Rural to Industrial Landscapes in Missoula County

Missoula Co Potomac school 1

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.

Missoula Co Bonner post office

Bonner Museum and Post Office

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Missoula Co Bonner St Ann Catholic

St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Bonner.

Missoula Co Bonner Our Savior Lutheran

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.

Missoula Co Milltown 3

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.



Butte’s railroad legacies

As the mines at Butte went into larger and larger production in the late 19th century, the railroads soon arrived to cart away the raw materials, and to deliver workers on a daily basis.  All three of the famed Montana transcontinentals built facilities in Butte–in a sense 100 years ago all lines led to Butte.  Remarkably, all three passenger depots remain today.   The Northern Pacific depot is now an events center.  The Milwaukee Road station remains a television headquarters. The Great Northern depot has been offices, a warehouse, and a bar. Its historic roundhouse also stands and it too has had many uses.

But in so many ways the real railroad story concerns a much shorter line–about 26 miles in length–but one with a big name, the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific, designed by its founder Marcus Daly as a connector between his mines in Butte and his huge Washoe smelter in Anaconda. The BAP depot in Butte stood on Utah Street in 1985 but has been

BAP Depot Butte 1985

Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific Railroad Depot, Butte, 1985

demolished, a real loss for the city’s historic fabric.  Completed in 1894, the BAP connected the two cities, and its historic corridor has been recently transformed into a recreation resource that also unites the two cities and their counties.  It is also a physical thread that ties together the Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark.

A railroad office building still stands in Anaconda, with its Romanesque arch creating an architectural theme between the office building and the BAP depot that is extant at its commanding position at the end of Main Street.  Anaconda’s basic layout was

classic late 19th century railroad town planning:  the depot marking the entry from railroad to town and then the long Main Street of commercial businesses culminating in the lot for the county courthouse.


View north to Deer Lodge County Courthouse from BAP depot in Anaconda.

Anaconda is also home to the extant BAP roundhouses and shapes.  Like the Great Northern facility in Butte, the BAP roundhouses have had several uses, and there was a short-lived attempt to establish a railroad museum within one of the bays.  The future for this important railroad structure is cloudy.

Between Butte and Anaconda two small towns have important extant historic resources. Back in the 1980s I considered Rocker to be a must stop for the It Club Bar–and it is still there, flashy as ever.

But now there is another reason for a stop at Rocker–the preservation of the historic frame BAP depot and the creation of the Rocker Park trail along the old railroad right-of-way.  Again here in Silver Bow County we see a recreational opportunity established in conjunction with the preservation and interpretation of a key historic property.  The trail was just opening when I took these photos in 2012.




Ramsay is another town along the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific, and served as a company town for the DuPont corporation which built a short-lived munitions plant there during World War I.  During the state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, historian Janet Ore was preparing a study and survey of the town resources, which was completed in 1986.  The town’s historic district was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Ore noted the division between worker cottages and manager homes, and the general layout in keeping with what DuPont was doing in other states at that time.  Although there has been the loss of some contributing resources in the almost 30 years since the National Register listing, Ramsay still conveys its company town feel. Below are some of the extant cottages, different variations of Bungalow style, along Laird and Palmer streets.

The superintendent’s dwelling is a two-story Four-square house, with its size, understated Colonial Revival style, and placement in the town suggesting the importance of the occupant.


A few buildings also exist from the old powder works but most were torn away decades ago.  The pride of Ramsay today is its new school building, pointing toward a different future for the town in its second hundred years of existence.



Montana’s Three Forks, Part 2

Gallatin Co Three Forks 6Three Forks, Montana, is unique in how competing railroads shaped this one small town between the 2008 and 2010.  The last post discussed how the Milwaukee Road came first, and its landmark Sacajawea Inn stands at the north end of the town’s main street.  On the east side–see the Google Map below–became the domain of the Northern Pacific Railroad and its spur line to the copper kingdom of Butte

Gallatin Co Three Forks bank/ Masonic temple

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Between the two railroads, Three Forks grew rapidly in the second decade of the 20th century during the homesteading boom.  Two places that help you decode the town’s history and built environment.  At the south end of Main Street is the Headwaters Heritage Museum, which is located in the National Register-listed Three Valleys Bank, a Romanesque Revival-styled two-story brick building from 1910, when John Q. Adams started the town. The museum opened in 1982–I can recall its beginnings as place of pride and energy, now it maintains a fine local history collection.

Other National Register properties from the 1910s help to tell the town’s story as they remain in use creating new futures in the 21st century.  These include the classical styled Ruby Theater of 1916, listed in 1982, and the 1913 United Methodist Church, later damaged during a 1925 earthquake but restored by the congregation to its Gothic Revival style in 1993.  All of these buildings speak to town hopes and dreams during the homesteading boom as much as the slowly deteriorating grain elevators at the north end, not listed in the National Register, speak to what happened to those dreams in the 1920s and 1930s.

You can also explore the story of transportation and Three Forks at a new visitor center facility–at least new to this traveler in 2015–at you enter the town from the north.

It is just north of the Sacajawea Hotel and the town’s historic Milwaukee Road depot, which is now a restaurant and casino.  The visitor center emphasizes the Milwaukee story, especially how the railroad viewed the town as its first gateway to Yellowstone.


The planned centerpiece of the visitor center is the moved railroad depot from Trident, a planned company town from 1908 that produced cement from the abundant resources along the river.  The community is raising money for its restoration and adaptive reuse as a heritage center.  The original company name was the Three Forks Portland Cement

IMG_6785Company. In 1914  Charles Botcher bought the plant, renamed it the Ideal Cement Company and kept it in business under that name until the 1980s.

Little remains of Trident today, except for its concrete roads that help to mark the blocks of the town, although no houses remain today.  They were still there into the 1990s but later company owners, who still produce cement from the plant, and ship it by railroad across the region, tore them down early in this century.  Trident is now a fascinating remnant, a historical archaeology site, and its depot in Three Forks will probably become the place to tell that story into the future.