Flathead County’s Gateway Communities to Glacier

Flathead Co Columbia Falls mural

U.S. Highway 2 east of Kalispell has grown into a four-lane highway (mostly–topography thus far has kept it as a two-lane stretch west of Hungry Horse) designed to move travelers back and forth from Kalispell to Glacier National Park.  In my 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work, I thought of Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Martin

Flathead Co Hungry Horse HuckleberryCity as one large tourism funnel.  After spending a good part of 2006-2007 working with local residents and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about the heritage and preservation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–one of the most notorious gateways into any national park–I learned to look deeper than the highway landscape and find some real jewels in each of these Glacier National Park gateway communities.

There is much more than the highway to Columbia Falls, as the three building blocks above indicate, not to mention the lead image of this blog, the town’s Masonic Lodge which has been turned into one huge public art mural about the town’s history as well as its surrounding landscape.  Go to the red brick Bandit’s Bar above, and you soon discover that Columbia Falls has a good sense of itself, and even confidence that it can survive new challenges as its population has soared by over 2,000 residents since the 1980s, totaling over 5,000 today.

Once solely dependent on the Montana Veterans’ Home (1896), which is now a historic district, and then relying on the Weyerhaeuser sawmill for year round employment, Columbia Falls faces a different future now once the mill closed in the summer of 2016, taking away 200 jobs. As the historic business buildings above indicate, historic preservation could be part of that future, as the downtown’s mix of classic Western Commercial blocks mesh with modern takes on Rustic and Contemporary design and are complemented, in turn, by historic churches and the Art Deco-influenced school.

Once you leave the highway, in other words, real jewels of turn of the 20th century to mid-20th century design are in the offing.  In 1984–I never looked that deep.

Flathead Co Hungry Horse 1At Hungry Horse, however, I did leave the highway and explored the marvelous landscape created by the Hungry Horse Dam and Reservoir, a mid-20th century project by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The agency justified the dam as a hydroelectric power project for a growing Flathead County and as a boost to local irrigation.  The irrigation side of the project–the real reason the agency exists–never happened and Hungry Horse today is an electric power and recreational project.

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Flathead Co Hungry Horse Dam 10I appreciated the vastness of the concrete arch dam–the 11th largest concrete dam in the United States–as well as the beauty of Hungry Horse Reservoir, an under-appreciated tourism asset as anyone in Flathead County will tell you.  But again, I let just the size and impact of the dam distract me from some of the details of its construction that, today, are so striking.

Here I am thinking primarily of the contemporary design of the Visitors Center–its stone facade suggesting its connection to the now covered river bluffs but the openness of its interior conveying the ideas of space associated with 1950s design.

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img_8779I am concerned, however, about news in September 2015 that Reclamation has contracted for updates and renovation at the Visitor Center–let’s hope that the classic 1950s look of the property is not sacrificed.

Flathead Co Martin City

 

Martin City is just enough off of U.S. Highway 2–it is situated more on the historic Great Northern Railroad corridor–to miss out on the gateway boom of the last 30 years, although with both the Southfork Saloon and the Deer Lick Saloon it retains its old reputation as a rough-edged place for locals.

For railroad travelers in the first half of the 20th century, West Glacier was THE west gateway into Glacier National Park.  The Great Northern Railway developed both the classic Rustic-styled passenger station and the adjacent Arts and Crafts/Chalet styled Belton Chalet Hotel in 1909-1910, a year before Congress created Glacier National Park.

img_8785Architect Kirtland Cutter of Spokane was the architect and the chalet design was actually just a smaller scale and less adorned version of the Idaho State Exhibition Building that he had designed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Cutter is one of the major figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Northwest and we will look at another of his buildings for the railroad and Glacier in the next post about Lake McDonald Lodge.

The Cutter buildings for the railroad between 1909-1913 set a design standard for West Glacier to follow, be it through a modern-day visitor center and a post office to the earlier mid-20th century era of the local school and then gas stations and general stores for tourists entering the national park by automobile.

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This blog has never hidden the fact, however, that my favorite Glacier gateway in Flathead County is miles to the east along U.S. Highway 2 at the old railroad town of Essex, where the railroad still maintains facilities to help push freight trains over the Continental Divide.  The Izaak Walton Inn was one of the first National Register assignments given to

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me by State Historic Preservation Officer Marcella Sherfy–find the facts, she asked, to show that this three story bunk house, railroad offices, and local post merited exceptional significance for the National Register.  Luckily I did find those facts and shaped that argument–the owners then converted a forgotten building into a memorable historical experience. Rarely do I miss a chance to spend even a few minutes here, to watch and hear the noise of the passing trains coming from the east or from the west and to catch a sunset high in the mountains of Flathead County.

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Billings: heart of the Midland Empire

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The irrigation ditch at Hesper Ranch, where the irrigated empire of eastern Montana began in the late 19th century.

Billings, due to a young energetic staff at the city’s major history museum, the Western Heritage Center, gave me my first opportunities to learn and embrace the amazing landscape of Montana.  In 1982 the museum was finding its way; it was not the community institution that it has become some 30 plus years later.  Board members in 1982 were

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Western Heritage Center (the historic Parmly Billings Library), Billings, in 2006

interested in possibly recreating the old river village of Coulson, of which not a trace was left.  I explored the issue, recommended no, and then suggested that actually the founding and development of the town was a fascinating story–with a cast of characters.  Well, only a few people (Lynda Moss the education director then and David Carroll the exhibit curator) were fascinated with what I found, but I was a convert, and ever since I have been exploring the Midland Empire of Billings and Yellowstone County.

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The Big Ditch, at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings)

Irrigation, those man-made slivers of life that slice through eastern Montana, was one important key to the story.  When Frederick Billings, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, helped to established the “town on paper” called Billings in 1882, he soon discovered that while there was coal in the Bull Mountains to the north there was little land worth his salt for agricultural development, and Billings was nothing if not an energetic, progressive farmer back at his home in Vermont.

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The city’s centennial statue of Frederick Billings, which stood by a parking garage when I began my Billings history work in the 1980s. Due to the good efforts of Lynda Moss and others, it was appropriately moved to the grounds of the historic Parmly Billings Library (Western Heritage Center) over a decade later.

He counted on Benjamin Shuart, the local Congregational minister (who was supported by his wife Julia Billings) to be his man on the ground, checking into the agricultural potential.  Everyone understood that only water would make the ground bloom, so the construction of the Big Ditch began.  It ran through Shuart’s property he managed for the Billings family,

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

known as Hesper Farm.  When Billings lost faith in Shuart, and his own son Parmly unexpectedly passed away, Billings turned to one of his son’s workers, and friends, I. D. O’Donnell, to make his land valuable and to give life to the town that was named for him.  O’Donnell, self taught in the value of land, irrigation engineering, and the possible miracle crop of sugar beets, became the Oracle of Irrigation for not only the Yellowstone Valley but for all of the northern plains.

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O’Donnell expanded the ranch at Hesper Farm and turned into a private demonstration farm for the entire region, a place of beautiful cottonwood trees and modern barns.

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His enthusiasm and connections attracted other investors, and soon caught the attention of the new U.S. Reclamation Service, which made the Huntley Project its second one across the West.  Amazingly the very simple farm-vernacular building that housed the project’s office at Ballatine still stands, a little building that really conveys a huge story of a federal program that transformed a region.

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IMG_1295O’Donnell’s empire depended on others for capital, none no more so dependable that Preston Moss.  Moss also looked to the Midland Empire, and built his grand mansion in pursuit of that dream.  The Moss Mansion became a house museum in 1983.

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Not far away I. D. O’Donnell also had his town house, on a more modest scale but grand as far as many homes in the “new” Billings.  This Queen Anne house, like the Moss Mansion, were listed in the National Register in the 1980s, and the Moss-O’Donnell story

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became better known.  And the legacies extend to places not often thought historic.  That place would be the Billings Sugar Factory, a huge sprawling complex of where town meets farm, ironically located about halfway between downtown Billings and the old Yellowstone River townsite of Coulson.  Sugar beets made the valley bloom, and the landscape still shows those marks today.

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The Lower Yellowstone Project

Irrigation ditch at Intake, MT

Irrigation ditch at Intake, MT


Established by the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the U.S. Reclamation Service moved early to transform the northern plains of Montana. The Lower Yelllowstone Project dates to 1904-1905, and the diversion dam and ditch established at Intake, north of Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, is the best single place to see the engineered landscape of the U.S. Reclamation Service.
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The dam, shown above, diverts water from the Yellowstone River into the big ditch, see below, which in turns waters thousands of acres of ranches in Dawson and Richland counties.
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Intake itself was initially a town of promise, as the two historic elevators suggest, but the spur line built from the Northern Pacific Railway at Glendive north to Sidney. But there is nothing left there now but the recreation area on the Yellowstone River.
Intake elevators

Intake elevators

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A much more successful story happened to the north at the town of Savage in Richland County. Here you cannot escape the ditch as it winds through the town. But residents also have established their own local museum about their community and the irrigation project, centered on the historic Breezy Flats school.
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Savage still has its high school, built by the New Deal in Art Deco style in the late 1930s, and new churches speak to recent growth. Like other Richland County towns, rapid growth as exploration of the Williston Basin could transform this little town that the railroad and federal irrigation projects built. That time has not arrived here yet–but at Sidney the county seat, the transformation is well underway. That story is next.
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Football field at Savage

Football field at Savage