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.)

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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A former Great Northern depot in Windham.

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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.

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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

Dillon: Union Pacific Railroad Town

West Yellowstone and Dillon are Montana’s best examples of railroad towns developed by the Union Pacific.  Dillon is the oldest, established as the company’s spur line, the Utah and Northern, pushed north from the main line and headed into the rich mining country of Silver Bow County and environs.  Not only is the historic Union Pacific depot–part of the railroad’s Oregon Short Line–extant, and used as a county museum and theater, so too is the symmetrical town plan of the early 1880s, with the town’s primary commercial blocks facing the tracks.

Beaverhead County Museum Dillon 9This birds-eye view of the town is at the Beaverhead County Museum at the railroad depot.  It shows the symmetrical plan well, with two-story commercial blocks facing the tracks and depot, which was then just a frame building.  To the opposite side of the tracks with more laborer cottages and one outstanding landmark, the Second Empire-style Hotel Metlen.  The Metlen, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains today, one

IMG_3183of the state’s best examples of a railroad hotel.  I recognized the building as such in the 1984 state historic preservation plan and my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, included the image below of the hotel.

Hotel Metlen, Dillon (p84 54-35) This three-story hotel served not only tourists but especially traveling businessmen–called drummers because they were out “drumming up” business for their companies.  The interior has received some restoration work in the last 30 years but little has changed in the facade, as they two images, one from 1990 and the other from 2012, indicate.

The same can be said for the ornate cast-iron Victorian-styled cornices on the commercial buildings directly across from the depot.  First is a black and white image, c. 1990: note the middle cornice.  The next image, from 2012, shows that the details have been lost in the last 30 years although most of the cornice is intact.

Beaverhead Co Dillon streetscape 1988

Dillon cornice detail

The Dingley and Morse Block from 1888–seen in the historic image of the town at the museum above–has been well preserved and is a significant example of how cast-iron facades defined the look of businesses in Montana’s late 19th century railroad era.

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Dillon, cast-iron storefronts, Montana St

This brief look at Dillon as a railroad town is just the beginning of our exploration of this southwest Montana county seat.  Today Dillon is known as the home of the Patagonia outlet–certainly a key business development here in the 21st century.  But the town’s

IMG_3518built environment has many stories to tell.

Country Towns of Beaverhead County, Part One

Monida from MT 508, 2

Monida, at the Idaho-Montana border, on Interstate I-15.

Country towns of Beaverhead County–wait,  you cry out: isn’t every town in Beaverhead County a country town?  Well yes, since Dillon, the county seat, has a single stop light, you can say that.  But Dillon is very much an urban oasis compared to the county’s tiny villages and towns scattered all about Beaverhead’s 5,572 square miles, making it the largest county in Montana.

IMG_3387Let’s start this theme with the railroad/ federal highway towns.  Monida, at the state border with Idaho, is a good place to start, first established as a place on the Utah and Northern Railroad line as it moved north toward the mines at Butte in 1881.  Monica had a second life as a highway stop on the old U.S. Highway 91 that paralleled the tracks, as evident in the old garages left behind.

The next town north on the corridor created by the railroad/highway/interstate is Lima, IMG_3369which possesses a Montana welcome center and rest stop.  That’s important because at this stop you also can find one of the state’s mid-20th century examples of a tourist welcome center, which has been moved to this stop and then interpreted as part of the state’s evolving roadside architecture.

Lima is a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, the plan favored by the engineers of the Utah and Northern as the railroad moved into Montana.  The west side of the tracks, where the two-lane U.S. Highway 91 passed, was the primary commercial district, with several brick and frame two-story buildings ranging from the 1880s to the 1910s.

Lima west of tracks Peat Hotel and bar

Lima west of tracks 2 Peat Hotel and bar

The east side, opposite old U.S. Highway 91, was a secondary area; the Lima Historical Society is trying to keep an old 1880s building intact for the 21st century.

The town’s comparative vitality is shown by its metal Butler Building-like municipal building, and historic churches, ranging from a early 20th century shingle style to a 1960s contemporary style Gothic church of the Latter Day Saints.

The town’s pride naturally is its school, which developed from the early 20th century two-story brick schoolhouse to become the town’s center of community.

Lima school

Eight miles to the north is a very different historic schoolhouse, the one-story brick Dell school (1903), which had been converted into a wonderful cafe when I stopped in 1984.  It is still a great place–if you don’t stop here for pie or a caramel roll (or both), you goofed.

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The Calf-A is not the only place worth a look at Dell, a tiny railroad town along the historic Utah and Northern line, with the Tendroy Mountains in the background.  Dell still has its UPRR line at Dell

post office, within its one store, its community hall, and a good steakhouse dive, the false-front Stockyard Inn.  But most importantly, for an understanding of the impact of World

War II on Montana, Dell has an air-strip, which still contains its 1940s B-17 Radar base, complete with storehouse–marked by the orange band around the building–and radar tower.  Kate Hampton of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office in 2012 told me to be of the lookout for these properties.  Once found throughout Montana, and part of the guidance system sending planes northward, many have disappeared over the years.  Let’s hope the installation at Dell remains for sometime to come.

B-17 base landscape, Dell

There are no more towns between Dell and Dillon but about halfway there is the Clark Canyon Reservoir, part of the reshaping of the northwest landscape by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960s.  The bureau in 1961-1964 built the earthen dam and created the

reservoir, which inundated the small railroad town of Armstead, and led to the re-routing of U.S. Highway 91 (now incorporated into the interstate at this point).

Clark Canyon Reservoir, reclamationThe reclamation project, which stored water for irrigation, also covered the site of Camp Fortunate, a very important place within the larger narrative of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its relationships and negotiations with the Shoshone Indians.  An early

 

effort to mark and interpret the site came from the Daughters of the American Revolution, who not surprisingly focused on the Sacajawea story.  Reclamation officials added other markers after the construction of the dam and reservoir.

In this century the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail has added yet another layer of public interpretation in its attempt to tell the whole story of the expedition and its complicated relations with the Native Americans of the region.

North of Dillon along the old route of U.S. Highway 91 and overlooking the corridor of the Utah and Northern Railroad is another significant Lewis and Clark site, known as Clark’s Lookout, which was opened to the public during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial of the early 21st century.

The lookout is one of the exciting historic sites that have been established in Montana in the 30 years since my initial survey for the state historic preservation plan.  Not only does the property interpret an important moment in the expedition’s history–from this vantage point William Clark tried to understand the countryside before him and the best direction to take–it also allows visitors to literally walk in his footsteps and imagine the same perspective.

Of course what Clark viewed, and what you might see, are vastly different–the tracks of the Utah and Northern, then route of old U.S. 91 are right up front, while the town of Dillon creeps northward toward the lookout.

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Our last stop for part one of Beaverhead’s country towns is Glen, a village best accessed by old U. S. Highway 91.  A tiny post office marks the old town. Not far away are two historic IMG_3164

North of Glen you cross the river along old U.S. Highway 91 and encounter a great steel tress bridge, a reminder of the nature of travel along the federal highways of the mid-20th century.

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Sheridan County: a forgotten railroad landscape

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In the past posts I revisited the two Daniels County towns at the “end of the line” of a spur line constructed by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1910s as a way of countering the push into northeastern Montana by the Soo Line at the same time. These attempts at railroad expansion and town building took root during the homesteading boom of that decade. Now with depots gone and residents drifting away, the old railroad corridor as it stretches from Opheim on the west end to its junction with the main line at Bainville, takes on the appearance of a ghost line, attested by the image above from Homestead and the one below from Reserve,both in Sheridan County.
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At the rough mid-point of this spur line lies Plentywood–rather forsaken spot I thought in 1984 but a town now actually facing too much growth, too fast as the need for residences and space for the thousands of Bakken oil field workers seeps into northeast Montana. In 2013, the impact on Plentywood and Medicine Lake to the south was apparent as this just opened man camp at Medicine Lake shows.
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Plentywood was of considerable interest to me because once the initial homestead boom turned to disaster in Sheridan County by the time of the Great Depression, there was a local movement to create a communist party. This story was known in 1984 but now we have full accounting due to the research of Sheridan County native Verlaine Stoner McDonald in her book The Red Corner (2010).
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Plentywood has a classic T-plan town, with its depot and huge grain elevators defining what was the head of the town–and then a long “stem” of the T, where first came the commercial district, then a residential district, and finally at the “bottom” of the T: the county courthouse.

Plentywood's T-town plan, looking from the courthouse

Plentywood’s T-town plan, looking from the courthouse


This arrangement of space spoke to the railroad’s concern for safety and efficiency: T-plans moved traffic and pedestrians off of the tracks. But when the Works Progress Administration built the understated WPA Modern-styled courthouse in 1937, placing it at the end of the town, you also had a classic statement of where power lay in these plains country towns. The railroad stood at the head; at the end of the town was the seat for local politics.
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In 1984 another interesting arrangement of space I noted in Plentywood was how three different banks stood on three of the four corners of the town’s most prominent crossroads, where Montana Highway 16 crossed the main street. The banks are still there with the stone-work of the historic Adolph Riba bank (built by Henry and John Hill from the village of Raymond to the north), making it a prominent landmark.
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The impact of the regional oil boom on the public landscape is most evident in new schools and the new library, attached to the historic courthouse, changes I didn’t expect to find in a town that had lost 700 residents from the 2400 or so who lived there in 1984.
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I was especially pleased to see the town’s historic movie theater, the Orpheum, which stands adjacent to the “top” of the T, still doing well. It was rare to find a small town movie theater in 1984, even less common today. Plentywood today is more than the historic center point of a neglected railroad corridor; it lies in the center of the changes coming to the region out of the 21st century oil boom of the northern plains.
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