Pintler Scenic Route and the Flint Valley

Flint valley S from Valley Cemetery, Mullan Rd, Granite CoMontana Highway 1, the Pintler Scenic Route as I knew it during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, provides travelers with two distinct experiences.  The southern half is a mining landscape, centered on the urban places of Anaconda and Philipsburg. The northern half is very agricultural, a place where cowboys and cowgirls still roam.  It is one of my favorite parts of the state.  Fret not, I won’t explore every nook and cranny but I will talk about three favorite places.

Granite Co, Hall post office, St 512First up is the village of Hall, which is north of Phillipsburg.  The Northern Pacific Railroad ran its spur line from Drummond to Philipsburg through the middle of the valley, leaving Hall as the halfway stop between the larger towns.  Just as in 1984, the old town bank still served as the post office.  Hogan’s Store still stood near the railroad tracks and a lone grain elevator stood along the old railroad corridor.

Hogan's store, MT 512, Hall

IMG_2076So too was the historic school at Hall still standing–in fact this c. 1920 brick building continues to serve local children as it has for decades. The same was true for the Stockman

Granite Co Hall school MT 513

Granite Co, Stockman bar and store, MT 513, HALLBar–maybe not as old as the school building but not far behind and still in business despite the proximity to Drummond and Philipsburg. Then there is a wonderful piece of yard art in Hall–leaving no doubt about the primary agricultural product here.

Yard art, Hall, US 10A, Powell co

Mullan Road, E, at Valley CemeteryAs you travel north on Montana Highway 1 you next, unexpectedly, cross the historic Mullan Road, one of the oldest roads in the northwest.  Parts of the road are graveled and graded, others are paved, but whatever the condition the road takes you to 19th century log

Log buildings at ranch off Mullan Road, s of Drummond, Granite Co

Log Building, Mullan Road, S of Drummond, Granite Cobuildings, even a dog-trot type log dwelling as well as the spectacular Valley Cemetery. I call it spectacular not for its cemetery art–although there is more than you would expect–but for its setting in the Flint Valley.

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Valley Cemetery, Mullan Road, Granite Co 2

Valley Cemetery, Mullan Road, Granite Co 3Wherever you look the vista is jaw dropping and can’t be that different than what Capt. Mullan and crew experienced in the late 1850s as they trekked this way.  The Annie Milroy grave marker and statue (1912) speaks to the sadness that many homesteaders experienced as they tried to make a go of it in this demanding land.

Union Army Civil War veteran Franklin Taylor found his final resting place here, an indication of the cemetery’s early date as is the beautiful cross marker for Michael Dooley, who died in 1886.

IMG_2297The nearby elaborate carving of the Bergman family marker is just another indication that this cemetery deserves additional, full research. (Not far away from Hall is the lone obelisk marker for the historic Emmitsburg Cemetery, another early settlement site.) My next post will finish the Pintler Scenic Route with a deep look at Drummond.

 

Willow Creek: end of the line

IMG_6775Willow Creek was the end of the line for both the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee Road railroads as they vied for dominance in turn of the 20th century western Gallatin County.  The Northern Pacific came first with its spur line to Butte in the late 1880s then the Milwaukee arrived c. 1908.  Both used the same corridor, along what is now called the Old Yellowstone Trail on some maps; the Willow Creek Road (MT 287) on others.  It was a route that dated to 1864–the town cemetery, according to lore, dates to that year and Willow Creek has had a post office since 1867.

To find Willow Creek you follow the tracks and go south, entering one of the most beautiful rural landscapes left in the county. At the head of town is a historic early 20th century grain elevator on the old Northern Pacific line.

From there the old Yellowstone Trail highway curves into the town itself, creating a streetscape that takes you back 80 years at least, when Willow Creek was full of promise as a two-line town.

Gallatin Co Willow Creek

Two important commercial landmarks face each other.  First is the frame, false front early 20th century Willow Creek Cafe and Saloon, a local establishment that I cannot recommend enough.  It is the social heartbeat of the town.

IMG_6771Across the street is the “employment center,” the Willow Creek Tool and Technology which sells its wares across the west out of its brick building from the 1910s. (Note the faded advertising sign that once greeted travelers on the Yellowstone Trail highway.)

IMG_6762The cultural side of Willow Creek is represented by several places: homes and galleries of different artists, a monthly arts festival in the summer, and two special buildings from the 1910s.  The Stateler Memorial Methodist Church, c. 1915, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Built from rusticated concrete blocks (from the cement factory at Three Forks) designed to resemble stone masonry, the church building is home to one of the oldest congregations (1864) in the Methodist Church in Montana.  The Gothic Revival-styled sanctuary is named in honor of its founding minister Learner B. Stateler.

IMG_6770Nearby is another crucial landmark for any rural Montana community–the local school.  The Willow Creek School is an excellent example of the standardized, somewhat Craftsman-styled designs used for rural Montana schools in the 1910s. Two stories of classrooms, sitting on a full basement, was a large school for its time, another reflection of the hopes of the homesteading era.

Gallatin Co Willow Creek school 3Additions in form of a gym and added rooms had come to the north and the school and its lot is the town’s community center. Although so close to Three Forks, the school kept its

enrollment enough to maintain a Class C status in athletics and its tiny football field and track, with a beautiful view of the Tobacco Root Mountains, might be one of the most scenic athletic field spots in the west. No wonder that residents do what they can to keep the school and the town alive in an era of great change in Gallatin County.

Gallatin Co Willow Creek football field 1

 

 

 

Gallatin County’s Country Towns

Gallatin Co AmsterdamMontana history has many episodes that involve rich eastern and foreign capitalists who rolled the dice on Montana’s resources.  Typically everyone thinks of the mining and railroad corporations of the late 19th century.  But in several places across the Big Sky Country, investors looked to the land itself and dreamed of agricultural bonanzas.

IMG_6807Such is the case of Amsterdam and Church Hill (now Churchill), two rural communities in today’s rapidly suburbanizing Gallatin County.   The Manhattan Malting Company was mostly a New York City venture which in the early 1890s, before the terrible depression of 1893-1896, established an industrial base on the Northern Pacific Railroad, changing the name of the town from Moreland to Manhattan.  The company purchased 13,000 acres,and acquired the best in agricultural technology, the Jacob Price Field Locomotive steam plow, to till the soil.  They also convinced hundred of Dutch farmers to come to Gallatin County and work the land.  Even with the hard times, or perhaps because of them, people still wanted good beer, and the company prospered.  By 1905 the company decided to shed itself of the land and focus on malting barley.

Gallatin Co Amsterdam 1The new land company focused on getting farmers on its land, and to secure a railroad spur line.  The railroad came in 1911, and the community name of Amsterdam reflected the ethnic origins of the surrounding farmers and ranchers.  Even when the Malting Company failed during Prohibition, the farmers kept going, developing some of the still most productive farmland in the state.

IMG_6803When I visited Amsterdam in 1984 the railroad line still operated but the spur closed the next year, leaving today only a faint corridor to mark its route.  Look close and you can still see the outline of the T-plan town that was once “downtown Amsterdam” by the remaining historic commercial buildings, with the Danhof automobile dealership still in business today, with a newer showroom just east of the old railroad tracks.

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Gallatin Co Amsterdam 8

The Amsterdam school is also thriving today, serving both the Amsterdam and Churchill communities, as well as the expanding suburban enclaves of this part of the county. The school is not a frame building but a decidedly mid-20th century modern design in concrete.

Churchill had changed markedly since my last visit 30 years ago.  The constant was the landmark Manhattan Christian Reformed Church:  after all that is how the name Church Hill came about–the congregation located their Gothic-styled landmark on the highest point in the area.  The church is even larger today, and the adjacent Manhattan Christian Academy has built new facilities since my last visit.

Gallatin Co Churchill Manhattan Christian 2

The second landmark church is the Bethel Christian Reformed Church, and between the two churches along the road early to mid-20th residences remain much as they were 30

Gallatin Co Churchill Bethel Christian Reformed Church

years ago.  But suburbs are everywhere, and the demographics and culture of the area are changing. Perhaps that helps to explain why residents placed at the park at Manhattan Christian Reformed Church a monument to the “Holland Settlement,” to those “forefathers” who first settled this area over 100 years ago.  There was no need for this monument in 1985.  But in the 21st century times and people had changed. This boulder monument will be hard to displace, no matter what happens to the land around it.

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U. S. Highway 89 heading south

After taking a long look at the depth of nationally significant heritage stories and historic places in and around Great Falls, I want to change regions, to the Upper Yellowstone valley and get there by one of my favorite western highways, U. S. Highway 89.

Cascade Co Neihart US 89 NAs the highway leaves the central plains east of Great Falls, it heads east through coal country (see the earlier post on Belt) and south into the Little Belt Mountains and the old mining towns of Monarch and Neihart (above).  Both Cascade County towns are proud of their heritage, a story embodied in the Monarch-Neihart School, a wonderful bit of log craftsmanship from the New Deal era, a WPA project finished in 1940 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Another point of pride is the ongoing renovation of Neihart’s Great Northern Railroad depot, a mark of the town’s beginnings, which also serves the greater Monarch-Neihart area as the local museum and heritage center. While on the other side of the road, another turn of the century historic building has been converted into a self-described junk shop where you can acquire bits and pieces of the past.

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After traversing through the mountains, by a sky resort, you suddenly drop back into the central Montana plains, a landscape shaped by the Smith River, one of the state’s most compelling natural and historic landscapes.  You are now in Meagher County, discussed in an earlier post, where the town of White Sulphur Springs is the county seat. It too has its New Deal landmark, the Classical Moderne styled county courthouse.

IMG_7160When I last visited there in 2015 the combined route of U.S. 89 and 12, which passes in front of the courthouse and the center of town, was being rebuilt, giving the historic business district the look of a ghost town.

The Fort Logan Road, on the east side of town, was not under construction, allowing for easy access to the other significant transportation link, the railroad, and the still surviving White Sulphur Springs depot, a place certainly worth of listing in the National Register.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs depot 3U.S. Highway 89 continues south, crossing the historic corridor of the Milwaukee Road at Ringling, another Meagher County town discussed in an earlier post, marked by the landmark St. John’s Catholic Church.

IMG_9498Travelers continuing south soon find themselves in Park County, entering the Shields River Valley just north of Wilsall, where highway markers and monuments, like that for “Thunder Jack” (2006) by sculptor Gary Kerby, convey the significance of the place.

Park Co US 89 Thunder Jack statue N of Wilsall 3

IMG_1158Wilsall was not much a place 30 years ago, a small trade town on the edge of a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line, a past still recalled by the tall elevator and old railroad corridor.

Park Co US 89 wilsall elevator 1But the growing popularity of the Shields River Valley has led to a new boom in Walsall, with old banks converted into bars and old general stores

being revived and expanded. The town has its own museum now, in a converted gas station from the 1920s that served travelers and locals. The stories preserved there, along with the mural of Walsall over 100 years ago, show the residents’ sense of place and the past.

Park Co US 89 wilsall crazy little museum 2

Park Co US 89 wilsall mural

The next town down the old Northern Pacific line, Clyde Park, has a similar story of revival from 30 years ago. Glenn’s Shopping Center is still going strong, as is the town community hall across the street, and the town park is neatly kept and in regular use.

Park Co US 89 Clyde Park stores 1Clyde Park Tavern is still the place to go for an adult beverage, or two.  Historic grain elevators still serve local ranchers, marking the railroad line that defined the town’s landscape until the impact of the highway in the early 20th century.

The sojourn to the Yellowstone Valley will stop here, on the edge before we cross bridges, backtrack to Springdale and Fort Parker, before we explore in some depth Livingston, Montana’s gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

 

Plains Country Towns in Montana’s Judith Basin

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Milwaukee Road Corridor, Moore, 1984.

In my work with the State Historic Preservation Office in 1984-1985, my colleagues put up with many of my own peculiar interests and views of the Montana historic landscape, especially the focus on public buildings and the state’s railroad corridors.  My interests, however, in the country towns of the Judith Basin was probably always a puzzler; staff always wished I would press on to Lewistown, where some of the best preservation work in the state was taking place in the mid-1980s (much more on Lewistown a bit later).  But I must admit that the maze of small towns–never numbering more than 200 or so souls in any given place–created by the railroads as they fought for market dominance in the rich agricultural region of the Judith Basin some 100 years ago was just fascinating.

Moore Elevators Fergus Co

Grain elevators at Moore, 1984

And they remain so today.  The geographer John Hudson had provided basic insights on the creation, distribution, and purpose of the country towns in the larger development of the northern plains–he coined the phrase “plains country towns.” The constant elements that they all shared–oriented to the tracks, the dominance of grain elevators, the prominence of depots–underscore the railroad era origins.  But the towns all had their own individual places and statements, be it a woman’s club, a library, the school, and the bars and taverns.  Thirty years later, much was missing from what I experienced in 1984–every place lost population between 1980-2010–but much still remained, and residents seemed determined to keep it that way.

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Moore still has its grain elevators but the Milwaukee depot is long gone, creating an empty space along the corridor.  Moore has the look of so many Milwaukee Road towns with a T-plan design apparent today even as the town decline from its height of 575 residents in 1920 to the 193 of today.

IMG_9790But the town, which compared to many I visited in 1984 had declined to a lesser degree (229 residents in 1980 to 193 in 2010), still has its public institutions.  The Moore Woman’s Club is celebrating its centennial in 2015 while the town’s public library is another key community center while the continued operation of the unassuming Moore public school

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IMG_9785_2is undoubtedly the major reason that the town is still here today.

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The Great Northern Railway spur line that snaked north from the Yellowstone Valley at Laurel through the Judith Gap then the basin was always a corridor of great interest to me, although the towns created along the way were small, seemingly inconsequential compared to the linking of Great Falls and Billings.

IMG_9770Traveling north out of the Yellowstone then Musselshell valleys, the Great Northern line entered the basin at Judith Gap, and the homesteaders who followed built a grand two-story brick school that spoke of their ambitions.

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The corridor then left in its wake places forgotten today.  Travelers along U.S. 191 may notice the old brick state bank building and elevators at Garneill, but they may not.

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The highway veers away from the railroad line at Garneill, meaning that the old state bank at Buffalo was a forgotten place in 1984–and the town remains so today.

Buffalo, Judith Basin Co (p84 35-15)

First State Bank, Buffalo, 1984.

Hobson, on U.S. 87/Montana 200, has experienced a much brighter history. Its brick bank building houses a local bar.  While no depot remains, the town’s railroad line remains a IMG_9797

IMG_9792point of focus, although most traffic, commercial and otherwise, relies on the highway.  Hobson’s population when I visited in 1984 was at its height, 261 people in 1980, and it still tops over 200 today.  Another defining characteristic is Hobson’s rather unique (for a plains country town) boulevard plan.

IMG_9794On either side lie business and public buildings and the street ends at the high school, where the six-man football field is a central element of the community’s public landscape.

IMG_9801The Murray Block, 1910, dominates the business district today as it much have done one hundred years ago–it is rare to see a false-front concrete block building.  The Masonic

IMG_9795Lodge probably helps to identify some of the builders of Hobson’s historic structures located on the boulevard.  But whoever the builders were, here is a very interesting place

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IMG_9799and just as importantly the properties are in use, be they a cafe, a store, or a library. A long two-lane road, Montana 239, stretches east from Hobson along the Judith River and headed into Little Belt Mountains.  The paved road ends at the earlier settlement of the

IMG_9419basin, the cowboy town of Utica, made famous by the paintings and writings of Charles M. Russell, the state’s most famous artist.  Utica has a strong sense of itself, although it is justa tiny place today.  A large part of that sense of the past is maintained and enhanced by the work of the Utica museum, the local historical society, and the town rod and gun club.  Utica has a level of public interpretation that was certainly not in place in 1984 and that today is rarely matched in a small Montana town.

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IMG_9422Utica also has done a commendable job of maintaining and preserving key community buildings, such as the early 20th century school and community hall, both properties associated with the homesteading boom of that time.  The town’s historic store is a little

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IMG_9427worse for the wear of 100 years of use, but it is still here, and the stone construction speaks strongly to the vernacular quality of the area’s built environment.

IMG_9428History and preservation are not the only reasons for Utica’s survival.  In true Montana fashion, most people who take the long drive here come for the food, drink, and good

IMG_9430times at the Oxen Yoke Inn–why else would you locate the town’s primary interpretive sign next to the bar’s parking lot.

IMG_9431For most travelers the highway from Hobson at the eastern end of Judith Basin County to Stanford, the county seat, in the center of the county, is just open road.  But between those two towns three Great Northern hamlets still have significant remnants of their past.  Moccasin was such a favorite in 1984 that the resulting book from the survey work,  A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, had two images from the place–the New Deal school, with its totally out of place but flashy Art Deco design, and the two-story Classical Revival styled bank building. Moccasin MT JB CoMoccasin, Judith Basin Co (p84 85-1)Those landmarks remain in Moccasin, but much worse for the wear.  The school is clearly among those threatened landmarks highlighted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.  The bank is hanging on, barely.

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IMG_9821Moccasin still has other historic buildings worthy of note, such as a church, its town pump, even a telephone booth (a real disappearing part of the landscape from 1984 to 2014).

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IMG_9822More importantly, its historic Great Northern combination depot, although battered, still is along the tracks nearby the elevators, reminding anyone looking closely enough of the railroad roots of the place.

IMG_9809The next two towns of Benchland and Windham also retain their historic depots.  The Benchland station has deteriorated in the last generation as documented in a comparison of a 1984 image with one from 2014.

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IMG_9834The Windham depot has been moved slightly off the tracks–but still within a stone’s throw of the rails.  The station, along with the historic commercial strip of the T-town plan, and historic elevators, still give meaning to the “W” of the town sign.

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IMG_9839The curve of the tracks headed to Stanford is a good place to rest with this post–more on the plains country towns of the Judith Basin in the next post.

Bridger: Northern Pacific Railroad Hub in the Clark’s Fork Valley

IMG_5650As you head north into Montana from Wyoming on U. S. 310, the first substantial place you encounter is Bridger, named for famed fur trader and early Yellowstone traveler Jim Bridger.  Like its neighbor to the north in Fromberg, Bridger is another turn of the 20th century Northern Pacific Railroad town in the Clark’s Fork River Valley that was much the same from my initial visit 31 years ago.  Its population had remained steady–a tad over 700, about the same as in 1984, and only 150 or so less than its height in 1950.

IMG_5659The town’s grain elevators speak to the formative impact of the railroad.  Here back in the late 1890s engineers followed a well worn and recognized Indian trail–a similar route to what Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians chose a generation earlier as he tried to find safety for his people, traveling from Wyoming into the Clark’s Fork Valley.

IMG_5631The town’s commercial district retains much of its early 20th century look.  Old bank buildings dominate the town center, while substantial 2-story commercial buildings (including properties listed in the National Register) remain, showing how quickly merchants came to Bridger and launched businesses to attract the growing number of homesteaders in the Clark’s Fork River valley in the 1910s.

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IMG_5655That first generation of settlers did their part to build lasting community institutions.  The Bridger United Methodist Church is an impressive example of vernacular Gothic design. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The town library is almost a picture perfect example of what this institution should look like in a small town setting.

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IMG_5636The irrigation ditch drifting through the town park is a reminder of how the engineered landscape of irrigated fields provided much of Bridger’s early wealth and development.  The park itself was a creation of the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s.

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Within the park is a ceramic and brick arch, one of the town’s many examples of public art.  The mural on a side of a store seen earlier in this post is another example while creative metal statues of wild horses grazing or the imposing figure of Jim Bridger himself welcoming visitors at the southern end of the town underscores a local tradition of public art not often seen in Montana’s small towns.

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IMG_5661                     Carbon Co Bridger jim bridger mt 2 - Version 2

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Other historic statements of the town’s sense of community include the 1930s Civic Center, a bit worn today but a center for community gatherings and social events for decades.

IMG_5651Bridger’s schools from the 1960s introduce Montana modernism to the townscape, almost like spaceships landing within the middle of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  Modernism 1960s style also characterize Sacred Heart Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and the Bridger Seventh Day Adventist Church, constructed in 1965.

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St. Paul Lutheran ChurchIMG_5639                                            Sacred Heart Catholic Church

IMG_5649These community anchors date from 50 years ago, so obviously growth has been stagnant, or stable, pick your terms, since the boom introduced in the valley through expanded irrigation projects in the post-World War II era.  But all of the buildings are well maintained, and are part of the sense of overall sense of pride you get from a visit to Bridger.

IMG_5654Bridger has reminders, both in monuments and in businesses, of the deep past of the Clark’s Fork River Valley.  It is an interesting place of strong institutions, several National Register-listed historic homes, and local business, and a significant part of the often ignored history of the Clark’s Fork Valley.

The High Prairie of Stillwater County

IMG_5914Stillwater County is one of the most beautiful spots in all of the Yellowstone Valley.   The parallel routes of the Yelllowstone River, the c. 1882 corridor of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the c. 1920 route of old U.S. Highway 10 and the modern marvel of Interstate I-90, shown above, define the county’s historic landscape for most residents, and travelers.

IMG_5894But running directly north from the county seat of Columbus  is a two-lane Montana highway that takes you to a totally different landscape, that of the high prairie of thousands of acres of wheat fields.  The road ends about 20 or so miles away at the town of Rapelje, a promising trade center when it was first established as a railroad branch in 1913

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during the homesteading boom but now one of the region’s small country towns, defined by its school, its church, its cafe, and its grain elevators.  Its set of four early 20th century elevators, standing as sentinels of settlement but also as just man-made landmarks in a vast landscape of seemingly nothingness, is a remarkable statement of the built environment of Montana’s homesteading era.

IMG_5900Businesses are few and far between–the handful of local residents and scattered ranch families take their business to Columbus, or a bit farther to Laurel and Billings.  There is still a town cafe–the Stockman Cafe–which is run as a volunteer cooperative for those passing through.  The past few summers a June bike race has become a popular fund-raiser for the cafe.

IMG_5907The town has retained two public buildings–its post office and its school, the pride of the community, which was built in 1920 and has since been renovated and expanded with a new wing to the rear of the historic building.  The school is home to the Rapelje Rockets.

IMG_5903With less than 100 residents in Rapelje, the school educates ranch kids living throughout the county’s high prairie, a role similar to the local post office, which despite threats last decade to close many of the state’s rural post offices, still serves this farming community.

IMG_5898The loss of population means that Rapelje has just two primary sacred places:  the Gothic-styled community church, built during the initial decade of settlement, and the town

IMG_5901cemetery, which is located south of the village on a rise that overlooks the open prairie in all four directions.  Of course, as Rapelje fades into the past, the cemetery grows in its number of headstones–a sign of what limits the future holds for this high prairie town.

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