Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 5: Rails,Rivers, and a Smelter

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 024Many heritage areas in the eastern United States emphasize the relationship between rivers, railroads, and industrial development and how those resources contributed to national economic growth and wartime mobilization.  Great Falls can do that too.  Situated on the Missouri River and designed by its founders to be a northwest industrial center, entrepreneurs counted on the falls to be a source of power and then on the railroads coming from Minnesota, especially the promising Manitoba Road headed by James J. Hill, to provide the transportation.

IMG_0961Paris Gibson, the promoter of the Electric City, allied his interests to two of most powerful capitalists of the region:  Marcus Daly, the baron of the Anaconda Copper Company interests and James J. Hill, the future rail king of the northwest.  Their alliance is embodied in several different properties in the city but the most significant place was where the Anaconda Copper Company smelter operated at Black Eagle until the last decades of the 20th century.  When I surveyed Great Falls for the state

preservation plan in 1984 the smelter stack had recently come down but a good bit of the surrounding industrial plant remained.  When you look at the same place today, the site has been nearly wiped clean, still closed off to the public but ripe for the day when it could be a center for public interpretation of the impact of the smelter on the city, state, and nation.

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Great Falls already has shown an ability to reimagine and find new uses for its industrial landmarks, as demonstrated by the adaptive reuse projects surrounding its railroad corridors.  Yes, railroad corridors because while the Manitoba Road and its successor the Great Northern Railway dominated the city, the Milwaukee Road also built into the city in the first

 

Cascade Co Great Falls Milwaukee Road depotdecade of the 20th century and soon erected its tall tower depot right on the Missouri River.  But wherever you go along the river you find significant buildings associated with the Great Northern and its allied branch the Montana Central Railroad, especially the downtown warehouses.  Some are still fulfilling their original function but others

have taken on new uses as offices and museums, such as the local history center and the well-regarded children’s museum.

Still at the head of the city, as appropriate for its role in creating and sustaining Great Falls in its early decades, is the magnificent depot of the Great Northern.  Montana has many small town examples of the

“metropolitan corridor” written about by historian John Stilgoe; Great Falls is superb extant example of how the corridor shaped the landscape and architecture presence of urban centers across the northern plains. These properties suggest the richness of the industrial and transportation stories associated with the rise of Great Falls and its role in western history.

 

Nashua, Montana: stories of a railroad and a man

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Nashua is the eastern most town of Valley County, Montana, located where Porcupine Creek empties into the Milk River.  Its history mirrors those of many towns along the Hi-Line:  it too began as a Manitoba Road town in 1888-1889. The tall grain elevators that still dominate the townscape, as they did in 1984, document the days when the rails carried everything as does the moved and repurposed Great Northern Railway depot, not a Senior Citizens Center.

Elevators along Great Northern line, 1984

Elevators along Great Northern line, 1984

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Nashua is also a gateway along U.S. Highway 2 to the region’s New Deal era history, especially the construction of Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir.  As an eastern gateway to the dam, Nashua reached its peak population of over 900 in 1940 as the project neared completion.  Today less than 300 make Nashua home.  One key New Deal survivor–the 1935 school (with later additions)–is home to the Porcupines, and serves still as a community center.

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Another building in Nashua, the Civic Center, also looked New Deal in its origins, indeed similar in shape (but not materials) to the WPA-constructed civic center in Glasgow.  But in finding out the history of this building, I also found the story of a man and family who shaped Nashua in the post-World War II era.

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Victor Dostert (1886-1961) is a Montana small town example of a “civic capitalist,” a topic that I explored at length in my book Capitalism on the Frontier (1993).  He came and homesteaded south of the town along the Milk River during the boom of the 1910s but when the bust came in the 1920s Dostert, his wife Anna, and their three sons stayed, making their mark with construction projects (from a theater to the Catholic Church) and taking advantage of the thousands of construction workers passing through by building and operating Vick’s Bar in 1935.

Vick's Bar and Bowling Lane is at the center of the Nashua business district

Vick’s Bar and Bowling Lane is at the center of the Nashua business district

Then in 1957 the family added a adjacent Bowling Alley–and both institutions were still going when I visited in 2013.  The Civic Center, however, was Dostert’s crowning civic achievement.  He designed the building and had it constructed during his period as Nashua mayor (1945-1951).  It housed a movie theater as well as provided community meeting space. And as a community gathering point it anchors the adjacent Lion’s Park and is busy throughout the year, an anchor of identity for the dwindling population of eastern Valley County.

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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.

 

Traveling the historic Manitoba Line, from Havre to Big Sandy

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The impact of the Great Northern Railway on the settlement of northern Montana really can never be over-emphasized–its mark on the settlement landscape and later transportation routes is that important.  Most travelers, and many residents, do not realize that the railroad, then named the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, did not initially strike straight across the plains to Glacier National Park.  In 1887 it turned at Havre and headed southwest towards Great Falls, creating a distinct modern landscape along Big Sandy Creek that you may still follow today.

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The first important stop was Fort Assinniboine, a U.S. army base established in 1879, before the first settlers arrived. The army maintained this major base until the 1910s and later in that decade its land and buildings became the Northern Montana demonstration farm, allowing state and federally supported agricultural reformers learn and demonstrate best practices in farming techniques and crops for the region.  Today it remains part of the state’s extension service, which has adapted some buildings for new uses while keeping others preserved as part of the nationally significant story of the U.S. military and its occupation of the northern plains.  

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When I visited the fort site in 1984, the highway marker was the primary interpretation.  The farm’s administrators have since worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation office to locate interpretive markers outside of several buildings.  Tours of the complex are also available by reservations.

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 As part of the federal process of transforming the landscape of Big Sandy Creek, the homesteading boom left its mark everywhere in the 1910s.  But also in 1916 the federal government established the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation for the Chippewa Cree.  The Manitoba Road’s intersection with the reservation came at Box Elder, at the border between Hill and Chouteau counties.  In 1984 one of the early Great Northern-era combination depot still stood at the town, although it seemed destined for destruction. Imagine my surprise in 2013 when the depot still remained, but barely so. 

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The gas station’s roadside architecture also faces an uncertain future.  But St. Anthony’s Catholic Church remained a key landmark and along U.S. 87 in the reservation stood a new architecturally distinctive building:  the Northern Wing Casino.  

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Big Sandy is easily the largest town of northern Chouteau County, a place that abounds in surprises.  In 1984 the town’s old homesteader hotel remained, and so many other Montana towns had lost these artifacts of the early 20th century settlement. 

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Thirty years later, the hotel remains in place, as do several other architecturally important buildings, from the Northern Monana State Bank, a vault-like neo-classical style building to the modern contemporary styling of St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church.

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 Impressive adaptive reuse projects also had taken place, with the community turning the historic Great Northern depot into a center for its historical society and museum.  Big Sandy has a t-town plan, with its stem lined by businesses and other ventures, such as the false front Odd-Fellows Lodge or the recently established coffee shop.

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The town’s New Deal era school remained, although the building’s original International Style design was somewhat muted by a new roof and other cosmetic changes. Yet, here was the school that nurtured Jeff Ament, who moved to Seattle and gained fame as part of the internationally significant band, Pearl Jam.  

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Big Sandy has steadily lost population since 1984–600 people remained in the 2010 census–but key landmarks remain standing and in use.  Impressive.  The days of the Manitoba Road are long gone but this early railroad town still makes a powerful historical statement.