To the Blackfoot River and Ovando

Abandoned farm landscape, s MT 141, Powell CoMontana Highway 141 cuts north from Avon On U. S. Highway 12 to halfway between the towns of Ovando and Lincoln on Montana Highway 200.  Its is high mountains prairie travel at its best, although the height of ranching along this route disappeared a while back. About 12-13 miles north of Avon you cross into the Nevada Creek drainage, which has long watered the land, enhanced after the New Deal added the Nevada Creek earthen dam that created Nevada Creek Reservoir in 1938.

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Nevada Creek Dam Spillway.

Nevada Creek Reservoir, N, irrigation, MT 141, Powell CoAlong the east banks of the lake are remnants of the Fitzgerald Ranch, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I highlighted the property in my book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986). Jimmy Isbel established the property in 1872,

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Fitzgerald Ranch facing Nevada Creek Reservoir.

building a log cabin.  But he did little to develop it and c. 1885 he sold it to J.F. Fitzpatrick.  His family patented his homesteading claim in 1890 and in the next decade, they built a two-story log home, a wooden-frame barn, and other outbuildings before adding a Queen Anne-influenced frame wing to the house, totally transforming the look of the ranch.

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 1Thirty years ago, this significant collection of vernacular buildings were in good condition, but the years since have been hard on the property, and the complex now needs serious preservation attention. The loss of the roof on the log barn, and the general poor condition of the roofs of the outbuildings are major concerns.

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Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 2

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 3 log

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 4 logBetween the Fitzgerald Ranch and Helmville is the Barger Ranch, also from the late 19th century judging from the more polished example of Queen Anne style in the ranch house. It is living proof that not all of the Nevada Creek ranches have passed away.  The Nevada Creek Water Users Association at Helmville still operates to distribute the invaluable water from the reservoir.  Barger Ranch, 18565 MT 271, s of Helmville, Powell CoHelmville was another topic in my 1986 book.  Throughout the Nevada Creek drainage, you could help but be impressed with the log construction, and the various types of notching used for the buildings.  Helmville had a particular interesting grouping of wood frame and log buildings, which were highlighted by a 1984 photograph in the book. That exact view could not be replicated 30 years later but several of the old buildings still stood.

Helmville, Powell Co (p84 62-15)

MT 271 log buildings, Helmville, Powell CoHelmville has a good bit of continuity.  Along with the row of buildings on Montana 271 there is a turn of the 20th century gable-front cottage and a two-story lodge building that has been turned into a garage.

There was also a good bit of change: new post office and community center, new Catholic church building, and the school has been significantly expanded, although someone thought enough of the past to keep the old historic school bell cupola.

Helmville had changed little, however, compared to Ovando, the next village to the northwest.  Ovando is on Montana Highway 200, north of the Nevada Creek drainage, past the 1960s era Blackfoot Waterfowl Production Area, and along the Blackfoot River.

IMG_2250Trixie’s was the same fun dive that I always recalled, but the village’s historic buildings had been restored, looking good.  Business appeared to be brisk. A new community church has been opened, and a major interpretive place for the “Lewis Minus Clark” expedition had been installed. Kudos to both the U.S. Forest Service and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for allowing a bit of humor in this marker.

Ovando market and gas, Powell Co

Ovando store, Stay Bullet, Powell Co

IMG_2235Ovando school, Powell CoThe school had also expanded from its New Deal core of the 1930s, courtesy of the Works Progress Administration. But the most noticeable change was the town’s street signs–first the fact that a small place had street signs but then the nostalgic backpacker theme of these cast iron marvels.

IMG_2241Ovando is a good location on the Blackfoot River for sportsmen, anglers, and hikers headed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness–its recent change demonstrates the influence on those groups on the 21st century Montana landscape.Ovando highway sign, MT 200, Powell Co

 

 

 

Country Towns of Beaverhead County, Part One

Monida from MT 508, 2

Monida, at the Idaho-Montana border, on Interstate I-15.

Country towns of Beaverhead County–wait,  you cry out: isn’t every town in Beaverhead County a country town?  Well yes, since Dillon, the county seat, has a single stop light, you can say that.  But Dillon is very much an urban oasis compared to the county’s tiny villages and towns scattered all about Beaverhead’s 5,572 square miles, making it the largest county in Montana.

IMG_3387Let’s start this theme with the railroad/ federal highway towns.  Monida, at the state border with Idaho, is a good place to start, first established as a place on the Utah and Northern Railroad line as it moved north toward the mines at Butte in 1881.  Monica had a second life as a highway stop on the old U.S. Highway 91 that paralleled the tracks, as evident in the old garages left behind.

The next town north on the corridor created by the railroad/highway/interstate is Lima, IMG_3369which possesses a Montana welcome center and rest stop.  That’s important because at this stop you also can find one of the state’s mid-20th century examples of a tourist welcome center, which has been moved to this stop and then interpreted as part of the state’s evolving roadside architecture.

Lima is a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, the plan favored by the engineers of the Utah and Northern as the railroad moved into Montana.  The west side of the tracks, where the two-lane U.S. Highway 91 passed, was the primary commercial district, with several brick and frame two-story buildings ranging from the 1880s to the 1910s.

Lima west of tracks Peat Hotel and bar

Lima west of tracks 2 Peat Hotel and bar

The east side, opposite old U.S. Highway 91, was a secondary area; the Lima Historical Society is trying to keep an old 1880s building intact for the 21st century.

The town’s comparative vitality is shown by its metal Butler Building-like municipal building, and historic churches, ranging from a early 20th century shingle style to a 1960s contemporary style Gothic church of the Latter Day Saints.

The town’s pride naturally is its school, which developed from the early 20th century two-story brick schoolhouse to become the town’s center of community.

Lima school

Eight miles to the north is a very different historic schoolhouse, the one-story brick Dell school (1903), which had been converted into a wonderful cafe when I stopped in 1984.  It is still a great place–if you don’t stop here for pie or a caramel roll (or both), you goofed.

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The Calf-A is not the only place worth a look at Dell, a tiny railroad town along the historic Utah and Northern line, with the Tendroy Mountains in the background.  Dell still has its UPRR line at Dell

post office, within its one store, its community hall, and a good steakhouse dive, the false-front Stockyard Inn.  But most importantly, for an understanding of the impact of World

War II on Montana, Dell has an air-strip, which still contains its 1940s B-17 Radar base, complete with storehouse–marked by the orange band around the building–and radar tower.  Kate Hampton of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office in 2012 told me to be of the lookout for these properties.  Once found throughout Montana, and part of the guidance system sending planes northward, many have disappeared over the years.  Let’s hope the installation at Dell remains for sometime to come.

B-17 base landscape, Dell

There are no more towns between Dell and Dillon but about halfway there is the Clark Canyon Reservoir, part of the reshaping of the northwest landscape by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960s.  The bureau in 1961-1964 built the earthen dam and created the

reservoir, which inundated the small railroad town of Armstead, and led to the re-routing of U.S. Highway 91 (now incorporated into the interstate at this point).

Clark Canyon Reservoir, reclamationThe reclamation project, which stored water for irrigation, also covered the site of Camp Fortunate, a very important place within the larger narrative of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its relationships and negotiations with the Shoshone Indians.  An early

 

effort to mark and interpret the site came from the Daughters of the American Revolution, who not surprisingly focused on the Sacajawea story.  Reclamation officials added other markers after the construction of the dam and reservoir.

In this century the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail has added yet another layer of public interpretation in its attempt to tell the whole story of the expedition and its complicated relations with the Native Americans of the region.

North of Dillon along the old route of U.S. Highway 91 and overlooking the corridor of the Utah and Northern Railroad is another significant Lewis and Clark site, known as Clark’s Lookout, which was opened to the public during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial of the early 21st century.

The lookout is one of the exciting historic sites that have been established in Montana in the 30 years since my initial survey for the state historic preservation plan.  Not only does the property interpret an important moment in the expedition’s history–from this vantage point William Clark tried to understand the countryside before him and the best direction to take–it also allows visitors to literally walk in his footsteps and imagine the same perspective.

Of course what Clark viewed, and what you might see, are vastly different–the tracks of the Utah and Northern, then route of old U.S. 91 are right up front, while the town of Dillon creeps northward toward the lookout.

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Our last stop for part one of Beaverhead’s country towns is Glen, a village best accessed by old U. S. Highway 91.  A tiny post office marks the old town. Not far away are two historic IMG_3164

North of Glen you cross the river along old U.S. Highway 91 and encounter a great steel tress bridge, a reminder of the nature of travel along the federal highways of the mid-20th century.

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Madison County: Much More Than Ghost Towns

In my 1984-1985 work on the state historic preservation plan, the working assumption was that Madison County was, well, good.  Tons of attention since the 1930s had been showered on the mining towns of Virginia City and Nevada City.  The former was recognized as a National Historic Landmark; if one back then thought of rural counties where preservation was valued and key resources identified, then Madison County was the place.

Dance & Stuart Store W Side of Wallace VA City, MT

Virginia City, 1984

I came to appreciate that Madison County is much more than ghost towns, and that appreciation has grown in the decades since.  It is a rich agricultural landscape, what I like to call a working landscape where ranching still matters, a lot.  Here the past blends with the present in interesting and challenging ways, thus several blogs will explore the historical landscapes of Madison County, from the territorial era to today.

Silver Star from Jefferson River  Montana Highway 41 and the western side of the county is where I start, with the town of Silver Star, nestled between a spur line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Highway 41, and Jefferson River.  Gold was discovered nearby in 1866 and the town is named for a mine, but growth came more from transportation, with Silver Star serving as an early transportation stop between Virginia City and Helena in the 1870s. Today the place is best known for a privately held massive collection of mining machines, tools, and artifacts established by Lloyd Harkins, and for its rural post office that is nestled within the town’s general store.

South of Silver Star along MT Highway 41 is frankly a spectacular rural landscape, with the Jefferson River and the Tobacco Root Mountains providing most of the backdrop.  The river

IMG_0301valley and its irrigation systems helped to produce one of the most famous barns in the state:  the Round Barn, just north of Twin Bridges. In 1882 Noah Armstrong, who had made a fortune in mining, built the barn as part of his Doncaster Stable and Stud Farm.  In 1933

IMG_0297the Bayers family acquired the barn and incorporated it into their cattle business.  When I visited in 1912 the barn was still an agricultural structure, with its wedding cake shape casting a distinct profile on the landscape. In 2015, the barn was restored to a new use: as a wedding and event reception space.

This section of Montana 41 also followed a route traveled by the Lewis and Clark expedition in August 1805.  Today, like most of the trail throughout the state, there is much more public interpretation than in the 1980s. The marker below on Montana 41 explains the expedition’s confusion over the junction of the Big Hole and Jefferson rivers; in Twin Bridges there is an outdoor interpretive area at the county fairgrounds that commemorates the expedition, especially the role of Sacajawea.

 

The real jewels at the Madison County Fairgrounds are the historic buildings themselves–a wonderful set of New Deal-era public buildings crafted by the Works Progress Administration in the mid-1930s. An earlier post reviewed the fairgrounds history, noting that “‘WPA engineer C. D. Paxton drew the plans and Tosten Stenberg, well known for his log structures in Yellowstone Park, directed construction. Local foreman Fred Sommers was brought out of retirement with a special waiver from Washington to supervise the project. Lodgepole pine, fir logs, and other building materials were gathered locally and prepared by workers on site.'”

Madison County fair exterior

Madison County Fair roofThe result is spectacular, and with their restoration in the last 30 years, the buildings are not just landmarks but busy throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

Roof interior, Madison Co fairgrounds

 

Twin Bridges is also more than the fairgrounds.  When I visited for the first time in almost 30 years in 2012, the entire business district has getting an infrastructure facelift.  The construction did not diminish my appreciation for the range of historic commercial

buildings along the highway.  Most worthy of note is the late Victorian-styled Reid Block of 1917, the construction of which coincided with the homesteading boom in this part of the county.  The Reid Block is now home to the Twin Bridges Historical Association.

IMG_0260The Old Hotel, a brick two-story gable-front building, also marks the town’s ascent during the early 20th century when the town achieved its highest population, about 750 in 1920.  Today about half of that number call Twin Bridges home.

IMG_0256My personal favorite, and a frequent stop during the 1980s, is the Blue Anchor Bar, nestled on the first floor, with an Art Deco style redesign, in a two-story commercial block.

IMG_0257Twin Bridges is a very important river junction, thus the name, where the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Ruby rivers all meet to form the Jefferson River.  A public park near the confluence just south of the Montana 41/287 helps to tell that story. Nearby is the Twin Bridges School and its amazing modernist styled gymnasium.

Twin Bridges school

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Twin Bridges School is award winning and clearly the pride of every resident. Another part of Montana’s history of childhood education is also at Twin Bridges, the Montana State Orphanage later known as the State Home for Children.  The Queen Anne-style orphanage

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dates to 1894–it was known as “The Castle” and is listed in the National Register– and as the decades passed the state enlarged the facility and added modern-styled facilities to the complex.  The state closed the orphanage in 1975.  Ever since that time, preservationists statewide and residents locally have tried to come up with an adaptive reuse plan that could put the buildings back in service.

For a brief history of the orphanage, visit the blog post “There’s No Place like Home: The Role of the Montana State Orphanage” on the montanawomenshistory.org blog.  It features historic photographs of the orphanage.  In 2010 the Bozeman Daily Chronicle featured the deteriorating campus in a news feature, wondering when and if preservation and adaptive reuse would happen.  That question remains today.

 

 

Montana’s Three Forks: Crossroads of Rivers and Rails

 

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The Missouri River headwaters, located just north of the town of Three Forks, is one of the most important places in all of the United States.  Here, within the boundaries of a state park that has improved its public interpretation significantly in the last 30 years, was one of the primary goals that President Thomas Jefferson gave the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803–to find the headwaters of the Missouri River.  When the expedition

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traversed this land in 1805, they followed the footsteps of Bannock, Shoshoni, and Flathead Indians who had found this place and hunted the abundant game along the rivers long before the “explorers” arrived.  Nevertheless, it was the Corps of Discovery that named the place.  They found three sources–that they named the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin after the president and two of his cabinet officers–creating the Missouri River.

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While fur trappers such as John Colter, who was an expedition member, soon returned to this site, and in the 1860s the settlement of Gallatin City was established, but only the

historic log Gallatin City Hotel of 1868 remains to mark a place where early Montana settlers thought an important town along the rivers would develop.

Gallatin Co Missouri Headwaters 11

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Recreational and interpretive features are now much more plentiful than 30 years ago but the park still exudes that feeling of openness and wildness that attracted that only the

Native Americans but later waves of 19th century trappers and settlers.  It is a very special place within Montana and certainly earns its National Historic Landmark designation many times over.

IMG_6668As you leave the Missouri Headwaters State Park access road (Montana 286) and return south to old U.S. Highway 10, you encounter a plaintive sign hoping to attract the thousands of heritage tourists who come to the state park–go a bit farther south and west and find the town of Three Forks.

IMG_6711The story of Three Forks, on the western edge of Gallatin County, is not of rivers but of railroads, of how both the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road corridors shaped this part of the state at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

Gallatin Co Three Forks Sacajawea Hotel

The Milwaukee Road came first, with Milwaukee Land Company agent John Q. Adams establishing the townsite in 1908, and later contributing its first landmark building, the two-story Colonial Revival-styled Sacajawea Hotel in 1910.  Adams began the hotel in true Montana vernacular fashion, having contractors tack together existing moved buildings

into some type of lodging for railroad workers.  Bozeman architect Fred Willson finished the building with a new facade along with various additions, leaving housing for railroad employees along with providing services for travelers.  Heritage tourists were part of that mix, especially once the Montana Daughters of the American Revolution in 1914 placed a large boulder with a bronze plaque in honor of Sacajawea across the street from the hotel. Here was one of the state’s early examples of public interpretation of the Sacajawea story. In 2005, as part of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Three Forks Area Historical Society commissioned artist Mary Michael to add a stylized statue of Sacajawea and her baby Pomp, turning the spot into a 21st century memorial to the Shoshoni woman.

Thirty years ago, the hotel was a renovation project we all at the Montana Historical Society wanted to happen.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, it was a proud relic of that railroad that had just closed but also of the early automobile age when travelers could stop here, spend the night, and then travel by car to Yellowstone National Park far to the south.  I would stay here when working in the region, reveling in

Sacajawea inn 1990

Sacajawea Hotel, 1990

the feel, the look, the sounds of a historic railroad hotel.  Unfortunately the restart only lasted about 20 years.  The hotel closed in 2001, and looked to have a bleak future in the new century.  From 2009-2010 new owners, however, took this historic hulk and have

polished back into a jewel, better suited for more upscale travelers than in the past.  It is the center point of a renewal of Three Forks, and part of a minor population boom that has seen the town, which basically had a flat population of 1100 to 1200 from 1950 to 1990 reach a population of almost 2000 in 2015. More on Three Forks in the next post

Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 4: Lewis and Clark

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 020The Missouri River runs through Cascade County and is at the heart of any future Great Falls Heritage Area.  This section of the river, and the portage around its falls that fueled its later nationally significant industrial development, is of course central to the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806.  The Lewis and Clark story was recognized when I surveyed Cascade County 30 years ago–the Giant Springs State Park was the primary public interpretation available then.  But today the Lewis and Clark story has taken a larger part of the public history narrative in Cascade County.  In 2003 the nation, state, and city kicked off the bicentennial of the expedition and that key anniversary date spurred the

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many new efforts to preserve and interpret the “whole story” of the expedition.  The designation of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail led to many upgrades in markers and interpretive signage across the state.  Then Great Falls became a center for trail interpretation through the opening of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center along the river banks not far from Giant Springs State Park.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 023Despite federal budget challenges, the new interpretive center was exactly what the state needed to move forward the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and its many levels of impact of the peoples and landscape of the region.  The center emphasized the harrowing, challenging story of the portage around the natural falls of what became Great Falls but its

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 006exhibits and programs have significantly broadened our historical understanding of the expedition, especially its relationship with and impact on various Native American tribes from Missouri to Washington.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 045The contribution of the interpretive center to a greater local and in-state appreciation of the portage route cannot be underplayed.  In the preservation survey of 1984, no one emphasized it nor pushed it as an important resource.  When threats of development came about in last decade, though, determined voices from preservationists and residents helped to keep the portage route, a National Historic Landmark itself, from insensitive impacts.

At the south end of the county, the state worked with the national historic trail to established Tower Rock State Park, which preserves and interprets an important natural landmark along the river and trail, which, in 1984, was not part of the public interpretation of the expedition.  It also created a valuable heritage asset easily accessible from Interstate I-15, meaning thousands of visitors have learned about the trail as they have rushed through the state.  These developments in the last 30 years to both preserve and enhance the understanding of the expedition are just the more obvious of the efforts to improve the trail as a real heritage asset for the city, county, and state.  We can only hope that a similar effort will emerge soon to re-energize the preservation and understanding of the next major military excursion through the region–the Mullan Road of the

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 075 Mullan Monument - Version 2late 1850s.  Hundreds pass by the monument near the civic center in the heart of Great Falls but this story is another national one that needs more attention, and soon than later.

 

Transformations in Fort Benton, part 1

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In the spring of 1984, there was no doubt that I would spend considerable time looking at the historic preservation issues at Fort Benton, a small county seat today but one of the most important places in all of the northern plains before the age of the railroad.  Here at this bend in the river, shown in a postcard I bought there in 1984, was basically the last stop for Missouri River boat traffic heading west.  The fort dated to the late fur trade era and as the rush for precious metals overtook Montana Territory in the 1860s and 1870s here developed a major trade and outfitting post, with roads running from Fort Benton in all directions.  But the place was a sleepy, almost forgotten town, as the railroads changed routes and the interstates bypassed it by miles and miles.  Landmarks too were there but the old fort had been slowly coming apart, only a recent determined effort by save what remained and then, ambitiously I thought 30 years ago, to rebuild the lost fort and tell fully the story of the fur trade and the significance of the Upper Missouri.

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My guide was John Lepley, who was spearheading the local efforts and a member of the SHPO board.  Another key leader was Joel Overholser. And no doubt, there was some heritage tourism and historic interpretation infrastructure in place.  The Chouteau House, a classic river hotel, was still open, rough on the edges but the place where I stayed and took meals. (It was closed when I visited last in 2013).

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Nearby was the home of I. G. Baker, a pivotal figure in the region’s history.  It was open, and paneled interpretation in place but certainly a property that could “say” more.

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Various monuments and markers could be found throughout the riverfront:  the Mullan Road, the Whoop-Up Trail, and especially the recently installed (1976) State of Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial, a monument piece of public art, sculpted by Bob Scriver with the base by Shorty Shope, another well regarded Montana artist.  The memorial was an American bicentennial project led by the Fort Benton Improvement Association, which Lepley and Overholser served on as commissioners.  Indeed, the state also had donated one of the keelboats used in the film “Far Horizons,” a Hollywood take on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The waterfront told a story, one dominated by Lewis and Clark.

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postcard of Far Horizons boat, c. 1984

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The amount and quality of the public art along the riverfront was impressive, but what struck me as speaking most strongly to the town’s future were two completed projects (the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Missouri River Bridge) and the almost completed restoration of the Grand Hotel, a remarkable Victorian building that spoke to the town’s hopes in the late 19th century.

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I left Fort Benton convinced of two things:  the town had clear preservation needs, not just the fort site but buildings from the Victorian era were decaying too.  But compared to other places that I would visit in 1984, I thought Fort Benton had the one key trait for success–vision, the realization that the steps of the 1970s were just first steps, and many more needed to be taken in the years to come.  Let’s next come back to Fort Benton 30 years later and see how far that vision has reached.

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Finding the Lewis and Clark story at Coal Banks Landing

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Coal Banks Landing, on the Missouri River in Chouteau County, was another site already recognized as significant when the preservation planning survey got underway in the spring of 1984.  Here was yet another documented place associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition:  it took its name literally from the band of lignite easily observed in the banks along the Missouri.

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The landscape here not only speaks to the age of river transportation; to the west at Virgelle you can also find the original roadbed of James J. Hill’s Manitoba Road as it came down from Havre and connected with the Missouri River valley, its route to Great Falls.  Virgelle has National Register-listed properties in its historic pressed tin-sided general store and brick bank; across the road are a school and grain elevator.  These properties marked the forgotten town as a place once prominent along the Great Northern network.

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Coal Banks Landing, in comparison, was a place on the river, with little to tell its story.  Today, however, Coal Banks Landing is a prominent spot, with a modern boat landing, a seasonal interpretive center, and then year-round interpretive markers for its multiple layers of history.

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The landing and its significant Lewis and Clark story are now preserved as part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, one of the state’s most important conservation and heritage tourism developments in the 21st century.  This national monument preserves not only one of the most breathtaking sections of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail it also preserves open land little changed from the centuries of occupation by various Native American groups and scattered often log-built homesteads of the multi-ethnic groups that flooded into northern Montana in the first two decades of the 20th century.

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Little was here in 1984 to help residents and visitors understand the deep significance of the Missouri River.  Today Coal Banks Landing is a must stop for any heritage tourist of northern Montana.