Railroad Towns in the Flathead Reservation

Lake Co NP  trestle Moise road

Northern Pacific Trestle at Moeise

Once the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders in 1904, tribal members were allocated acreage but lost control of much of their land to new development.  The historic Northern Pacific Railroad corridor between Ronan and Dixon, followed roughly today by Montana Highway 212 and U.S. Highway 93 is one way to explore two almost forgotten towns in southern Lake County.

The first north of Dixon is the reservation town of Moiese, created by the federal government in the early 20th century as a “model” town of bungalows with a school.  Several of the standardized design bungalows remain as does the school building, which is no longer in use.

Lake Co Moise schoolMoiese is best known, by far, as the entrance to the National Bison Range, where a general store stands nearby the refuge gate.  Created by Congress in 1908, the refuge took

Lake Co National Bison Range

Lake Co National Bison Rangeadditional land–almost 19,000 acres- from the tribes, without their consent, to create a safe haven for the remaining bison in the region.  A few hundred bison live within its boundaries today.  In 2016 the National Park Service began discussions with the Consolidated Kootenai and Salish Tribe to transfer management of the refuge to the tribe.

Lake Co Charlo elevatorEight miles north of Moiese along the railroad line is the town of Charlo, named in honor of Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, who was forced from the Bitterroot Valley to move to the reservation in 1891.  Charlo served as head chief of the Bitterroot Salish from 1870-

Lake Co Charlo 11910.  As a railroad town, Charlo is like many along the Northern Pacific, with a brief strip of businesses facing the railroad tracks, marked by the town’s sole grain elevator.  It has a classic rural bar, Tiny’s Tavern, with its brightly painted exterior of concrete block, with brick accents. Built in 1946 by Tiny Browne, it was both a motel and a tavern, and a local museum of items that Tiny thought were interesting.  Browne died in 1977 and his sister, Celeste Fagan, next owned the tavern, managed by Edna Easterly who recalled in a story in the Missoulian of April 20, 2007 that Tiny  “was known as the bank of Charlo. Tiny always carried a lot of money in his pocket and if you needed to cash a check, you went to Tiny.”

Lake Co Charlo 3Most important for its architecture, however, is the town’s public school, a wonderful example of Art Deco style from the New Deal decade of the 1930s.

Lake Co Charlo new deal school 2Ronan is a third town along the railroad corridor, named for a former white superintendent of the reservation.  The town’s demographics today are mostly white, with a little more than a quarter Native American population.  Ronan proudly proclaims its existence not only with a gate sign, connecting the business district to the sprawl along U.S. Highway 93 but also a log visitor center and interpretive park on the highway.

Ronan’s commercial area retains classic bars, like the 2nd Chance Bar, and a combination of recreational services that have been lost in too many communities–a bowling alley and movie theatre standing next to each other.

Historic church buildings from the early 20th century include the frame now covered in vinyl Methodist Church and the brick Gothic styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with an attached Ranch-style parsonage.  St. Luke’s Community Hospital provides a much needed medical oasis in what is still a rural, agricultural area. Opened in 1953, the hospital is now an oddity–in that it is community owned and still serving its rural population.  The building shown below was constructed c. 2008.

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Lake Co Ronan sacred heart catholic 1

img_7971The facade expresses a confident future, which is needed in today’s uncertain economic climate for rural hospitals across the state. But my favorite building in Ronan speaks to my love for adaptive reuse and mid-20th century modern design.  The town library is an

Lake Co Ronan libraryexquisite example of mid-century modern, and was once a local bank before being converted into the library.

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Hamilton’s historic homes

In 1984, I must admit, I did not look closely at the rich domestic architecture of Hamilton, especially during its boom from c. 1890 to c. 1920.  When I thought of Hamilton and the term historic house I was like many other people:  I thought of the Daly Mansion which actually stood outside of the town boundaries.

I missed a big story by being so limited in what I thought as historic in Hamilton.  Just a quick stroll down South 3rd and 4th Streets will unveil an impressive chronological range of domestic architecture types and styles from the rather unadorned frame cottages above to the much more architecturally finished Charles Hoffman House, an important Montana example of Prairie Style in a frame two-story building.

Charles Hoffman, 807 S. 3rd, Hamilton

IMG_2628South 3rd Street also has a strong set of bungalows, Montana style, which means that they take all sorts of forms and use all sorts of building materials.

Then the street also has bungalows that in their symmetry almost become Colonial Revival dwellings, a dash of Tudor Revival, and Colonial Revival proper, along with Art Deco influenced buildings and a Ranch style house thrown in as well, representing the middle decades of the 20th century.

South 4th Street has the same excellent range of home designs, but with a bit more of a touch of the modern and with the second half of the 20th century interpretation of Log Rustic style.

In fact Hamilton has two other worthwhile but unexpected Art Moderne styled houses scattered through the historic downtown.

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Art Moderne, 215 Marcus St, Hamilton

Hamilton has several impressive historic church buildings such as St. Paul Episcopal and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic below, both in splendid takes on Gothic style.

Rocky Mountain Labs is not the only medical building in the historic downtown.  Joining it is the Colonial Revival-styled Marcus Daly Hospital, a historic building constructed in 1930-31 with funds provided by Daly’s wife Margaret.  A new hospital building opened in 1975 and the historic hospital has been converted into county offices.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Marcus Daly Hospital (now gvt building), Hamilton NRMy favorite set of public buildings in Hamilton got back to the theme of town and ranch and how community institutions can link both.  The Ravalli County Fairgrounds began on

Ravalli County Fairgrounds, Hamilton 440 acres located south of downtown on the original road to Corvallis in 1913.  Its remarkable set of buildings date from those early years into the present, and the Labor Day Rodeo is still one of the region’s best.

Despite growth all around them, residents in Hamilton still respect tradition and history and the many National Register properties shown above show how private property owners have been excellent stewards in a rapidly changing landscape. This overview hasn’t shown all of the historic homes but should be enough of an introduction to tempt you to take on your own exploration.

Choteau, U.S. Highway 89 Crossroads

Teton Co ChoteauOne of my favorite county seats is Choteau, where U.S. Highways 89 and 287 meet.  Both of those roads were and are among my favorite to take in the state, and Choteau I quickly found had one of my favorite local dives the Wagon Wheel.  Back in the day, however, I did not appreciate how the town’s history and built environment was shaped by the Sun River Irrigation project and the overall growth in the county during the first two decades of the 20th century and later a second boom in the 1940s.

Teton Co Choteau courthouseChoteau has a different look than most towns from this era of Montana history.  The centerpiece of the towns plan is not a railroad depot but the magnificent Teton County Courthouse (1906), which occupies a spot where the two federal highways junction.  Designed by architects Joseph B. Gibson and George H. Shanley, the National Register-listed courthouse is made of locally quarried stone in a late interpretation of Richardsonian Romanesque style, similar to, but to a much lesser scale and detail, than H. H. Richardson’s own Allegheny County Courthouse (c. 1886) in Pittsburgh.

 

The courthouse defines the south end of town and then U.S. Highway 89 heading north defines Main Street.  Since my first visit to Choteau in 1982 the town’s population has only declined marginally, about 100 less residents in 2010 than in 1980.  But there is a clear pattern of building change in more recent years.  Some are successful adaptive reuse projects, such as the conversion of this old service station/garage across from the courthouse (left above) into offices.

Teton Co Choteau 6This historic neoclassical-styled bank building is now home to a coffee shop but other commercial buildings have changed very little, except for the mix of retail business.  This is not a dying business district but one with a good bit of jump, of vitality.

The historic Roxy Theater is still open, and its Art Deco-styled marquee gives a bit of flash and dash to Main Street.

Teton Co Choteau theater 12

Chateau has its share of eye-catching roadside architecture on both the south and north ends of town.  South on U.S. 89 is the Big Sky motel, little changed over 50 years but on the north end of town is a far different story

Teton Co Choteau 13 US 89 roadsidewhere the historic Bella Vista Motel–a perfect example of a 1950s motel with separate units like tiny Ranch-styled houses–has given way to a c. 2015 conversion into apartments.

The north end of town is also home to Choteau’s heritage tourism, with the local Old Trail museum significantly expanded since the 1980s with more moved buildings, artifacts, and a special focus on dinosaurs.

The stability of Choteau is reflected in its historic church buildings, defining architectural landmarks within the residential neighborhood to the west of Main Street.  Arts and Crafts style influences the look of the Trinity Lutheran Church while the United Methodist Church is a textbook example of Colonial Revival style.  St. Joseph’s Catholic church is also a revival styled building, one in keeping with a vernacular Gothic than the modern look shared by so many Catholic Church buildings in rural Montana.

East of Main Street is the railroad corridor and associated warehouses, elevators, and other industrial buildings along with the historic county fairgrounds and a pretty city park, watered by an irrigation ditch.

Stability, continuity, yet change have marked Choteau over the last 30 years–let’s hope all three traits remain for another generation.

The Sweet Grass of the Yellowstone Valley

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Sweet Grass County has one of the most spectacular landscapes of the entire state of Montana.  Located in the middle of the Yellowstone Valley, the county has long been a significant crossroads, from the prehistoric era to today.  At the county seat of Big Timber, Interstate Highway 90 (along with the historic route of old U.S. Highway 10) parallels the Yellowstone River.  The town is also the southern point of origin for U.S. Highway 191,

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The Lazy J, near the intersection of U.S. 191 and old U.S. 10, is a classic bit of mid-20th century roadside architecture.

which strikes northward cutting across Central Montana and continuing until the highway ends at the Canadian border, north of Malta.

IMG_6331Established by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1882-1883, Big Timber has the classic T-Plan town plat found on so many Northern Pacific towns.  But one reason I have long liked this place is the quirkiness of its town plan.  The depot and the elevators are where they

IMG_6329should be, forming the top of the “T,” but the beautiful early 20th century stone masonry Sweet Grass County Courthouse is neither on McLeod Street (the stem of the T) nor at the end of the T, dividing the town’s commercial area from its residential neighborhood.  No, it IMG_6333is a block west of the intersection of McLeod Street and old U.S. Highway 10–an uncommon arrangement of public space in northern plains railroad towns.  A public park

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effectively marks the end of the historic town.  When I first surveyed the town in 1984, I found that an old 1946 highway marker for the Lewis and Clark Expedition had been moved to the park a year prior to my visit, and the interpretive sign told me that the town had a sense of its place in history.  In the decades since, residents have added a monument to the town’s early wool industry along with a bronze sculpture, titled “Free Spirit” by Dave Hodges, linking the place to the open spaces and cowboy culture of the valley.  Coming soon will be the new headquarters for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, an institution that searched high and long for a home until finding Big Timber.

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IMG_6271Public interpretation through art is another change I encountered in Big Timber.  The most striking dates to the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial at the start of this century.  On the walls of the local grocery store are three panels telling the story of the expedition in Sweet Grass County as the men encountered the confluence of the Boulder and Yellowstone rivers.  IMG_6296On another commercial building near the intersection of U.S. 191 and old U.S. 10 was an unexpected surprise:  a mural recreating–or is it reinterpreting–the famed Milwaukee Road promotional poster from the turn of the 20th century that encouraged homesteaders

IMG_6267to head to Montana. Oddly the reproduction mural gives the Northern Pacific corporate emblem but the route shown is the Milwaukee’s route, admittedly also showing where the two lines ran side by side in parts of the Yellowstone Valley.

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Public interpretation has not extended into an intensive involvement with the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1984, only one property–a segment of the Bozeman Trail where it crossed the Yellowstone–in the county was listed, and that stood on Sweet Grass’s far western border to Park County.  Then, right after I had finished the project, the iconic western hotel, The Grand, was listed in the National Register.  In the 30 years, a handful of Big Timber landmarks also have been designated on the National Register:  the Classical Revival-styled Carnegie Library, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and the Big

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Sweetgrass Co Big Timber 6 - Version 2 IMG_6306Timber City Hall.  Little doubt these landmarks are cherished–when more library space was necessary this century the expansion of the historic building was done appropriately, keeping this landmark in service for decades.

IMG_6308But when you consider just how intact the town’s historic environment from the 1880s to the 1950s is today, you think a National Register historic district nomination in order, or at least one for the historic commercial district, which has a wonderful array of building types, designs, and, luckily for Big Timber, open businesses, including one of my favorite bars in all of the state–at least favorite bar signs–the Timber Bar.

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IMG_6275IMG_6284The next post will look deeper in the historic buildings of Big Timber, and then stretch north to a real jewel, the Melville Lutheran Church.