bit of the old cowtown of the past.

The fraternal lodges and the American Legion remaining on Main Street is an important link to a past when these organizations were central to the town’s growth and development–mainstays of community still today as their eagles fly high over the business district.

Gallatin Co Bozeman St James Episcopal ChurchThe town’s historic churches are other important anchors.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, St. James Episcopal Church is a distinguished statement of Gothic Revival executed in locally quarried sandstone designed by architect George Hancock of Fargo, North Dakota and built by local contractor James Campbell in 1890.

Gallatin Co Bozeman Theory Building 1Preservation efforts 30 years ago were focused on Main Street landmarks, with much success.  But the combination of preservation and adaptive reuse has moved into the town’s railroad corridor with similar positive results, and the number of historic neighborhoods have multiplied.

But work remains to be accomplished, as the 2015 effort to Raise the Rialto on Main Street shows–yet the number of partners involved also show how the audience for preservation has grown over the years.  Montana State University is a key component for the future too.  The university’s growth over a generation is astounding. Its

historic core has never looked better.  The question with the university is growth and how that is managed for the benefits of the students, but also the neighborhood and community that surrounds the university.  If growth deteriorates the community, then students lose–the lure of Bozeman and its many attractions become that much less.

Just as old and new MSU co-exist in harmony so too must historic Bozeman and every expanding MSU remain partners, in communication, and working together.

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