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.

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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.

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.

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

Hil Co Kremlin 5 pressed tin

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………

Hil Co Kremlin 3

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.



Havre’s historic preservation legacies

Havre, the seat of Hill County and more importantly the commercial and transportation hub of the Hi-Line, has already been the topic in several posts over the past year.  In 1984, it was the first place where one of the state historic preservation review board members, Eleanor Clack, took me around and explored the town’s history.  So let’s review the historic Havre of 1984 and consider what Mrs. Clack showed me, and what we see today as significant properties.

Clack’s spouse was Earl Clark, a businessman with concerns up and down the Hi-Line and a heritage advocate to boot.  The county museum bears his name and that is where we started, at the fairgrounds along U.S. Highway 2 west of downtown on a bluff overlooking the Milk River.



The fairgrounds acknowledged the role of the Great Northern Railway in the town’s and county’s history–indeed Havre was a virtual shrine to the Empire Builder as I would discover–but Mrs. Clack was especially hurried to cross what was then a two-lane highway and go to the other side of the bluff, where she unlocked a fence and we explored the Wahpka Chu’gn buffalo jump, then one of the handful of properties in Hill County on the National Register.




Today, it is difficult to find the property, even with the buffalo sculpture and signage along U.S. 2.  When the highway doubled in size, that improvement led to intensive development of the river bluffs, and today access to the site is behind a shopping center.



The site was the Clacks’ pride and joy.  Not only was the setting stunning, with the valley crossed by the Great Northern mainline, they had worked with other preservationists to open the property for tours and interpretation.  At that time, it was the best interpreted buffalo jump–make that the best interpreted prehistoric site–in the region, if not the entire state.

After hours of exploring the property, Mrs. Clack next took me to the town’s turn of the century historic neighborhood.  There I encountered the first of several historic Carnegie-funded public libraries I would see in Montana (the actual town library had already moved into new quarters).


Carnegie library, 1984


Carnegie library, 2013

We also visited the Young-Almas house, a rambling Classical Revival dwelling, which was the second National Register anchor in the historic residential neighborhood.



Today, of course Havre has a large National Register residential district, with state-funded markers telling the stories of the houses and families on almost every block.


Finally we turned into the business district, where we stopped at the Federal Building and Post Office–a New Deal building–and then the commercial district.


Mrs. Clack expressed her hope for the future, that the distinguished set of two-story commercial buildings that lined U.S. 2 would find a new future through historic preservation.


U.S. 2 corridor, north, downtown Havre, 1984



As these 2013 photos attest, Havre’s historic downtown survives 30 years later, although the historic preservation potential still waits to be fully tapped.  After all, the historic preservation funding available in 1984–and the assumption that the movement’s early successes in sustainable urban renewal would bring about more–never happened.  Federal funding, in adjusted dollars, reached its hey-day in the Reagan administration, and has declined ever since. Mrs. Clack and I could not know the future in 1984.  But if she could see Havre today, I think she would be pleased with how residents and officials have built on the early foundation:  that is the topic of the next posting.

The Irrigated West: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Montana’s Hi-Line


Fresno Lake, Hill County, 2013

The impact of federally funded irrigation projects is apparent throughout Montana but perhaps even moreso along the Hi-Line.  As I started his fieldwork in 1984 in Toole County, one of the first places I visited was Tiber Dam, a project that turned a large chunk of the Marias River into Lake Elwell.  The dam was finished in 1952 but numerous expansions and alterations occurred in the late 1960s and then late 1970s.


Lake Elwell, Liberty County, 1984


When I encountered the town of Fresno in 1984, there was not much there but a tavern, built in the 1950s to take advantage of the increasing number of folks traveling to Fresno Lake for recreation, and a huge elevator complex.



Today both the elevators and tavern remain, and the only changes found at the dam was additional fencing and pre-cautions for the security of the facility.

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Fresno Dam was part of the huge Milk River Project of the New Deal era.  The dam dates to 1937-1939, but was raised in 1943 and again in 1951 when “a concrete parapet and curb walls were constructed on the crest.”


The Milk River project is the one of the state’s oldest and most influential federal irrigation projects.  Dating to 1903, the project slowly unfolded across the plains, starting at St. Mary’s in Glacier County in 1905 and moving to the Dodson pumping station in Phillips County by 1944.  The Fresno Dam was funded by FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, making it a rarely identified place associated with the New Deal transformation of Montana.  


We will be returning to this project and the story of the irrigated West often as we move across the state.



Great Northern Towns in west Hill County, Montana

In my 1984 fieldwork, Havre was a base for quite a bit of travel along the Hi-Line.  One of the most compelling landscapes, and among my favorites for the state, were the little towns, regularly spaced about every eight miles, west of Havre.


At the time, my understanding of this landscape was heavily influenced by recent works by the American Studies scholar John Stilgoe (Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene) and the historical geographer John Hudson (a series of articles that culminated in the book Plains Country Towns.) Stilgoe reminded me that railroads in the late 19th century not only defined towns and urban design but impacted American culture in how small, tiny spaces became part of urban, metropolitan life through the steel tracks.  Hudson explain why towns existed every six to seven miles or so throughout the plains (these were often single track lines so trains needed places to pull over for passing, and places where water and fuel could be acquired as necessary).  Hudson explained differences between railroad division points, where shops and offices would be located, and “country towns,” where typically a combination depot carried out all of the railroad’s corporate functions.


This arrangement of space, and the ennobling of railroad culture in larger towns, was exactly what I saw in Havre and Hill County.  Ever since 1984, this has been among my favorite places in Montana.  In a posting last year I discussed the “disappearing depots” along the Hi-Line, focusing on west Hill County.  I want to revisit those same places today, with a deeper view on what was there in 1984 and what you find today.


Inverness, established c. 1909, was the first place I stopped but spent little time there because already in 1984 its Great Northern depot was gone.  But in 2013, I was looking for beyond the Stilgoe-Hudson way of understanding plains country towns.  Inverness in 2010 had 55 residents, but still held several early settlement landmarks, such as its early 20th century elevators along the railroad, a National Register-quality c. 1920 store/gas station, and two large two-story frame blocks–the historic Inverness Hotel (most recently Inverness Supper Club) dates to the second decade of the 20th century.


The Sacred Heart Catholic Church dates to the town’s beginnings, but a brick school from 1931 with 1952 additions closed in the early 21st century.


Inverness’s c. 1960 post office is a great example of stone-faced standardized design that the postal service used in small towns across the nation in that decade. It was one of the offices threatened with closure in 2011.


Rudyard, established 1909, was the largest of the west Hill County towns, about 500 people in 1980 but now with only 258 residents according to the 2010 census.  Its prominence in the second half of the 20th century is reflected in two buildings:  the tall concrete grain elevators along the railroad and the contemporary-styled Wells Fargo bank building on the prominent town corner facing the tracks and Reed Street.

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Thirty years ago, as the construction of a modern bank building attests, several stores and the Hi-Line Theater were hubs of activity; today most businesses are closed.



Museums now abound–with the moved depot forming a small building zoo while an early 20th century stone building has become an auto museum.



Rudyard also has one of the highway’s most famous town signs–boasting of a population now greatly diminished but the old sorehead remains–at the Sorehead Cafe in the heart of the four block long commercial district.



One hundred years ago, Hingham (1910) seemed to be the town that would make it. From the railroad corridor several blocks of commercial businesses were filled in the next decade.


There was a town square featuring a city park in the midst of it all.


Here the town’s Commercial Club hosted the Hi-Line Fair, which “presented farmers and ranchers with an opportunity to exhibit their grain and livestock and to exchange ideas with people from other points along the Hi-Line.”


While the buildings, outside of the brick neo-classical brick bank (1913-14), were frame, town boosters were confident these were only the initial businesses. But the second decade of the 20th century proved to be the town’s high point, and frame buildings still define local businesses.


In 1930 they defined the town with a large, handsome two-story brick school at its south end (near U.S. 2, a recognition of the highway’s importance in getting students to and from Hingham).


The Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church is a modernist landmark, and one of the most architecturally important buildings of the Hi-Line, part of the Great Falls diocese effort to improve and modernize its churches in the mid-20th century.  A much earlier frame Methodist Church remains, and has most recently served as a community chapel.

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The boosters of Gildford also had high hopes in 1910 and the homesteading boom brought a full fledged town into existence by 1915-16.



Image Elevators in 1985

The boom decade is marked by the extant Gildford State Bank (1914), which also served as the town’s post office when I first visited in 1984.  The town also had an early industry, the Mundy Flour Mill.


Kremlin acknowledges its distinct name with its highway town sign.


Settlement began in 1909, with a plat from land agent K.C. Farley, focused on the Great Northern section house, later replaced by a standardized depot, all of which is gone from the railroad corridor today.



The WPA built a new high school in 1938, which remains a central landmark for the community, a symbol of the future, and a good way to end this posting.

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