Butte’s World Museum of Mining: A forgotten jewel

Established in 1963, Butte’s World Museum of Mining is both a historic site and a historic building zoo. It preserves and interprets the Orphan Girl Mine while it also re-creates a fanciful Hell Roarin’ Gulch, with the townscape filled with both moved historic buildings and modern interpretations of the mining camp that existed in Butte in the late 19th century.

Butte WMM Orphan Girl mine work crew

The Orphan Mine historic site is the best single place in Montana to explore the gritty reality of deep-shaft mining in the Treasure State.

Butte WMM Orphan Girl Mine 4

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 14

The metal cages that the mines used to go down into the mines still give me the chills–the sacrifices these men made for their families and community is impressive.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 1The Hell Roaring’ Gulch part of the museum is in stark contrast to the mid-20th century engineered, technological landscape of the Orphan Girl Mine.  It interprets the mining camp days of Butte from the late 1860s into the 1880s before the corporations stepped in and reshaped the totality of the copper mining industry and built environment of Butte.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 4

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 3

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Like many building zoos of the highway era (the museum is easily accessed from the interstate), the recreated town emphasizes the ethnic diversity of the mining camp as well as some of the stereotypes of the era.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 9

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 10

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 9

But the exhibit buildings also have several strong points, especially in their collections, such as the “union hall” (you do worry about the long-term conservation of the valuable

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch Union Hallartifacts and banners shown in this photo); the store, which displays common items sought by the miners and their families; and various offices that show the business of

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 5mapping the mines, registering claims, and assaying the metals .

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch 21In my first post about the World Museum of Mining, I addressed this valuable collection of a historic mine, several historic buildings, and thousands of historic artifacts briefly.  Properties like the impressive log construction of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, shown below,  are invaluable. The World Museum of Mining deserved more attention, and it deserves the attention of any serious heritage tourist to Montana.

Butte WMM Hell Roarin Gulch


Adaptive Reuse and Montana’s Depots

When I carried out the 1984-1985 survey of Montana as part of the state historic preservation planning process, one resource was at the forefront of my mind–railroad passenger stations.  Not only had recent scholarship by John Hudson and John Stilgoe brought new interest to the topic, there had been the recent bankruptcy of the Milwaukee Road, and the end of passenger service in large parts of the state, except along the Hi-Line of the old Great Northern Railway (where Amtrak still runs today.)


The mid-20th century standardized design for Great Northern stations at Chester on US 2.

Some of the passenger stations in the major cities had already been converted into new uses, such as restaurants, offices, and various downtown commercial uses. The lovely turn of the twentieth century stations for the Great Northern (left) and the Milwaukee Road (right) in Great Falls showed how the location of the buildings, plus their

architectural quality and the amount of available space made them perfect candidates for adaptive reuse.  While the tenants have changed over the past 30 plus years, both buildings still serve as heritage anchors for the city. While success marked early adaptive reuse projects in Great Falls and Missoula, for instance, it was slow to come to Montana’s largest city–the neoclassical styled Northern Pacific depot was abandoned and

Billings 2006 002deteriorating in the mid-1980s but a determined effort to save the building and use it as an anchor for the Montana Avenue historic district has proven to be a great success in the 21st century.

In the 1984-1985 I documented hundreds of railroad depots across Big Sky Country.  From 2012-2015 I noted how many had disappeared–an opportunity to preserve heritage and put a well-located substantial building for the building back to work had been wasted.  But I also came away with a deep appreciation of just how many types of new lives train stations could have.

park County 2008 017

Turning iconic buildings into community museums is a time-honored tradition, as you can find at the magnificent Northern Pacific station at Livingston, shown above.  A handful of Montana communities have followed that tradition–I am especially glad that people in Harlowton and Wheatland County banded together to preserve the

IMG_9725.JPGMilwaukee Road depot there, since Harlowtown was such an important place in the railroad’s history as an electric line.


But there are so many other uses–as they know in Lewistown.  Already in the mid-1980s investors in Lewistown had turned the old Milwaukee Road station, shown above, into a hotel and conference center, the Yogo Inn.  When I visited Lewistown in 2013 the Yogo was undergoing a facelift after 30 years as a commercial business. The town’s other



historic depot, a substantial brick building (above) from the Great Northern Railway, was a gas station, convenience mart, office building, and store, all in one.


Deer Lodge MT 2006 001

Deer Lodge MT 2006 002

Deer Lodge is blessed with both of its historic depots.  The Milwaukee Road depot has become a church while the Northern Pacific depot became the Powell County Senior Citizens Center.  Indeed, converting such a community landmark into a community center is popular in other Montana towns, such as the National Register-listed passenger station shown below in Kevin, Toole County, near the border with Canada.


One of the most encouraging trends of this century is how many families have turned depots into their homes–you can’t beat the location and the long, horizontal nature of the often-found combination depot (passenger station and luggage warehouse in same building) means that these dwellings have much in common with the later Ranch-style houses of the 1950s and 1960s.


A former Great Northern depot in Windham.


A Milwaukee Road depot turned into a home in Rosebud County.

But in my work from 2012-15 I found more and more examples of how local entrepreneurs have turned these historic buildings into businesses–from a very simple, direct conversion from depot to warehouse in Grassrange to the use of the Milwaukee Road depot in Roundup as the local electric company office.



As these last examples attest–old buildings can still serve communities, economically and gracefully.  Not all historic preservation means the creation of a museum–that is the best course in only a few cases.  But well-built and maintained historic buildings can be almost anything else–the enduring lesson of adaptive reuse

A Return to Fort Peck


For sheer scale and audacity nothing in Montana built environment rivals the transformations wrought on the Missouri River and the peoples who for centuries had taken nourishment from it than the construction of Fort Peck Dam, spillway, powerhouse, reservoir, and a new federally inspired town from the 1930s to the early 1940s.



The mammoth size of the entire complex was just as jaw-dropping to me as it had been to the New Dealers and most Americans in the 1930s.  That same spillway, for instance, had been the subject of the famous first cover of Life Magazine by Margaret Bourne-White in 1936.


When she visited in 1936 the town of Fort Peck housed thousands but once the job was over, the town quickly diminished and when you take an overview of Fort Peck, the town, today it seems like a mere bump in what is otherwise an overpowering engineering achievement.

Valley Co Fort Peck

Coming from a state that had headquartered another New Deal era transformation of the landscape–the even larger Tennessee Valley Authority project–I understood a good bit of what Fort Peck meant as I started my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.  A good thing I knew a little because outside of a Montana Historic Highway marker and a tour of the power plant there was little in the way of public interpretation at Fort Peck thirty years ago.

IMG_8115First came efforts to better interpret the Corps of Discovery and their travels through this section of the Missouri River 15-20 years ago. The theme was Lewis & Clark in the Missouri River Country, but by the 2010s the region’s demanding weather had taken its toll on the installation.


IMG_8003At the lake’s edge are additional markers encouraging visitors to imagine the time before the lake when the Big Dry River often meant exactly what it said–the reservoir keeps it full now.

IMG_8024New interpretive markers combine with a well-defined pull-off to encourage travelers to stop and think about the loss of life that occurred in building the dam.  Many of the massive infrastructure projects of the New Deal have similarly sad stories to tell–but few of them do.

IMG_8025You can explore the landscape with the assistance of the highway markers to a far greater degree than in the past.  Even if today it is difficult to “see” the transformation brought about by the massive earthen dam, there are informative markers to help you.

The new visitor center at the Fort Peck powerhouses takes the site’s public interpretation to a new level.  Just reading the landscape is difficult; it is challenging to grasp the fact that tens of

Valley Co Fort Peck Dam Reservoir 18

workers and families were here in the worst of the Great Depression years and it is impossible to imagine this challenging landscape as once lush with thick vegetation and dinosaurs.

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Through fossils, recreations, artwork, historic photographs, recreated buildings, and scores of artifacts, the new interpretive center and museum does its job well.  Not only are the complications of the New Deal project spelled out–perhaps a bit too heavy on that score, I mean where else do you see what the “Alphabet Agencies” actually meant–but you get an understanding of worlds lost in the name of 20th century progress.

Is everything covered?  Far from it–too much in the new public interpretations focuses on 1800 to 1940, and not how Fort Peck has the harbinger of the Cold War-era Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin reject that totally transformed the river and its historic communities.  Nor is there enough exploration into the deep time of the Native Americans and what the transformation of the river and the valley meant and still means to the residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  There’s still work to be done to adequately convey the lasting transformation that came to this section of Montana in the mid-1930s.

Augusta, more than just a rodeo

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot Augusta 005My friends in the environs of Helena have been surprised that after 300 something posts I had yet to say anything about Augusta, a crossroads town in northern Lewis and Clark County along U.S. Highway 287, during my revisit of the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan. They knew that I loved the open range drive to Augusta, whether approaching from U.S. 287 or U.S. Highway 89.

Teton Co US 89 to gilman and AugustaThen, the various businesses and bars along Main Street represented not just a favorite place in rural Lewis and Clark County, but also document a classic western town with great roadside architecture such as the Wagon Wheel Motel.

The annual rodeo in Augusta is one of the state’s best, but Augusta is worth much more than just a summer visit during rodeo season.  When I returned in 2014 I found one key building missing–the historic Great Northern Railway passenger station, shown below from a 1984 image.

Created with GIMPAugusta began as a crossroads town for neighboring ranches; the later extension of a railroad spur to nearby Gilman spurred competition between the two towns.  But Augusta Teton Co US 89 August and Gilman hwy marker 1won that battle–today not much outside of the Montana Highway Historical marker, a steel bridge, and a disappearing railroad corridor remains of Gilman.

Augusta has several significant properties, starting with its historic high school building, a bit of neoclassicism on the northern plains.

img_9066But I like the football field almost as much as the historic school–could a more neighborhood setting even be imagined?

Lewis & Clark County Augusta football field 1Then there are historic commercial buildings from the early 20th century–several with National Register qualities, especially the F. M. Mack General Merchandise store–a frame building with paired bracketed cornice.

img_9073Over 300 people call Augusta home today, a slight increase since my work 30 years ago.  The community not only has kept the historic buildings noted above, residents also have opened the Augusta Area Museum–heritage is clearly part of the town’s future.

Lewis & Clark County Augusta museum

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.


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.

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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.




Thompson Falls: Railroad Town

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4In my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, Thompson Falls became one of my favorite stops.  No one much in the professional field had been surveyed here yet, and then I was particularly interested in how the Northern Pacific Railroad transformed the late territorial landscape. As the image above shows, Thompson Falls was a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, with a mix of one and two-story buildings from the turn of the 20th century. I focused on this commercial core.

IMG_7752The public meeting at the mid-20th century Sanders County Courthouse was well attended and most were engaged with the discussion:  the pride, identity, and passion those in attendance had for their history and their interest in historic preservation was duly noted. The courthouse itself was not a concern–it dated to 1946 and wasn’t even 40 years old then.  But now I appreciate it as a good example of Montana’s post-World War II modern movement, designed by Corwin & Company in association with Frederick A. Long

Sanders Co Thompson Falls courthouse

That night at the Falls Motel–a classic bit of roadside architecture that has been recently re-energized–I thought well of this town and its future, surprised by what I had seen.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls MotelLittle did I understand, however, that the sparks of a local community effort were already burning–and within two years, in 1986, Thompson Falls had placed many of its key historic properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls 1

Thirty years later, historic preservation is still working well for Thompson Falls.  The historic Rex Theater (c. 1945) holds all sorts of community events.  Harold Jenson established the movie house but in 1997 it closed and remained closed until new owners Doug and Karen Grimm restored it and reopened on New Year’s Day, 2004.


IMG_7753The old county jail (1907) has been transformed into a museum, both preserving one of the town’s oldest properties but also creating a valuable heritage tourism attraction. The contractors were Christian and Goblet, a local firm that had a part in the construction of the town’s building boom once it was designated as the county seat.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4 – Version 3

Above is a view from the railroad corridor of the Gem Saloon building (a local restaurant now; it was an auto parts store when I visited in 1984), built by saloon keeper John Sanfacon in 1914 and then the all-important railroad hotel, built as the Ward Hotel by

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4 – Version 2

locally prominent developer and politician Edward Donlan in 1908. It is now the Black Bear Hotel. Attractive railroad hotels were crucial for a town’s development–it showed stability and promise to traveling “drummers” and potential investors, and also gave them a place to stay while they were in the area “drumming” up business.


Sanders Co Thompson Falls RR overviewThe mid-20th century Sanders County Courthouse is to the west of the commercial core and it marks how the town stretched to the west in the latter decades of the century.

IMG_7748Along with the conversion of businesses and the adaptive reuse of older buildings, Thompson Falls also has located key community institutions, such as the local library first established in 1921, along Main Street facing the railroad tracks.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls lodge 1But many community institutions–fraternal lodges such as the Masonic Lodge above, the public schools, and churches are on the opposite side of the tracks along the bluffs facing the commercial core.  Thompson Falls is a very good example of how a symmetrical plan could divide a railroad town into distinctive zones.