A Return to Ekalaka

img_0423Recently one of my graduate students from almost 20 years ago, Carole Summers Morris, contacted me.  Carole had just discovered that her family had roots in Carter County, Montana–and she wanted to know if I had ever been in Ekalaka.  I told her yes, in 1984, as documented by the postcard below I picked up on that trip, and most recently in 2013.

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I pointed Carole to my December 2014 blog post on Ekalaka.  When I visited that post itself, to remind me what had caught my eye in Ekalaka in 2013, I found out that I promised another post on the area–and had never done it.  So, to honor that initial promise and to show Carole more of the town, here is Ekalaka revisited.

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My big omission in the December 2014 post was to say something about Medicine Rocks State Park.  As I drove south on Montana Highway 7 to Ekalaka in 1984, nothing quite had prepared me for this collection of wind-carved rocks lining both sides of the highway.

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Medicine Rocks State Park in 1984.

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The same exposed boulder in 2013.

I immediately thought that here was a landscape of both natural beauty but also of great cultural significance.  In A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I noted that “The Sioux called the country Inyan-oka-la-la, or “rock with hole in it.” The Medicine Rocks, which stretch for several miles, have ceremonial and religious significance for Montana Indians.  It is a place where they often gathered to pray to the Great Spirits, and to ask for spiritual guidance.  Within the park, several stone circles mark the location of Native American camps, and there is a large medicine wheel… In the hills visible on the horizon, Indians found sources of red and blue pigments for the ceremonial paints they work at the Medicine Rocks.”  The text included the black and white image above.

Carter Co MT 7 Medicine Rocks State Park 4

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In 1984 I thought that this place would surely become Carter County’s first National Register nomination–that still has not been achieved.  In 2013, I also picked up a rural church and cemetery that I somehow missed 30 years earlier, the Medicine Rocks Church, which overlooks the park. The cemetery is particularly at a beautiful site.

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Carter Co MT 7 Medicine Rocks cemeteryFor Ekalaka itself, my 2014 post focused on public buildings such as the Carter County Courthouse and the historic elementary school.  I did not include an image of the old town

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bank, which is now restored as city offices and is the first property to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Nor did I include the old hotel building below.

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Carter Co Ekalaka nursing homeI mentioned the existence of the nursing home next to the county courthouse–an arrangement of space not seen elsewhere in the state–but did not include a photo of the c. 1960 Dahl Memorial Nursing Home.

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Carter Co Ekalaka bungalow

Indeed I did little with the town’s domestic architecture, even though several buildings are noteworthy, as commercial buildings become residences and then historic houses become tourist-oriented businesses, as seen above.

img_0426I didn’t even include all of the buildings at the excellent Carter County Museum, such as this well-crafted log residence from the early settlement period, the Allenbaugh Cabin, dated c. 1882-1883, probably the earliest surviving piece of domestic architecture in the county today.  When I visited the museum in 1984, the cabin had been acquired but it was not restored and placed for exhibit until the late 1990s.

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So thanks Carole for prompting me to return to Ekalaka–a remarkably friendly place, and one where a tiny town in a wide open landscape still speaks to the roots of Montana history and culture.

The Pintler Scenic Route

 

Granite Co, Pintlar Scenic Route US 10AMontana Highway 1, designated the Pintler Scenic Route, has long been one of my favorite roads. It was the first Montana road to be paved in its entirety. During the state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, I documented the route as U.S. 10A, but once government officials decided to decommission the U.S. 10 designation in 1986, the name U.S. 10A also went away.  t.  In its early decades the route had passed through Opportunity to Anonconda onto Phillipsburg and then Drummond, but for all of my time in Montana, the highway has gone from Interstate I-90, Anaconda/Opportunity exit to the west and then north to the Drummond exit on the same interstate. There is a new 21st century rest stop center at the Anaconda I-90 exit that has a Montana Department of Transportation marker about the mountain ranges and the Pintler route.

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IMG_1285The town of Opportunity was not a priority for my travels in 1984-1985 but recent scholarship on how local residents have fought back against the decades of pollution from Anaconda’s Washoe Stack led me to give this small town of 500 a new look.  The book is Brad Tyer’s Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape (2014). Tyler details how the success of Anaconda also meant the sacrifice of thousands of surrounding acres to the pollution belching daily from the Washoe Stack until it closed in 1981.  He then reviews in detail how in the 21st century, EPA heaped a new disaster on the town by moving Milltown wastes from the Clark’s Fork River near Missoula to Opportunity, telling locals that the Milltown soil would be new top soil for Opportunity.  The environmental solution didn’t work, leaving the town in worse shape than before.

IMG_1288Opportunity residents got a small fraction of  SuperFund monies for the environmental cleanup in the form of Beaver Creek park.  But the centerpiece of the park, the Opportunity School built for residents in 1914 by the Anaconda Company, has been mothballed for now.  It operated from 1914 until the smelter ceased operations in 1981 and

IMG_1287served as the community’s focal point. Restoration of the school is problematic due to the prior use of asbestos, meaning the federally funded park is only partially finished since the SuperFund support is now gone.

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Beaver Dam Park, Opportunity

The park’s sharp landscaping, with well-manicured green space, walking/jogging track, playground and picnic shelter is in stark contrast to other places merely hanging on.  The town’s Community Hall remains in use but the local store has shuttered its doors.

Opportunity Community Hall

Opportunity Store

This blog has already looked at Stack and the town of Anaconda, so let’s continue north on the Pintler route to Georgetown Lake and surviving ghost towns.

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Georgetown Lake, from St. Timothy'sSitting at 6,425 feet in elevation Georgetown Lake covers over 3700 acres.  Today it is very much a recreational landscape but when it was created in 1885 its job was to generate electrical power for the nearby mines since it stood roughly equal distance between

Anaconda (14 miles away) and Phillipsburg (10 miles away).  Taverns, motel, and rustic-style log buildings, both old and new, mark the lakeside today.

IMG_1645As the state highway historical marker above documents, this high country area was another mining region.  With an vantage point above the lake, Southern Cross is a significant remnant of the mining activities from the early 20th century.  The mines here

southern cross ghost town 13began operation in the mid-1860s and production continued for until World War II.  The settlement was largely Finnish and Swedish in the early 20th century when most of the remaining buildings were constructed.

Existing foundations, rubble heaps, and other archaeological remnants help to document the historic community and its activities.These sites are not open to the public but they are fascinating to explore from the existing roads.  One place that welcomes the public is St. Timothy’s Catholic Chapel, a wonderful example of Montana Modernism that I discussed in an earlier post.

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With Southern Cross–over 7,000 feet in elevation, representing the end of the Deer Lodge County section of the Pintler Route, I will stop now, and in the next post begin the exploration into the Granite County portion of the highway.

Telling Butte’s Stories

Archives and fire station, ButteLet me just jump right in:  I do not know of another town in Montana that has done more with the concept of heritage development than Butte in the last 30 years.  Heritage development, in brief, means that a community identifies the stories and places that define their past and sense of identity and then uses them as tools for community revitalization and growth.  The stories and places must be authentic, meaningful, real–fake pasts don’t get you very far.  In 1981, out of fears that its storied and nationally significant history would be lost in the haze of late 20th century urban renewal and economic change, Butte created as part of local government the Butte-Silver Bow Archives–everyone I knew were excited about its potential and its early discoveries at the time of the state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985.  Now that institution is one of the key rocks upon which Butte’s future lays.  Above is the conversion of a historic firehall into the modern archives/heritage center the institution is today–in itself a great example of adaptive reuse and historic preservation at work.

Professional staff and volunteers, all led by Ellen Crain, keep both the community and scholars engaged–the number of strong histories, public projects, and exhibits that have come, in whole or in part, from this place in the last 30 years is very impressive.  Plus it is

IMG_1105a vibrant institution, always in touch as its community room hosts other heritage groups and special programs throughout the year.  The archives is just around the corner from one of the most important, and solemn,  places in the city, the location of the Butte Miners’ Union Hall, which was bombed in 1914.

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Now an interpretive monument talks about the union, the bombing, and addresses directly a chilling chapter in the long struggle between labor and capital in Butte. Installed c. 1993 near the “top” of Main Street, this site sets the stage for the amount of public interpretation found in the city today.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 033Heritage development has become part of the basic sinews of Butte. Along with its active archives board, the city also maintains an effective historic district commission, and provided seed money for several key projects over the past generation.  The Original Mine site below, the city’s first copper mine, not only serves as part of the city’s public

interpretation efforts, it is also a place for community gatherings, such as the Montana Folklife Festival in recent years. It is important to note that the marker at the Original just doesn’t celebrate the technology it also notes how many men–43–died at that mine.  The progress of Butte happened on the back of its working class miners.

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Here is another promising change:  the willingness to landmark and discuss the human costs of mining.  Butte’s most infamous event was the Granite Mountain/ Speculator Mine disaster of 1917 in which 168 miners died–still the single most deadly disaster in American hard-rock mining history. Not that the event was ignored at the time.  In fact the North Butte mining company erected the memorial above to those who perished in Mountain View Cemetery, far from the scene, shortly thereafter.  Who knew this memorial existed?  There were no signs marking the way there–you had to search to find it.

IMG_1230Today the Granite Mountain site is one of the best interpreted mining properties I have encountered.  The miners’ stories are told–often with the words they were able to write down before dying from the lack of oxygen–and their multiple ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged, and celebrated.

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IMG_0977The interpretive memorial overlooks the mine, and is located high over town.  But when I visited in May 2012 a school group was there too, along with visitors like me.

ARCO, along with public partners, funded the site in this century, as part of the general Superfund cleanup of the mining district.  But the park was long overdue as well as the recognition that some 2,500 miners lost their lives in the Butte district.  The marker’s statement–“you are standing on hallowed ground”–is typically reserved for military parks.  Within the context of Butte, however, it is totally justified, and an important point to remember wherever you are in the city.

The reality that Butte’s mines contributed significantly to American war efforts in the 20th century is recalled through a public art mural near a public transit stop.  Public sculpture also interprets what was and what has been lost in Butte.

Through the efforts of the state historic preservation office, and its commendable program of providing interpretive markers for National Register properties, the residential side of Butte’s story is also being told.  You have to love the “blue” house, associated with U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, one of the New Deal era movers and shakers.

I-15 interpretive markers, ButteAll of these efforts considerably enhance earlier efforts at public interpretation, be they along Interstate I-15 and its overview of Butte or the visitor center maintained just off the

Butte Visitor Centerinterstate by the local chamber of commerce.  The center, yet another change in the last 30 years, is an attractive reproduction of a classic railroad depot design.  It also provides a useful perspective of the city from its south side, giving special prominence to the soaring clock tower of the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Butte overview from visitor centerThe Berkeley Pit in 1984 was a giant hole in the earth, with a viewing stand.  It too now has a more comprehensive heritage experience with a small visitor center/ museum adding to the public understanding of the massiveness and significance of the pit.

Berkeley Pit, entrance, Butte

Then of course, designed for highway travelers and tourists, there is the now classic World Museum of Mining, established in 1965 around the Orphan Girl mine.  The WMM lets rusting industrial artifacts convey part of the story while the existing mining buildings are open, allowing you to get a more physical experience of what the head frames and mines were really about.  And, as typical of Montana museums of the 1960s and 1970s, there is the attached “frontier village,” interpreting what early Butte was all about. Don’t get me

wrong: there are many things to like about the WMM–it is rich in artifacts, as the miners items above suggest (and more about it in another post).  But it is a controlled, sterile experience, and I would hate for that to be the only takeaway visitors have about Butte and its significance.  The museum is away from uptown Butte, and visitors who stop here may never go explore the deeper story within the town and its historic neighborhoods.

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Old Butte Historical Adventures on Main Street is just one group of heritage entrepreneurs who provide visitors with a “up close and personal” viewpoint and experience of Butte’s historic landscape.  Walking tours of Uptown along with various special theme tours engage visitors and residents with local history in a way different from traditional monuments, markers, and historic sites.

But one must be aware that the pressure to commercialize can also distort, and demean, the significance of it all.  What happens at the Dumas Hotel–a historic brothel–will be interesting to watch.  The story of prostitution is very much part of the fabric of the city, but one that for many years people did not want to tell, except with snide references and a snicker or two.  Let’s hope that changes as the Dumas is restored and opened as a heritage venue:  addressing the sex trade and role of women and men accurately and in context would add immeasurably to the sense of authenticity, of realism, in the Butte story.

Butte Greenway towards Walkerville

The most exciting part of Butte’s heritage development to my mind are the series of greenways or trails that link the mines to the business and residential districts and that link Butte to neighboring enclaves like Centerville (shown above).  Recreational opportunity–walking, jogging, boarding, biking–is a huge component of livable spaces for the 21st century.  When these trails are enhanced by the stories they touch or cover,

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they become even more meaningful and valuable.  If you have lived in Montana for 6 months or 60 years, it is time to return to Butte and take the Montana Copperway (trailhead shown above) –not only would it be good for your health, it also gives you a lasting perspective of a mining town within the vast Northern Rockies landscape, and how men and women from all sorts of backgrounds and nations established a real community, one that has outlasted the mines that first created it.

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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.

Carbon County’s Bearcreek and the Smith Mine Disaster

IMG_5696Red Lodge prospered as a railroad/coal town because rich seams of coal existed all around it, especially to the east along Bear Creek, now followed by Montana 308.  Active exploitation of these resources started at the beginning of the 20th century, and continued, on a significantly reduced scale, into the 1970s.

IMG_5688Bearcreek, the town that served these mines, was not much a place when I first visited in 1984, with the mines having been closed for a decade, many had left.  It had that abandoned look of other Montana mining towns where mining had ceased. Over 300 people lived there during World War II; in the 1980s about 60 residents could be counted.

IMG_5689Today, population has slightly ticked up–to almost 80 residents–but little remains of historic Bearcreek and its boom from 1905-c.1925, except for buildings made with stone from nearby sandstone quarries or flashier commercial buildings with pressed tin exteriors.

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IMG_5690Bearcreek is a sliver of what it had been due to the growth of the Colstrip mines and the railroad shift from coal to diesel power from 1925 to 1950.  But its fate, so closely intertwined with the mines, took a terrible turn for the worst in early 1943 when methane gas combined with lax safety procedures to led to the explosion of the Smith Mine.  With 74 miners dead, along with one first responder who died from injuries attempting to save the miners, the Smith Mine explosion is counted as Montana’s most deadly coal mining disaster. (Ironically due to the demand for coal during World War II, the mine stayed in production, in spite of the disaster, until the end of the war).

IMG_5702When I visited in 1984 the mine site was abandoned, deteriorating, but it did have public interpretation in the shape of a wooden highway historical marker, and the hulk of buildings did suggest a solemn memorial to those who had lost their lives.

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Since that time, the deterioration of the site has continued, as it is open to the elements.  But the Montana State Historic Preservation Office has worked with property owners to create the Smith Mine Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.  Plus, the preservation office and Montana Department of Transportation have added their own public interpretation markers to the highway historical marker, and these attract tourists on a regular basis to think about and remember those who died to fuel the nation’s war machine during World War II.

IMG_5701Frankly I think that is a good place for the Smith Mine site to be:  a decaying yet compelling industrial memorial to coal, miners, and the constant need for mine safety.