The Hi-Line’s disappearing railroad depots

Earlier in the summer I discussed the rather shocking (to me at least) discovery that most of the small town railroad depots–most following a standardized design developed by the Great Northern in the early 20th century–were gone, and that seemed like a devastating loss of historic fabric along U.S. highway 2.

Today’s posting looks solely at group of towns west of Havre in Hill County–and provides a 1984 and 2013 comparison.

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Kremlin, 1984 and 2013

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Hingham, 1984 and 2013

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Gildford, 1984 and 2013

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The Rudyard depot was one of my favorite images from 1984, and I used it in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History book a later article on the Great Northern Corridor for Montana: The Magazine of Western History.  Depots served both an aesthetic and purely corporate function for the Great Northern–their standardized design helped to brand the line and helped to define the traveler’s sense of place.  They also served as a corporate outpost–the administrative center–for distance, tiny places, like these towns in Hill County.  The Rudyard community has preserved the depot, moving it several blocks away from the railroad line, but for the other towns a crucial link to the past has been lost.

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Town Signs along U.S. Highway 2 in Hill and Liberty counties

Right now everyone is into Montana’s traveling season with rodeos and fairs in full swing (my old residence of Helena is having Last Chance Stampede this weekend). So I thought that a rather straightforward but fun look at signs along two Hi-Line counties was in order.

Let’s begin with Joplin, in Liberty County. In 1984 it had one of my favorites in the state, a relic of old fashioned early twentieth century boosterism with its motto–“Joplin: Biggest little town on Earth”

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The sign still exists, located north of the highway, closer to the railroad tracks (passengers of the Empire Builder see it daily). Joplin’s highway sign, however, is more modern and sleek–and symbolic with the grain elevator and wheat motifs. This 21st century type of metal, CAD-drawn sign is found all along U.S. 2.

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For instance, Chester, the seat of government for Liberty County, has a newer metal sign, suggesting a bit of streamlined Deco with its quotation of a classic passenger train engine.

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Kremlin, in Hill County, wishes to make clear its allegiances, complete with an American flag.

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Hingham, in Hill County, uses a metal screen to proclaim its existence, along with identifying community landmarks of importance. When compared to the standardized green rectangular state sign, “Entering Hingham,” there can be no doubt why town signs still matter. To officialdom, the small railroad towns are relics, hardly worth a glance, or slowing down. For residents, the signs say: hey we are here; we’re home.

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Rudyard, also in Hill County, is even willing to air its dirty laundry-an admission that in true Montana style, a resident took as the slogan for their business along the town’s main street.

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Let’s end with Hill County’s Gildford–for no particular reason except that this town has a sign always found when bragging rights can be asserted–especially when it involves high school sports. When I come back to this topic in other parts of the state we will see many more examples of signs that not only identify but also celebrate the town’s most precious assets: their high schools.

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Erasing the Great Northern Image across the Hi-Line

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Erasing the Great Northern Image across the Hi-Line

One of the most surprising–for me, even shocking–patterns in the 21st century Hi-Line landscape is how many railroad depots have disappeared from the small towns. Certainly major towns that provide access to the Amtrak passenger service (Havre, Malta, Glasgow, Shelby) still retain their historic buildings. But most others are gone. Certainly the corridor itself remains and the grain elevators still dominate the scene, reminding everyone of the power of agribusiness today, but the stations that told you here is a Great Northern town are not there. The photo is from Rudyard in Hill County where residents took the station, moved it blocks away to the edge of the village, and use it now as a centerpiece for a community museum. In Kevin, Toole County, the depot was moved off the tracks (only slightly, it is still within view of the corridor) and made a Senior center. These places are now rare reminders of the Great Northern’s imprint on the landscape through the means of their standardized design, painted white, passenger stations.