Kalispell: Growth and Preservation in Northwest Montana

 

Kalispell was a Montana jewel 0n the Great Northern Railway.  Despite that fact, in 1984 the preservation of the railroad’s historic passenger station was not certain.  This landmark, at the head of the T-plan town, still stood but was viewed as an impediment even an eyesore by some.  The depot (1892, 1899, 1914, 1929) was built when Kalispell was an important division point on the railroad’s main line then altered over the next three decades to the stuccoed exterior you find today.  It marked literally the beginnings of the town’s history.  Yet, when I held a public meeting at another landmark, the town’s historic Carnegie Library (1903) that had recently been through an adaptive reuse into the

Hockaday Art Museum, strong sentiments for more preservation were rarely heard. The depot was not listed in the National Register nor were many of the downtown buildings.  There were a few of the town’s rich stock of Victorian era houses listed. The success of the Hockaday and the Conrad Mansion (1892-1895) historic site seemed to be enough for many residents, or they thought preservation only meant pretty homes and buildings.

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Then came the work east of Kalispell in and around Glacier National Park to inventory and list eligible buildings to the National Register in the mid to late 1980s.  That, along with the loss of key downtown landmarks and new voices from preservationists and property owners, began to grow the interest in historic preservation.

The result was a massive multiple property study of Kalispell for the National Register of Historic Places, resulting in the listing of dozens of additional historical properties in 1994.  The historic railroad depot was listed and serves as home for the Chamber of Commerce and a visitor center, a front porch for the downtown. A new era in historic preservation had been launched, and the result today is impressive, as the next posts will explore.

Appreciating the town’s achievement in historic preservation over the last 20 years comes at an opportune time. The economic changes in the 1980s and 1990s are ready to be repeated again.  A federal grant, matched by local sources, will mean that the historic railroad corridor through the center of town will be moved–opening up acres for new construction.  Everyone knows this will be as fundamental of a change as when the Great Northern moved their division point to Whitefish in 1904. But now Kalispell has a strong historic core, identity, and purpose–the past has become fundamental to its future. Now let’s review that preservation achievement.

Flathead Co Kalispell Preserve America sign

 

Lincoln County’s Gateway Towns

Lincoln Co Troy 5I love Montana town signs, and Troy, deep in the state’s logging country, has one of the best.  The sign lures to a city park nestled along the Kootenai River.  The focus point is a

historic Great Northern depot, which has been moved to the park.  There is also an interpretive trail, part of a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, that tells the story of the Callahan boom, which mining and logging combined to lure investors and residents to the area.  It is a story arc that the forest service follows at other sites in a region the service describes as the Callahan Creek Historic Mining and Logging District. It is a very useful perspective on the town’s history, and not one that I pursued in 1984 when I explored this part of Lincoln County in the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan.  I paid attention to the historic railroad corridor–Troy (1892) after all was on

Lincoln Co Troy RR corridor

Lincoln Co Troy facing RR

Lincoln Co Troy bar facing RRthe Great Northern’s main line, and I documented the few historic buildings left facing the railroad tracks today.  The Home Bar (c. 1914) and the Club Bar were institutions then, and remain so today.  The Kootenai State Bank building still stands but has experienced a major change to its facade–made better in part by the American flag painted over some of the frame addition.

img_8425The Troy Jail, above, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and it remains the only building so listed in the town today.  D.E. Crissey, a local contractor, built it out of concrete in 1924 during Troy’s boom from 1916 to 1926 when its population jumped from 300 to 1300.  The Snowstorm mine, which produced lead, zinc, and silver, started to serve the demand for raw materials during World War I.  The mine soon turned what had been a small railroad town into a mining camp best known for its brothels and bars.  Then in the early 1920s the Great Northern decided to build a division point here, further booming the town. The Sandpoint Pole and Lumber Company began its logging business in 1923, and Troy suddenly was the largest town in the county

Lincoln Co Troy school 4

Perhaps the most impressive landmark left in the wake of the Troy boom is the public school, with the impressive central block flanked by classroom wings and a gymnasium built in later decades.  Home to the Troy Trojans, the soldier statue in front of the school is also a public art landmark in Lincoln County.

Troy thus was much more than just a gateway into Montana from U.S. Highway 2–it was once a mining center, but one that went broke fast as the mines played out in the 1920s, the Great Northern closed its roundhouse, and the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.

Lincoln Co Troy mural

In 1984 as I traveled from Troy via Montana State Highway 508 to Yaak, the only “town” left in the state’s far northwest corner, you could still encounter key mining properties along the Yaak River, such as this concentrator at Sylvanite.

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The Keystone Mill was barely hanging on to the side of the mountain then, now it is nowhere to be seen.  Montana 508 has instead become a gateway to some of the some of the most open, untouched high mountain landscape, one that meanders back and forth with the river, bridges, and, perhaps most importantly, bars.

That would be the Dirty Shame Saloon–another institution that some back in the city thought that perhaps I should avoid.  Glad I did not.  Had a great meal there in 1984, and even though the bar’s dining area has been extended, it still had that vibe, of both a local place but also another remnant of the old logging and mining days along the Yaak.

Lincoln Co Yaak dirty Shame saloon 1

Yaak by way of local paths and trails is a gateway too, between Idaho and Montana and Montana and British Columbia.  More to the point it is a gateway between what was and what still is within the Montana landscape.

Lincoln Co Yaak store/bar

Yaak’s general store, service station, lodging, and whatever else you need is another throwback place, and can be found on the web as the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile.  You haven’t “done” Montana if you don’t make it to Yaak.

 

Libby: Disaster and Persistence

Lincoln Co Libby stem of T planLibby is the seat of Lincoln County, a typical railroad town along the historic Great Northern Railway corridor.  The image above is from the town’s railroad depot, the symbolic beginning of town, from which runs a long main street of businesses, reflecting the T-plan town design, where the long railroad corridor defines the top of the T and the main street forms the stem of the T.

The depot is a good example of the railway’s “Chalet” style that it used in many of its Rocky Mountain properties, reflecting the influence of the early resorts in Glacier National Park and the railroad’s wish to connect such rural outposts as Libby with the tourism traffic it wished to generate along the line.

Libby was much like I remembered it from 1984.  The town’s population had dropped by about 100, and some historic store buildings had been leveled, but a new brew pub was in operation and the historic Dome Theater was still going strong.

Lincoln Co Libby old city hall police station

And I liked the New Deal impact on Libby’s public buildings, such as the WPA Deco City Hall, which is now solely the domain of the police department.  Then there is the Lincoln County Courthouse, truly a story of two buildings in one as the mid-1930s Art Deco-styled

Lincoln Co Libby New Deal courthouse 1

img_8345courthouse received a totally new front, in a contemporary style, in the 1970s as the town and county expanded in the wake of the federal spending in constructing Libby Dam. The rectangular blockiness, flat roof, and band of windows set within a symmetrical facade makes the courthouse one of the state’s best designs for a rural public building in the late 20th century.

img_8348 I liked all of those things about Libby in 1984. Imagine my shock and disappointment to learn, as everyone else did, that Libby was one of the poisoned places in the west.  In 1919, vermiculite, a natural material that contains asbestos, had been discovered outside of town, and the mines were still operating, producing 80 percent of the vermiculite in the world, under the control of the W.R. Grace company. Residue from the mines had been used in local yards and buildings for decades, a fact that was not known  when I visited the town for the state historic preservation plan.  When the discovery of the danger became public, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency entered into the fray in 1999, it was already too late for many residents.  A federal Superfund project began, and did not conclude its work until 2015, spending some $425 million. Then in 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a public health emergency, spending another $130 million to help residents and to leave a new health infrastructure in place.  In a generation, Libby had been turned inside out.  EPA announced in 2016 that the cleanup would continue to 2018, and that the project was the longest in the agency’s history.

Lincoln Co Libby hospital 4

The Cabinet Peak Medical Center (2014), designed by CTA Architects, represents the beginning of a new chapter in Libby’s history, as it starts its second century. It extends the city’s earlier healthcare history, represented by the historic St. John Lutheran Hospital, which opened in the 1952 and operated until 2014 when it was closed in favor of the new Cabinet Peaks center.

Lincoln Co Libby hospitalDespite the disaster, I saw many signs that Libby residents were determined to remain and rebuild their community.  One of the most powerful examples is the conversion of one of  the town’s historic schools into a new community arts center as well as school administration offices.

 

Then the public library–home to an active and lively genealogy group and collection–is still a point of pride and activity.  The same is true for the mid-1970s Lincoln County Museum–a wonderful modern log building designed and built by the community during the American Bicentennial just outside of Libby–which remains an active part of the town’s heritage tourism offerings.

Lincoln Co Libby library

Lincoln Co Libby museum 5The asbestos crisis was a terrible disaster for Libby–yet residents refused to let it define their future.  There are past accomplishments to acknowledge, an active railroad depot to cherish, a beautiful river and lake, the mountains all around, as celebrated in this public art mural on a downtown building. This place is here to stay, and the historic built environment is a large part of it.

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Sanders County: Rural Wonders

Sanders Co MT Hwy 200 7Sanders County, like many of the places that are on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, has boomed in the last 25 years, from a population over 8,000 to the current estimated population of 11,300. It is close to Missoula, the eastern side is not far from Flathead Lake, Montana Highway 200 runs from Dixon to the end of the county at Heron. With wide valleys and narrow gorges created by both the Flathead and Clark’s Fork Rivers, which meet outside the town of Paradise, Sanders County is frankly a spectacular landscape, with dramatic mountain views framing open plains, such as the image above and the awesome gorge of Clark’s Fork River, below at Thompson Falls.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls and bridges 14 - Version 2The eastern side of the county is just as dramatic just in a far different way. For centuries First Peoples hunted game and dug the camas root in the broad upland prairie that became known as Camas Prairie, crossed now by Montana Highway 28.

IMG_7876Then, leading from the county’s southeastern edge there is the beautiful Flathead River Valley, followed by Montana Highway 200, from Dixon to Paradise, and most importantly,

IMG_7704a transportation route initially carved as a trail by the First Peoples who became the nucleus of today’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe and much later engineered into a major corridor by the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as it stretched westward from Missoula to the west coast.

Sanders Co MT HWY 200 NP line at lakeIn its wake, the Northern Pacific created most of the county’s townsites by locating sidings along the track. Substantial settlement arrived once the federal government opened lands for the homesteading boom in the early 20th century.

Sanders Co Dixon bar 1Dixon, named for the former Montana governor Joseph Dixon, is one of the remaining railroad/homesteading towns along the Flathead River. The fate of the community bar, above, is symbolic of the recent history of the town, one of population decline.


Decline but not despair, judging from the pride and identity reflected in the Dixon School. The classroom building dates to the end of the homesteading boom, 1919, and reflects a local contractor’s interpretation of Prairie/ Mission-style. The gymnasium, like several in rural Montana, comes from the New Deal era of the 1930s and is in the WPA Deco style often favored by the federal agencies.

Sanders Co Dixon school


The most spectacular historic rural school in Sanders County, however, lies to the northwest of Dixon in Camas Prairie. The setting itself is jaw dropping but then the tiny gymnasium is among the handful of really excellent examples of Prairie style in Montana’s public architecture.

Lake Co St. Camas Prairie school New Deal 5

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IMG_7872Local residents are being excellent stewards of this captivating property–certainly one of my favorite spots in the state combining landscape with architecture with history. The architect was the Missoula designer H. E. Kirkemo, and the school was completed in 1940, near the end of the New Deal school building programs.

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Bridges for Montana Highway 200 and the Northern Pacific Railroad cross the Clark’s Fork River at Paradise

Sanders Co Paradise railroad park

Located near the confluence of the Clark’s Fork River and the Flathead River–long a place of settlement for the Salish and later Canadian and American fur traders–is the town of Paradise, first platted by the North West Improvement Company, a group of investors aligned with the Northern Pacific Railroad, in 1908. Paradise today is one of the region’s best examples of a railroad town and served the railroad as a switching yard and division point, with lumber being the primary product shipped along the rails. The railroad opened its own Tie Treating Plant here in 1908, producing hundreds of thousands of railroad ties each year and at its peak employing 45 workers. It was one of two Northern Pacific facilities for the production of railroad ties–the second plant was on the eastern end of the line in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Sanders Co Paradise NP depot

The brick mid-20th century passenger station and office is a physical indicator of the importance of the Paradise operations to the Northern Pacific. Most small towns merited only a frame depot. No National Register-listed properties exist in Paradise.

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Let’s hope that changes soon as residents continue on their quest to preserve, restore, and transform the historic Paradise school as a community center and museum, not just of 20th century rural education but of the town and railroad history as well. Located on a hill north of town that provides excellent views of Paradise, the railroad tracks, and the river confluence, the 1910 nschool is an interesting piece of late Victorian public architecture, more Romanesque than anything else, particularly with its projecting central entrance with the arched window providing light to the hallways and staircases.

Sanders Co Paradise school 7The school had just closed its doors for good when I lasted visited but the restoration planning has been underway ever since. I look forward to my next visit to Paradise to experience the final results. Near the school is another historic community property, the Paradise Cemetery, where tombstones mark the names of those who worked so long for the railroad and for the creation of this place within the Clark’s Fork River Valley.

Sanders Co Paradise cemetery

A first look at Mineral County’s Milwaukee Road corridor

IMG_7379The two railroads and the river that shaped Missoula also carved the landscape to the northwest.  Following the Clark’s Fork River to the northwest, the Milwaukee Road passes through Mineral County, adding to a transportation corridor that, earlier, included the Mullan Road, and then later U.S. Highway 10.  It is now the route of Interstate Highway I-90 as i heads west to Idaho and then Washington State.

When I carried out the survey for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Mineral County had one property listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The DeBorgia School, built in the wake of the Milwaukee Road’s construction through the mountains in 1908, somehow survived the horrific fire of 1910 that claimed most of the county’s earliest buildings.  As the railroad’s impact declined, and school consolidation took place, the building stopped being a local school in 1956.  It has now served as a community center for longer than it was a school.  A small town library has been constructed nearby since my last visit some 30 years ago.

But what was a solitary landmark in 1985 has become a county proud of its transportation history, especially the impact of the Milwaukee Road and the towns of Superior, Alberton, and St. Regis all have National Register properties that interpret railroads, transportation, and transformation in Montana’s northwest.

IMG_7380As the interstate crosses the Clark’s Fork River near Tarkio it bypasses the earlier transportation network.  A particular marvel is the Scenic Bridge, listed in the National Register in 2010, especially how the bridge of U.S. 10, built in 1928, was designed in dialogue with the earlier high-steel bridge of the Milwaukee Road.

IMG_7378 The Scenic Bridge has been closed to traffic but is safe to walk across, creating great views of both bridges and the Clark’s Fork River–travel here has always been challenging.

Alberton also has important transportation landmarks, especially its National Register-listed Milwaukee Road passenger depot.  The railroad was why the town was established–it is so appropriate that now the railroad headquarters has been converted into city hall and other public uses.

Mineral Co Alberton MR depot

IMG_7367Twenty years historic preservationists stepped up to add numerous properties to the National Register throughout the county.  In addition to the passenger depot, the Montana Valley Book Store, above, was listed.  This two-story false front building, with attached one-story building, was once the town’s commercial heart and known as Bestwick’s Market–it has been close to the heart of book lovers for years now.  Montana Valley Book Store was a relatively new business when I first visited in 1984 but now it is one of the region’s cultural institutions, especially when a visit is combined with a quick stop at the adjacent Trax Bar.

Mineral Co Alberton school

IMG_7369The historic three-story brick Alberton High School (now the Alberton School) operated from 1919 to 1960 as the only high school facility within miles of the railroad corridor.  It too is listed in the National Register and was one of the community landmarks I noted in the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.

Mineral Co Alberton modern h.s.I gave no notice to the replacement school, the modern Alberton High School, c. 1960.  That was a mistake–this building too reflects school design ideas of its time–the Space Age of the late 1950s and 1960s, when open classrooms, circular designs, and a space-age aesthetic were all the rage.  Alberton High School is one of my favorite small-town examples of Montana modernism.

Mineral Co Alberton modern h.s.The school is a modern marvel just as the high school football field and track are reminders of how central the schools are to rural community and identity in Montana. Alberton has held its own in population in the decades since the closing of the Milwaukee Road, largely due to its proximity to Missoula and the dramatic gorges created by the Clark’s Fork River.  Change is probably coming, and hopefully these landmarks will remain in service for years to come.

Mineral Co Alberton football field 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Powell County’s Little Blackfoot River Valley

IMG_2251Between Garrison Junction, where U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate I-90 meet, to Elliston, at near the Mullan Pass over the continental divide, is a beautiful, historic valley carved by the Little Blackfoot River.  It is a part of Powell County that hundreds whiz through daily as they drive between Missoula and Helena, and it is worth slowing down a bit and taking in the settlement landscape along the way.

NP and Mullan Road, Powell Co

Mullan Rd marker and mining, E of Elliston, US 12Captain John Mullan came this way shortly before the Civil War as he built a military road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington.  A generation later, in the early 1880s, the tracks of the Northern Pacific Road used the Mullan Pass to cross the divide and then followed the Little Blackfoot River west towards Missoula.

Elliston was the first Northern Pacific town of note on the west side of the divide and while today it is perhaps best known for Lawdog Saloon–definitely worth a stop–it also retains key public buildings from the early twentieth century, including its Gothic-styled

community church, a large gable-front log building that to my eye reads like a 1930s era community hall (I have not verified that), and then a quite marvelous  Art Deco-styled brick school, built by the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration in the 1930s.

Elliston school, Powell CoThe oldest federal imprint in Elliston comes from the ranger’s headquarters for the Helena National Forest in its combination of a frame early 20th century cottage and then the Rustic-styled log headquarters.

Helena National Forest ranger station, EllistonThe next railroad town west is Avon, which is also at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Montana Highway 141 that takes travelers northwest toward the Blackfoot River. Like Elliston, Avon has several buildings to note, although the National Register-listed property is the historic steel truss bridge that crosses the Little Blackfoot River and then heads into ranch territory.

Powell 3 Little Blackfoot River Bridge US 12 AvonThe bridge is a Pratt pony truss, constructed in 1914 by contractor O.E. Peppard of Missoula, and little altered in the last 100 years. As the National Register nomination notes, the bridge’s camelback trusses are unusual and have not been documented in other Montana bridges from the early 20th century.

IMG_1919Avon has another clearly National Register-worthy building in its 1941 community hall, a late New Deal era building, which has served the community in multiple ways, as a meeting place for the Avon Grange, a polling place, and a place for celebrations of all sorts, including stage presentations and bands.

Avon Community Hall, 1941, probably WPA

Avon Community Hall, New Deal, 1941

Avon Community Hall 1941 New Deal interiorThe Avon School also has a New Deal era affiliation, with the Works Progress Administration. Although remodeled in the decades since, the school still conveys its early 20th century history.

 

Avon School US 12 2Avon even has its early 20th century passenger station for the Northern Pacific Railroad, although it has been moved off the tracks and repurposed for new uses.

IMG_1933In front of the depot is the turn of the 20th century St. Theodore’s Catholic Church.  The historic Avon Community Church incorporates what appears to be a moved one-room school building as a wing to the original sanctuary.

Early railroad era commercial buildings also remain in Avon, with a frame false front building serving both as a business and the community post office.  Birdseye Mercantile is an architecturally impressive stone building, dated c. 1887, that has for a decade housed a quilt business.  It too may be National Register worthy.

Birdseye Mercantile, 1887, AvonAnother important property in Avon, but one I ignored in 1984-85, is the town cemetery, which also helps to document the community’s long history from the 1880s to today.

Avon Cemetery, SE, Powell Co

Avon Cemetery, W, Powell CoHeading west from Avon on U.S. Highway 12 there are various places to stop and enjoy the river valley as it narrows as you approach Garrison.  I always recalled this part fondly, for the beaverslide hay stackers–the first I encountered in Montana in 1981–and they are still there today, connecting the early livestock industry of the valley to the present.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.