The Milk River Project and its Impact on Northern Montana

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Milk River Irrigation Project Ditch at Dodson, Phillips County

In today’s New York Times (June 15, 2020), Montana Jim Robbins reported on the looming disaster facing Montana’s northern states if the St. Mary’s canal, which recently collapsed, is not repaired.  The informative, insightful story focuses on the beginnings of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Irrigation Project, its pathway through southern Alberta, and its emergence in central Montana’s Hill County.  It included several wonderful images of Havre, the seat of Hill County, and discussed the wide-ranging disaster faced by ranchers and small towns along the Hi-Line if the ditch did not get its long overdue repairs–to the tune of $200 million.

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The Great Northern, the Milk River Project, and original U.S. 2 at Tampico

Robbins’ story immediately took my mind back to my travels throughout the Milk River Valley, from Hill County to Valley County, in 2013.  The story of how modern transportation and engineering combined to transform the northern plains is so fundamental to the region’s history, yet it remains a story seldom told (another reason Robbins’ New York Times story matters).  The image above represents the forces that led to the settlement and development of the Milk River Valley.  Taken outside of the village of Tampico in Valley County, it centers the ditch between the two transportation systems–the Great Northern Railway on the left and the original route of U.S. Highway 2 on the right– that served the settlers drawn by the water.  The image below shows the village of Tampico from the perspective of the ditch–the place would not exist without the ditch.

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Valley Co Tampico Milk river bridge hwy markerOne of the very few historical markers in Montana that touches on the state’s irrigation history focuses about a historic bridge that once stood nearby at Tampico.

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Hil Co Fresno reservoirLarge man-made lakes capture water to reserve it for use throughout the growing season.  The images above are of Fresno Reservoir, on a rainy morning, in Hill County.  While the two images below are of Nelson Reservoir, on a typically bright sunny day, many miles downstream in Phillips County.

Phillips Co Nelson reservoir sign irrigation

Phillips Co Nelson Reservoir USBR 1The Milk River Project shapes so much of the Hi-Line, it has become just part of the scenery.  I wonder how many travelers along U.S. Highway 2 in Phillips County even notice or consider the constant presence of the ditch along their route.

Phillips Co Milk river irrigation ditch near Robinson ranch

Not only are their scattered small towns along the Milk River Project, early agricultural institutions are often centered on the project.  A great example is the Phillips County Fairgrounds, outside of Dodson, and the question may be well posed–why there?  Dodson

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co FairgroundsPhillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 3is a tiny place, almost 20 miles from the county seat of Malta.  But at the time of the Milk River Project, Dodson was vital; the ditch neatly divided the town into two halves, and a major diversion dam was just west of town.  Here was a perfect place, at the turn of the century, for a fairgrounds.  And it is a gorgeous historic fairgrounds.

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My first encounter with the Milk River Project and the beautiful valley it serves came in February 1984 when Eleanor Clack took me on a tour of the bison kill historic site just west of downtown Havre.  It remains an excellent place to see how the waters of the Milk have nurtured countless generations of peoples who called this place home.

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Just last week I posted about two other Milk River Project towns–Lohman and Zurich–in Blaine County.  My next post will continue this second look at the Milk River Project as I revisit Chinook, the Blaine County seat, where the ditch once again is almost everywhere, but rarely given a second thought.

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Zurich and Lohman: Two Hi-Line Towns in Blaine County, Montana

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Zurich, Montana, taken north of town looking south, 1984.

I have always enjoyed exploring Blaine County, Montana.  In earlier posts I have discussed such famous places as the Fort Belknap Reservation, and Harlem, its north gateway town, as well as Hays near the south end of the reservation and Cleveland, one of my favorite places in the region.  Chinook, the county seat, has been featured in a couple of posts, and I might add another one yet.  then the Chief Joseph Battleground of the Bear’s Paw has gotten a considerable deal of attention, due to the national significance of the place, and the recent improvements to the battlefield from the National Park Service.  Why so much on Blaine County places?  Regular readers of this blog know of my interest in the irrigation systems of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in

Blaine Co Milk River s of Chinook

the early twentieth century.  The Milk River system was an important project, and the towns along U.S. Highway 2 and the Great Northern Railway mainline prospered, temporarily, because of the growth of the system.  Plus the Milk River, in my opinion, doesn’t get the attention of many–and it is a spectacular river valley in many places.

Blaine Co Lohman GN corridorLehman, west of Chinook adjacent to both the Milk River and U.S. Highway 2, has almost totally disappeared as a place along the tracks.  What is left of the town–this deteriorating commercial building in 2013–might even be gone today.

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Zurich, west of Chinook and also abutting the river and the highway, has fared somewhat better.  I have earlier commented on the existing street names–Park Avenue highlighted here–and the hopes for the future of the very names chosen at the turn of the century.  Compared to my visit in 1984, the town has lost business and population over the last 30 years.

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The Spa Bar still operated sporadically when I visited last in 2014.  I wonder if it still opens its doors today.  I love the name–a sly reference to Zurich, Switzerland, which is internationally known for its many spas.

Blaine Co Zurich 7 Spa Bar

What appears to be an old rural church–or was it a school, or both?–still stood, its gable front slowly coming apart.

Blaine Co Zurich 4 historic school

But across the street was the modern Zurich Elementary School–an attractive touch of modern school design in such a small place.  According to the public schools website,

Blaine Co Zurich 2 school

Zurich had 23 students in 2020–while another internet source said the school was permanently closed.  I hope that has not happened–if the school goes Zurich will be yet another Hi-Line ghost town quickly.

Back on the Hi-Line at Chinook: a town that got it

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Chinook, the seat of Blaine County, has long been among my favorite Hi-Line towns.  Certainly there is the Elk Bar, with its cowgirl in the champagne glass neon sign,–is there a better bar sign in the Big Sky Country?  But then Chinook is most definitely a railroad town of Great Northern vintage.  Then it is part of U.S. highway corridor, and I loved staying at what was then a Mom and Pop Bear’s Paw motor lodge on the west side of town in 1984.  And it is irrigation country, and the impact of the federal Milk River Project in the early 20th century.  Railroads, highways, irrigation, bars–throw in that the town is also the gateway to the Bear’s Paw National Battlefield and the end of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail:  little wonder I stayed there for 3 days in 1984 exploring a wide swath of the region.

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This post is subtitled “a town that got it” for the simple reason that when I visited in 1984, outside of the battlefield (which was little more than preserved ground with a few early 20th century markers not the more fully interpreted landscape you find today) and the local museum (which was since grown considerably) the words “historic preservation” were new, and somewhat foreign.  Nothing was happening–30 years later however you can see a range of preservation work, along with some exciting adaptive reuse projects.  Chinook treasures its past and sees it as an asset for the present, and future.

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A U.S. 2 service station converted into a great ice cream stop in Chinook

What didn’t I “see” in 1984:  the New Deal imprint on the town.  Frankly put, the Chinook High School is one of my favorite New Deal buildings in the state–perhaps its slick International modernism made it hard to grasp 30 years ago but today its powerful statement of 1930s aesthetics can’t be missed.

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That’s not all the New Deal left the town–it also energized public buildings with a new City Hall and an annex to the county courthouse, both somewhat subdued architectural statements.

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I did a better job of understanding the transportation corridors and how they impacted Chinook.  Most prominent to my mind was a three-story brick hotel, serving both railroad passengers and newly arriving homesteaders.  In 1984 it looked as if only minor changes had occurred since first construction-it still looks that way 30 years later with a few more windows filled-in, and general hard times apparent.

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The Great Northern depot was another focus of my work but somehow I missed a great 1920s gas station that has been restored and converted into new uses by a local financial institution–it is now on the National Register of Historic Places and good example of how the roadside architecture of the 1920s can find new uses in the 21st century.

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Another big miss was the Sugar Refinery–especially considering the role that Chinook played in the Milk River project, both in its origins, the nationally significant case of Winters v. United States at the turn of the century (see Beth LaDow’s epic study The Medicine Line (2001), and then the impact of this major federal project from 1911 to the present.  Not to mention that the high school nicknameImage

was the Sugarbeaters, surely one of the GREAT names in high school sports.

You cross a major ditch on the way to the refinery, on the outskirts of town.  A good bit of the property remains, with the tall stack speaking strongly to the merger of homestead and factory on the northern plains.  The refinery began an new era in the town’s history–a theme worth exploring in the next post.

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The Irrigated West: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Montana’s Hi-Line

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Fresno Lake, Hill County, 2013

The impact of federally funded irrigation projects is apparent throughout Montana but perhaps even moreso along the Hi-Line.  As I started his fieldwork in 1984 in Toole County, one of the first places I visited was Tiber Dam, a project that turned a large chunk of the Marias River into Lake Elwell.  The dam was finished in 1952 but numerous expansions and alterations occurred in the late 1960s and then late 1970s.

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Lake Elwell, Liberty County, 1984

 

When I encountered the town of Fresno in 1984, there was not much there but a tavern, built in the 1950s to take advantage of the increasing number of folks traveling to Fresno Lake for recreation, and a huge elevator complex.

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Today both the elevators and tavern remain, and the only changes found at the dam was additional fencing and pre-cautions for the security of the facility.

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Fresno Dam was part of the huge Milk River Project of the New Deal era.  The dam dates to 1937-1939, but was raised in 1943 and again in 1951 when “a concrete parapet and curb walls were constructed on the crest.”

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The Milk River project is the one of the state’s oldest and most influential federal irrigation projects.  Dating to 1903, the project slowly unfolded across the plains, starting at St. Mary’s in Glacier County in 1905 and moving to the Dodson pumping station in Phillips County by 1944.  The Fresno Dam was funded by FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, making it a rarely identified place associated with the New Deal transformation of Montana.  

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We will be returning to this project and the story of the irrigated West often as we move across the state.