A Return to Fort Peck

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For sheer scale and audacity nothing in Montana built environment rivals the transformations wrought on the Missouri River and the peoples who for centuries had taken nourishment from it than the construction of Fort Peck Dam, spillway, powerhouse, reservoir, and a new federally inspired town from the 1930s to the early 1940s.

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The mammoth size of the entire complex was just as jaw-dropping to me as it had been to the New Dealers and most Americans in the 1930s.  That same spillway, for instance, had been the subject of the famous first cover of Life Magazine by Margaret Bourne-White in 1936.

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When she visited in 1936 the town of Fort Peck housed thousands but once the job was over, the town quickly diminished and when you take an overview of Fort Peck, the town, today it seems like a mere bump in what is otherwise an overpowering engineering achievement.

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Coming from a state that had headquartered another New Deal era transformation of the landscape–the even larger Tennessee Valley Authority project–I understood a good bit of what Fort Peck meant as I started my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.  A good thing I knew a little because outside of a Montana Historic Highway marker and a tour of the power plant there was little in the way of public interpretation at Fort Peck thirty years ago.

IMG_8115First came efforts to better interpret the Corps of Discovery and their travels through this section of the Missouri River 15-20 years ago. The theme was Lewis & Clark in the Missouri River Country, but by the 2010s the region’s demanding weather had taken its toll on the installation.

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IMG_8003At the lake’s edge are additional markers encouraging visitors to imagine the time before the lake when the Big Dry River often meant exactly what it said–the reservoir keeps it full now.

IMG_8024New interpretive markers combine with a well-defined pull-off to encourage travelers to stop and think about the loss of life that occurred in building the dam.  Many of the massive infrastructure projects of the New Deal have similarly sad stories to tell–but few of them do.

IMG_8025You can explore the landscape with the assistance of the highway markers to a far greater degree than in the past.  Even if today it is difficult to “see” the transformation brought about by the massive earthen dam, there are informative markers to help you.

The new visitor center at the Fort Peck powerhouses takes the site’s public interpretation to a new level.  Just reading the landscape is difficult; it is challenging to grasp the fact that tens of

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workers and families were here in the worst of the Great Depression years and it is impossible to imagine this challenging landscape as once lush with thick vegetation and dinosaurs.

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Through fossils, recreations, artwork, historic photographs, recreated buildings, and scores of artifacts, the new interpretive center and museum does its job well.  Not only are the complications of the New Deal project spelled out–perhaps a bit too heavy on that score, I mean where else do you see what the “Alphabet Agencies” actually meant–but you get an understanding of worlds lost in the name of 20th century progress.

Is everything covered?  Far from it–too much in the new public interpretations focuses on 1800 to 1940, and not how Fort Peck has the harbinger of the Cold War-era Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin reject that totally transformed the river and its historic communities.  Nor is there enough exploration into the deep time of the Native Americans and what the transformation of the river and the valley meant and still means to the residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  There’s still work to be done to adequately convey the lasting transformation that came to this section of Montana in the mid-1930s.

Canyon Ferry and the transformation of the Missouri River Valley

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Canyon Ferry Lake is the third largest in Montana.  A good part of it lies just east of Helena, the state capitol, while the bulk of the lake stretches southward into Broadwater County.  Living in Helena during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, and often driving U.S. 287/12 which parallels the lake, you would think that the lake and its history would have played a major role in that initial plan.  Such was not the case–rarely did I or anyone else give it much of a thought.  Canyon Ferry Lake in 1984 was just 30 years old–it was not “historic.”

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But its historic impact can’t be ignored.  As part of the massive federal plan to conquer the Missouri River, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act of 1944 was justified by wartime conditions–it would create new sources of hydroelectric power–but actual construction did not get underway until the later 1940s and 1950s.  Historians have studied the act’s disastrous impact on Native American tribal lands in the west, and the environmental consequences of building some 50 dams on the Missouri and its various tributaries.

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For Lewis and Clark County and Broadwater County, you can see the relationship between the dammed Missouri and irrigation, as shown above along Montana Highway 284, and you can find remnants of how the project displaced towns, landmarks, and people along the length of the river. No longer was the Missouri the river that the Corps of Discovery had traversed at the beginning of the 19th century.

Broadwater Co MT 284 St Joseph Catholic NR 1St. Joseph Catholic Church, perched now on a barren bluff facing the lake, was moved about 2.5 miles east to its present location in 1954.  Originally near the river in what was then known as the Canton Valley settlement, the church building is one of the state’s oldest, dating to 1874-1875 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The proud Gothic styled church is the remnant of one of the valley’s earliest settlements.

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Not far from the church is another remnant of the early 20th century settlement boom during the early 20th century homesteading era after the creation of the county in 1897.  Located along Montana Highway 284 this one-room school is typical of the type found throughout the state from 100 years ago, as adaptive by communities and school boards with the small gable-end extension creating storage space and a barrier between the cold winds of the outside and the inside of the classroom itself.

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These vernacular buildings and landscapes compare starkly with what the U.S. Corps of Engineers built at Canyon Ferry in the 1950s.  It is a Colonial Revival styled federal village–an architectural choice wildly out of step with regional traditions, and a reminder to anyone that here was the federal government, in the midst of the Cold War, placing its imprint on the land.

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In 1984-1985 I ignored this new public landscape of a school, administrative building, work buildings, and village.  Thirty years later, of course I see Canyon Ferry as a very distinct historic district, symbolic of the entire Pick-Sloan project and a significant example of an architectural aesthetic from the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

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The Canyon Ferry headquarters of the mid-1950s is not listed in the National Register but it could be–an evocative grouping of buildings that helps to document that 60 years we were assured and more than a bit arrogant in our power and mastery of technology.  We were convinced hat as we controlled the world, we could also control nature.

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Fracking Roosevelt County: The Boom Seeps into the Montana Hi-Line

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The 21st century boom in the Williston Basin has significantly reshaped western North Dakota, and as that region “fills up,” the boom has spread into far eastern Montana, especially along the Hi-Line corridor of U.S. Highway 2 and the historic Great Northern Railway. The photo above is along U.S. 2 on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bainville, the first place of any size you encounter as you travel west along the highway, or railroad, into Roosevelt County.
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When I visited Bainville in early 1984 I recorded a town in decline. True, its 1950s modernist passenger depot was still there, but there had been a steady drop in population for decades. Thirty years later, the remnants of that decline were still there: abandoned brick neoclassical-styled bank; an elevator complex on the verge of collapse.
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But signs of new growth were there as well in 2013. The recently expanded public school was one thing while the large man camp then under construction just east of the town was another–and a project that really concerned local residents since the camp’s population would be larger than the town itself.
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The next town west on the Hi-Line is Culbertson, where the impact of the Williston Basin was even more noticeable. A modern school complex had replaced one that dated to the New Deal. Indeed the New Deal’s once profound impact on Culbertson–a public office building and armory–had been eclipsed not only by the modern school but also a new county office building all shiny and bright.
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The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

New county office building in Culbertson

New county office building in Culbertson


The man camps were already taking available land, even becoming a village in itself between the town’s historic cemetery and the railroad tracks. To capture the burial site of Civil War veteran Marcus A. Denney of the 6th Minnesota Infantry in the foreground and the man camp in the background by the elevators creates a snapshot, literally, of the periods of change in Culbertson over 150 years.
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Truckers and workers flying along U.S. Highway 2 in past decades would have spied the metal sculptures of Lewis and Clark near the local museum–but these iconic figures are no longer what immediately captures your eyes as you speed along the corridor.
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What you notice is everyone lined up for that human fuel that powers the commute between man camp and tracking well: the Frackin’ Java coffee stand. A true sign of the times along the eastern gateway of U.S. 2 in Montana.
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Cut Bank’s Public Art

No doubt readers may doubt that public art and Cut Bank are used in the same sentence, but the use of historical murals to enliven the town’s historic commercial core was the biggest change I experienced from visiting Cut Bank in 1984 and 2015.

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This welcome sign on U.S. Highway 2 in 1984 touted the oil boom that so re-shaped the town and Glacier County generally in the second half of the twentieth century.  Then the town’s penguin, a roadside landmark on U.S. 2,  accepted the commonly heard observation that Cut Bank was the coldest place in all of Montana–its World War II air base always was reporting weather conditions, ensuring that many Americans equated Cut Bank with frozen temps.

2011-mt-glacier-county-cut-bank-028I am speaking instead of the wide range of images and themes that visually interpret the town’s and county’s history. Finding public art murals about the open landscape once dominated by the Blackfeet Indians and the buffalo is not surprising–communities often embrace the deep history of their land.

Glacier Co Cut Bank buffalo and indians mural ruralThat Cut Bank also has a large expressive mural about the Lewis and Clark Expedition is not surprising–murals about Lewis and Clark were installed across several towns during the bicentennial of the expedition in the first decade of this century. East of Cut Bank is Camp Disappointment, one of the more important sites associated with the Corps of Discovery.

Glacier Co Cut Bank L&C muralNor is it surprising to see communities commemorate their homesteading roots, and the importance of agriculture and cattle ranching.

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Glacier Co Cut Bank cowboys murals 3But I was surprised, pleasantly, by the number of murals that also documented the town’s twentieth century history, whether it is the magnificent steel trestle of the Great Northern Railway just west of the commercial core, or a mural that reminded everyone of the days when the railroad dominated all traffic here.

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The actual trestle along U.S. Highway 2.

img_9162It is this first half of the 20th century feel that the murals interpret–the era that actually built most of the historic buildings you find there today–that I find so impressive and memorable about Cut Bank, be it people on bicycles or what an old service station was like.

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img_9173Space matters when you interpret the built environment, and these various murals reflect not only a sense of town pride and identity they also give meaning to buildings and stories long forgotten.

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Travelers Rest: New State Park Jewel in Missoula County

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One of the most significant developments in Montana historic preservation has been the verified location of “Travelers Rest,” outside of Lolo in Missoula County.  Here is where the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along Lolo Creek in 1805. During my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, we agreed on the general location–the property had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark for years.  In fact, as indicated in the marker above, the Daughters of the American Revolution had also marked the place as early as 1925.  But one was convinced that the campsite had been definitely located. Not until archaeology in 2002 had the actual campsite been proven, and by the time I visited Missoula County in 2006 I happened to arrive on the day a celebration for the new Travelers Rest State Park was underway. The park was not yet finished but the Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association wanted to host an event during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial period.  It was exciting to see the launch of this new, important historic site not only for Missoula County but the state and nation as a whole.

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Move forward almost ten years to the completed Travelers Rest State Park.  It is one of the best interpreted sites along the entire length of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It doesn’t have grand monuments–but it does have a walking trail that gives you different vantage points on the camp site.  Although not far from U. S. Highway 12, it is quiet, peaceful, and you can imagine what the expedition members thought about this landscape some 200 years ago.

The interpretive markers do not overwhelm the site.  But by text and illustration, along with use of primary documents, the markers tell an inclusive story, one that draws you into the landscape by reminding you that generations of Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Nez Perce people used these resources long before Lewis and Clark arrived in the fall 1805.

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IMG_2159Since I last visited in 2012 efforts have been underway to secure additional acres and to preserve a buffer around the property since growth and highway expansion between Missoula and Stevensville has engulfed Lolo.  The park now has 51 acres and represents quite an achievement by the non-profit Travelers Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, local government, and Montana State Parks.

Rural to Industrial Landscapes in Missoula County

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Montana Highway 200 follows the Blackfoot River as it enters Missoula County from the east.  At first you think here is another rural mountain county in Montana, one still defined by community schools like the turn of the century one at Potomac above, and by community halls like the Potomac/Greenough Hall, which also serves as the local Grange meeting place.

Missoula Co Potomac Community Hall New Deal?It is a land watered by the river, framed by the mountains, and famous for its beef–which they even brag about at the crossroads of Montana Highways 200 and 83.

Missoula Co MT 200/83 jct roadside  1But soon after passing the junction, you enter a much different landscape, particularly at the point where the Blackfoot River meets the Clark’s Fork River.  This is an industrial world, defined by the company town design of Bonner and the active transportation crossroads at Milltown.  Suddenly you shift from an agricultural landscape into the timber industry, which has long played a major role in the history of Missoula and northwest Montana.

IMG_8005In 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad was approaching the river confluence.  It contracted with a company led by E. L. Bonner, Andrew Hammond, and Richard Eddy to supply everything the railroad needed but steel as it passed through the region.  Two years later the railroad provided the capital for Bonner, Hammond, Eddy, and M.J. Connell to establish the Montana Improvement Company.  In c. 1886 the improvement company dammed the rivers and built a permanent sawmill–the largest in the northern Rockies, and created the town of Bonner.  The sawmill works and town would later become the Blackfoot Milling and Manufacturing Company and eventually by the late 1890s it was under the control of Marcus Daly and his Anaconda Copper Company.  Anaconda ran Bonner as a company town until the 1970s.

Missoula Co Bonner 8Although buildings have been lost in the last 30 years, especially at the sawmill complex which had a disastrous fire in 2008 and a heavy snow damaged another historic structure in 2011, I found Bonner in 2014 to remain a captivating place, and one of the best extant company towns left in Montana.

Missoula Co Milltown MT 200 bridgeMontana Highway 200 passes through the heart of Bonner while Interstate I-90 took a good bit of Milltown when it was constructed in the 1970s.  Both Bonner and Milltown are heavily influenced by transportation and bridges needed to cross the Blackfoot and Clark’s Fork rivers.

IMG_7320The Milltown Bridge has been restored as a pedestrian walkway over the Blackfoot River.  It is the best place to survey the Blackfoot Valley and the old sawmill complex.

Missoula Co Milltown wildflowers at bridge 5The pedestrian bridge and heritage trail serve as a focal point for public interpretation, for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Mullan Road, and then the lumber industry, which all passed this way over time, a conjunction of rivers and history that lie at the heart of the local and state (Milltown State Park) effort to interpret this important place.

The industrial company town of Bonner is a fascinating place to visit.  On the south side side is company housing, a company store (now a museum and post office), and then other community institutions such as the Bonner School, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and Lutheran Church.

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Bonner Museum and Post Office

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St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Bonner.

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Our Savior Lutheran Church, Bonner.

The north side of Montana 200 has a rich array of standardized designed industrial houses, ranging from unadorned cottages to large bungalows for company administrators, all set within a landscape canopy of large trees and open green space. The mill closed in the first decade of the 21st century but the town remains and the condition of both dwellings and green space is ample testimony to the pride of place still found in Bonner.

Milltown is not as intact as Bonner.  One major change came in 1907-1908 when the Milwaukee Road built through here and then in the 1920s came U.S. Highway 10. A huge swath of Milltown was cut away when Interstate highway I-90 was built 50 years later, and once the mill closed, the remaining commercial buildings have fought to remain in business, except for that that cater to travelers at the interstate exit.

One surviving institution is Harold’s Club, which stands on the opposite side of the railroad tracks. Here is your classic early 20th century roadhouse, where you could “dine, drink, and dance” the night away after a hard day at the mills.

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The closing of the mills changed life in Bonner and Milltown but it did not end it. Far from it.  I found the residents proud of their past and determined to build a future out of a landscape marked by failed dams, fires, corporate abandonment, and shifting global markets.

 

 

On to Ravalli County via US 93

IMG_2882When most people think of Ravalli County they think of the ever suburbanizing northern half, as you take U.S. Highway 93 south–a four lane highway–from Missoula and encounter the new suburbs of Florence.  But if you use U.S. Highway 93 from the southern end, you find a very different place, one that starts with Ross’ Hole.

IMG_2887There are few more beautiful places in the state, even on this cloudy day in 2012, the hole beckoned, as it has for centuries.  In western American history, its importance has multiple layers, from ancient Native American uses to the peaceful encounter between Flathead Indians and the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.  Without the horses the expedition acquired from the Flathead, its journey would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

ross holeMontana “cowboy” artist Charles M. Russell painted the scene as a prominent historical mural in the House of Representatives chamber at the Montana State Capitol in 1912. His composition, as I used to like to point out when I gave state capitol tours in 1982, emphasized the centrality of the Native Americans in the region–the expedition were minor characters, in the background of the painting’s right side.  The place name Ross’s Hole refers to Hudson Bay Company trader Alexander Ross who traded there in 1824.  Hole was a trader and trapper term for mountain valley.

Ravalli Co Ross Hole interpretation, US 93, SulaAt the time of the 1984 survey, Ross’ Hole was interpreted by this single wooden sign, now much worse for the wear of the decades.  But like many important landscapes in the state, today you find a rather full public interpretation in a series of markers sponsored by the Montana Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Sula is the primary “town” of Ross’ Hole, and its 20th century settlement history is chartered by two community institutions.  A local grass-roots preservation group has done a great job of restoration of the historic school building–a one-room frame building that fits into its rural surroundings brilliantly.

The Sula Community Club dates to 1915, although its clubhouse is a more recent building of rustic log style–while the nearby Sula Post Office is a more contemporary, bland take on “rustic”style.

Nearby all three of the buildings is a historic beaver slide hay stacker, another reminder of the early 20th century ranches that represented a new era in the hole’s history.

IMG_2881Any trip to Ross’ Hole would not be complete with a stop, however brief, at the roadside architecture-a log bungalow–home to the Sula Community Store, which can basically provide you with about anything you might need while traveling on U.S. Highway 93.

 

 

 

Ravalli County Sula country store, US 93And the coffee is always hot, and strong.