Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Sanders County’s Plains and the Noxon Dam

Sanders Co Plains schoolPlains is the second largest town in Sanders County, noted as the home of the county fairgrounds, the center of the local agricultural economy, and like Thompson Falls a significant place along the Clark’s Fork River and the Montana Highway 200 corridor.

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While the population was largely the same in 2015 compared to my last visit 30 years earlier, things had changed, such as the town’s elevator now served as the Grainry Gallery–an imaginative local adaptive reuse.  New churches, new homes, and new businesses had been established.  Yet Plains still retained its early 20th to mid-20th

Sanders Co Plains 2century feel, be it in institutions, such as the local Grange above, or the continuation of the local VFW hall and bowling alley, below.

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Among the biggest changes to this historic preservationist is the lost of the town’s historic high school from the first decade of the 20th century.  In a small park along Montana Highway 200, the cornerstone arch from the school was saved and now is a

Sanders Co Plains 10

 

monument to that educational landmark.  Adjacent is the log “Wild Horse Plains” school, which has been moved to this spot and restored during the American Bicentennial.  According to local historians, the more appropriate name is “Horse Plains,” since the Salish Indians once wintered their horses here but the name “Wild Horse Plains” is the one that has stuck here in the 21st century.

The Wild Horse Plains Women’s Club uses the old school for their meetings and keeps up the property and its landscaping.  Indeed, one thing you like about Plains–a railroad town from the turn of the 20th century–is its sense of pride, conveyed by places like the school park or in the stewardship shown to local historic homes.

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This same pride in place is also conveyed in our last Sanders County stop, the very different history of Noxon, near the Idaho border on Montana Highway 200. The Noxon Bridge was among my favorite northwest Montana modern landmarks–but in 1984 I thought little more about it because few things in Noxon were built before 1959-60.

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That was when the Noxon Hydroelectric Dam went in operation, transforming this part of the Clark’s Fork River into an engineered landscape shaped by the dam, power lines, and the reservoir.

IMG_7762The Noxon Dam was finished in 1959.  It is a mile in length, 260 feet in height and 700 feet wide at its base.  Its generators can power approximately 365,000 homes, making it the second-largest capacity hydroelectric facility in Montana.

IMG_7758Today visitors can view the dam from various parking areas and short walking trails, one of which passes over the historic line of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The property has interpretive signs about the history of the project as well as about the engineering of hydroelectric power.

IMG_7768Along the banks of the river/reservoir, a much more recent public park has opened–with public sculpture reminding everyone of the Native Americans who once camped along the

IMG_7775river at this place.  By bringing the deep past of the region in view of the modern, this site is a new favorite place–wherever you are in Montana, and there are many modern engineering marvels–the Indians were always there first, using those same natural resources in far different ways.

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Jefferson’s Jewels

Boulder Valley N from hot springs, MT 69 – Version 2Jefferson County, nestled as it is between the much larger population centers of Helena (Lewis and Clark County) and Butte (Silver Bow County), has often been neglected in any overview or study of Montana.  But within the county’s historical landscape are places and stories that convey so much about Montana history and the historic properties that reflect its culture and identity.

IMG_0464Let’s begin with the place so often in the news lately, the Montana Development Center, the location of the historic Montana Deaf and Dumb Asylum (1897-1898), a stately red brick Renaissance Revival-style building listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.  Since the building was being considered for listing, it was a top priority for the state historic preservation plan work in 1984.  It remains in need of a new future 30-plus

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A photo of the asylum from 2007

years later.  The architect was John C. Paulsen, who then served as the State Architect.  The building represents an early effort by the state to provide for its citizens, and the presence of the institution in Boulder shaped that town’s history for the next 120 years.

Boulder is a place of impressive public buildings.  The Jefferson County Courthouse (1888-89) is another piece of Victorian architecture, in the Dichardsonian Romanesque style, again by John K. Paulsen.  It was listed in the National Register in 1980.

IMG_0475Another public institution once found in numbers across Montana but now found only in a few places is the high school dormitory, for students who spent the week in town rather than attempting to travel the distances between home and the high school on a daily basis.  Boulder still has its high school dormitory from the 1920s, converted long ago into apartments.

Boulder schools dorm

Indeed the importance of schools to not only the state’s history of education but the mere survival of communities has been pinpointed by various state preservation groups and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Jefferson County still has many significant surviving school buildings from the early 20th century, none of which have been listed yet in the National Register.

Carter school, 1916, Montana City School

Carter School, 1916, Montana City

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Clancy School, now the Jefferson County Museum

Basin School, Jefferson Co

Basin school, still in use

Caldwell school

Caldwell school, one of the few buildings left in this old railroad town

Whitehall still has its impressive Gothic style gymnasium from the 1920s while the school itself shows how this part of the county has gained in population since 1985.

Whitehall school, Jefferson CoCommunity halls represent another theme found in the Montana landscape; Jefferson County has an excellent example in its 1911 community hall in Clancy, which now serves as the local library.  Likewise, fraternal lodges played a major role as community centers in early Montana history–the stone masonry of the two-story Boulder Basin Masonic Lodge makes an impressive Main Street statement.

Irrigation and sugar beet cultivation are key 20th century agricultural themes, typically associated with eastern and central Montana.  Jefferson County tells that story too, in a different way, at Whitehall.  The irrigation ditches are everywhere and the tall concrete stack of the sugar refinery plant still looms over the town.

In 1917 Amalgamated Sugar Company, based in Utah, formed the Jefferson Valley Sugar Company and began to construct but did not finish a refinery at Whitehall.  The venture did not begin well, and the works were later sold to the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company in 1920, which never finished the plant but left the stack standing.  Nearby is Sugar Beet

Sugar Beet Row houses, Whitehall

Row, where hipped roof duplex residences typical of c. 1920 company towns are still lined up, and in use, although their exteriors have changed over the decades.

Ting's Bar, Jefferson City

Through many posts in this blog, I have identified those informal yet very important community centers found in urban neighborhoods and rural outposts across the state–bars and taverns.  Jefferson County has plenty of famous classic watering holes, such as Ting’s Bar in Jefferson City, the Windsor Bar in Boulder, or the Two Bit Bar in Whitehall, not forgetting Roper Lanes and Lounge in Whitehall.

Whitehall bowling and bar

Speaking of recreation, Jefferson County also has one of my favorite hot springs in all of the west, the Boulder Hot Springs along Montana Highway 69.  Here is a classic oasis of the early 20th century, complete in Spanish Revival style, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its rough worn exterior only hints at the marvel of its pool and experience of this place.

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Mining always has been part of Jefferson County’s livelihood with still active mines near Whitehall and at Wickes.  The county also has significant early remnants of the state’s

 

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The coke ovens above are from Wickes (L) and Alhambra (R) while the image directly above is of 21st century mining continuing at Wickes.

mining era, with still extant (but still threatened as well) charcoal kilns at Wickes (1881) and at Alhambra.  Naturally with the mining came railroads early to Jefferson County.  As you travel Interstate I-15 between Butte and Helena, you are generally following the route of the Montana Central, which connected the mines in Butte to the smelter in Great Falls, and a part of the abandoned roadbed can still be followed.

IMG_1033Another good example of the early railroad development is at Corbin, where a major ore concentrator operated by the Helena Mining and Reduction Company was located in the 1880s.  The concentrator handled 125 tons of ore every day. The concentrator is long gone but the foundations, while crumbling steadily, remain to convey its size and location.  The tall steel train trestle overlooks the town, a powerful reminder of the connection between the rails and mines. It is part of the historic Montana Central line, first built as a wood trestle in 1888 and then replaced with the steel structure found today in 1902.

Corbin sign and trestle

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Corbin concentrater site, Jefferson Co (46-21)

Corbin concentrator site, 1984

Corbin train trestle

The Northern Pacific Railroad and the Milwaukee Road were both active in the southern end of the county.  Along one stretch of the Jefferson River, which is followed by Montana Highway 2 (old U.S. Highway 10), you are actually traversing an ancient transportation route, created by the river, the railroads, and the federal highway. The Northern Pacific tracks are immediately next to the highway between the road and the Jefferson River; the Milwaukee corridor is on the opposite side of the river.

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The most famous remnant of Montana’s mining era is the ghost town at Elkhorn.  Of course the phrase ghost town is a brand name, not reality.  People still live in Elkhorn–indeed more now than when I last visited 25 years ago.  Another change is that the two primary landmarks of the town, Fraternity Hall and Gilliam Hall, have become a pocket state park, and are in better preservation shape than in the past.

IMG_0410Fraternity Hall was famous at the time of the state historic preservation plan survey as one of the best architectural examples of false front, Italianate style-influenced commercial buildings in the northern Rockies.  The two photos below, one from 1985 and the other from 2013, show how its preservation has been enhanced under state guardianship. Its projecting bay and balcony are outstanding examples of the craftsmanship found in the vernacular architecture of the boom towns.

The adjacent Gillian Hall is also an important building, not as architecturally ornate as Fraternity Hall, but typical of mining town entertainment houses with bars and food on the first floor, and a dance hall on the second floor.

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While the state park properties dominate what remains at Elkhorn, it is the general unplanned, ramshackle appearance and arrangement of the town that conveys a bit of what these bustling places were like over 130 years ago–residences and businesses alike thrown up quickly because everyone wanted to make their pile and then move on.

Elkhorn is not the only place of compelling vernacular architecture.  Visible along Interstate I-15 is a remarkable set of log ranch buildings near Elk Park, once a major dairy center serving Butte during the 1st half of the twentieth century. John and Rudy Parini constructed the gambrel-roof log barn, to expand production available from an earlier log barn by their father, in c. 1929.  The Parini ranch ever since has been a landmark for travelers between Butte and Helena.

Nearby is another frame dairy barn from the 1920s, constructed and operated by brothers George and William Francine.  The barns are powerful artifacts of the interplay between urban development and agricultural innovation in Jefferson County in the 20th century.

IMG_1042The historic barn at the Jefferson Valley Museum is the Brooke Barn from 1914, another example of the dairy production then taking place in this part of Montana as the same time that the mines were booming in nearby Butte.Jefferson Valley museum, WhitehallThe adjacent rodeo grounds at Whitehall host in late July the Whitehall Bucking Horse Futurity competition and fair.

Whitehall rodeo groundsThe bucking horse competition is not the only major summer event in the county.  Along the old federal highway and the Jefferson River at Cardwell, music promoters took a historic highway truss bridge, converted it into a stage, and have been hosting the Headwaters Country Jam, the state’s biggest country music festival–a bit of Nashville every June in Montana:  I have to love it.

IMG_0348 Here is adaptive reuse at perhaps its ingenious best, and successful adaptive reuse projects are another constant theme found across Montana.  Whitehall itself has a second example in the conversion of a 1920s Craftsman-style building on Legion Avenue (old U.S. Highway 10).  Indeed, although travelers do not use the older federal highway much since the construction of the interstate, Whitehall has several good examples of roadside architecture–yes, another blog theme–along Legion Avenue, such as a Art Moderne-styled automobile dealership and a classic 1950s motel, complete with flashing neon sign.

West of Whitehall is another 20th century roadside attraction, Lewis and Clark Caverns, a property with one of the most interesting conservation histories in the nation.  It began as a privately developed site and then between 1908 and 1911 it became the Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument during the administration of President William Howard Taft.  Federal authorities believed that the caverns had a direct connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  The Corps of Discovery camped nearby on July 31, 1805, but had no direct association with the caverns.  A portion of their route is within the park’s boundaries.

Lewis and Clark caverns visitor center, MT 2During the mid-1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park with new trails in the caverns; state and local authorities wanted more site development since the park stood along U.S. Highway 10, with potential tourism growth.  In 1937-38, the federal government transferred the national monument to state control and in 1938 state officials launched Lewis and Clark Caverns as Montana’s first state park.  Since my work 30 years ago, the state has re-energized the park with a new visitor center and interpretive exhibits that better convey the caverns’ significance, especially to Native Americans who had used the place centuries before Lewis and Clark passed nearby.

Faith, and the persistence of early churches across rural Montana, is perhaps the most appropriate last theme to explore in Jefferson County.  St. John the Evangelist (1880-1881) dominates the landscape of the Boulder Valley, along Montana Highway 69, like few other buildings.  This straightforward statement of faith in a frame Gothic styled building, complete with a historic cemetery at the back, is a reminder of the early Catholic settlers of the valley, and how diversity is yet another reality of the Montana experience.

Livingston: seeing the obvious but missing the big picture

Park Co Springdale NPRR corridor

In my work on the state historic preservation plan in 1983-1994, I was excited about the new insight I could bring to the state’s landscape–the impact of the transcontinental railroads and the transportation and settlement corridors that they established in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Railroads were of course not a new theme then–books abounded on the railroad barons and the romance of the rails.  But as a built environment–that was new, reflecting current scholarship from John Hudson, John Stilgoe, and Roger Grant.  So whenever I hit a major railroad division point–like Livingston–I only saw the rails and what happened around them.

Park Co Livingston

That was certainly easy enough to do coming into Livingston from the west on old U.S. 10.  The railroad tracks were directly to the north, as well older elements of the town’s roadside architecture, like the exquisite Art Deco-styled radio station, KPRK, now closed for broadcasting (the station’s signal comes from Bozeman) but listed in the National Register. William Fox, a Missoula architect, designed this jewel in 1946.

Park Co Livingston art decoContinuing west you soon encounter post-World War II service stations and motels, some updated, some much like they were, on the outskirts of town and then, boom, you are in the heart of Livingston, facing the commanding presence of the Northern Pacific depot complex with warehouses–some now converted to new uses–coming first and then

Park Co Livingston 3massive passenger station itself. Opened in 1902, the passenger station was an architectural marvel for the new state, designed by Reed and Stem, who would continue on to great fame as the architects of Grand Central Station in New York City.  The station, interestingly, is not Classical Revival in style–certainly the choice of most architects for their grand gateways along the nation’s rail line–but a more restrained interpretation of Renaissance Revival style, completed in red brick.

Park Co Livingston NP depot 12The building is not particularly inviting for locals coming from the business district to the depot–that was not its primary audience.  Rather the grand entrance is track side, where passengers headed to Yellowstone National Park could depart for food, fun, frivolity, whatever they needed before the journey into the wildness of Yellowstone.

Park Co Livingston NP depot

Park Co Livingston NP depot 9Travelers were welcome to use the grand covered walkways to enter the depot proper, or to take a side visit to the railroad’s cafe, Martin’s as I

Park Co Livingston NP depot 7knew it back in the day, a place that rarely slept and always had good pie. The cafe changed its orientation from the railroad to the road as automobile travelers on U.S. 10 began to dominate the tourist market.  Now it has been restored as a local brew pub.

Park Co Livingston NP depot 11

The interior of the passenger station once held large public spaces for travelers and then more intimate spaces themed to either men or women.

Upstairs were spaces for offices, company lodging, and other company business.  The station was the railroad’s urban outpost was what was then still the Montana frontier–its statement of taste and sophistication still reverberates today even as the depot no longer serves passengers (except for occasion excursion trains Amtrak doesn’t run here anymore) and serves as a railroad and Park County museum.

Park Co Livingston RR and Murray Hotel

Thirty years ago, the overwhelming imprint of the Northern Pacific on the surrounding built environment was all I could see.  At one corner was one of the first local historic preservation projects, an adaptive reuse effort to create the Livingston Bar and Grille (once popular with the valley’s Hollywood crowd).

Park Co Livingston bar and grilleDirectly facing the center of the passenger station was the mammoth Murray Hotel–a flea bag operation in the 1980s but now recently restored as a hipster place to be, especially its signature bar.

My throwback place back in the 1980s, however, was Gil’s.  It was next to the Murray and the place to get the cheesy souvenirs you equate with western travel in the second half of the 20th century.

MT 2007 Park County Livingston 3Imagine my pleasant surprise last year when I found that Gil’s still existed but now had been converted into a decidedly up-scale establishment, far removed from the 1980s.

Park Co Livingston Gil'sI don’t know if I have encountered a more fundamentally changed place–cheap trinkets gone, let the wood-fired pizzas come on.

Park Co Livingston main st blocksI was not so blinded in 1984 by the concept of the “metropolitan corridor” that I ignored the distinctive Victorian storefronts of Livingston–how could I since they all, in a way, fed into the tracks.  But when I got to the end of that distinctive business district and watched the town, in my

MT 2007 Park County Livingstonmind, fade into the Rockies, I had captured the obvious but had missed the bigger picture–that’s the next story.