Roads Less Traveled in Beaverhead County

Both Beaverhead River bridges, old US 91 S of BarrettsBeaverhead County Montana is huge–in its area it is bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and is roughly the size of Connecticut.  Within these vast boundaries in the southwest corner of Montana, less than 10,000 people live, as counted in the 2010 census.  As this blog has previously documented, in a land of such vastness, transportation means a lot–and federal highways and the railroad are crucial corridors to understand the settlement history of Beaverhead County.

Blacktail Deer Cr Rd 2This post takes another look at the roads less traveled in Beaverhead County, such as Blacktail Creek Road in the county’s southern end.  The road leads back into lakes and spectacular scenery framed by the Rocky Mountains.

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Blacktail Deer Cr Rd 4But along the road you find historic buildings left behind as remnants of ranches now lost, or combined into even larger spreads in the hopes of making it all pay some day.

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Birch Creek Road as it winds in and out of Beaverhead National Forest is more populated with the remnants of the past since it is nestled within the mountains where there was always the promise of mineral riches.

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Ranch, Birch Cr Rd, outside of USFS boundary

Sheep Creek homestead, Birch Cr RdBirch Creek Road was shaped by the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as the Corps carried out multiple projects in the national forest.  This road has a logical destination–the historic Birch Creek C.C.C. Camp, which has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The University of Montana Western uses the property for outdoor education and as a conference center that is certainly away from everything.

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There is another historic destination waiting for the intrepid traveler willing to take Canyon Creek Road in the northern end of the county.  Although at places harrowing for this easterner, the road is among my favorite in Big Sky Country–for the views, the sense of isolation, and the history found along its route.

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The destination is the spectacular collection of Canyon Creek Kilns, previously discussed in the blog, which fed the smelter and mining operations at Glendale.  The kilns are worth the time and perhaps worry it takes to drive along Canyon Creek Road.

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In such a mammoth county, these three roads are a mere sampling of the routes less traveled but well worth the journey in Beaverhead County, Montana.

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Canyon Creek Road, Beaverhead County, Montana.

Glendive: Landmarks Old and New

img_7257In the early posts of this exploration of Montana’s historic landscape I spoke of the transformation that I encountered when I revisited Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, for the first time in about 25 years, of how local preservation efforts had kept most of the town’s railroad era landscapes alive while leading to the revitalization of its amazing number of historic residences from 1900 to 1950.

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district city hallLet’s now turn our attention to public landmarks, old and more recent, that also deserve notice, starting with the magnificent Classical Revival-styled City Hall, one of the anchors of the Merrill Avenue historic district, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Built in 1914, this all-in-one municipal building is an impressive architectural

Dawson Co Glendive Merrill Ave NR district city hallstatement by the second generation of Glendale’s leaders that the town would grow and prosper during the homesteading boom of the first two decades of the 20th century.  The architect was Brynjulf Rivenes of Miles City.  His firm had so many commissions coming from eastern Montana and Yellowstone Valley patrons that by this time Rivenes operated offices in both Glendive and Miles City.

img_7268Rivenes had earlier marked Glendive’s new emerging townscape with his Gothic design for the First Methodist Church, in 1909.  Fifteen years later, he added another landmark church design with the Romanesque styled Sacred Heart Catholic Church (1924-1925).

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The grand circular entrance window depicted the story of the sacred heart of Jesus.  Bishop Mathias Lenihan dedicated the window in 1925. The tan brick of the building came from Hebron, North Dakota.

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Rivenes also designed various commercial buildings along Merrill Avenue and its prominent side streets as Glendive business boomed from 1900 to the era of the Great Depression.  During the New Deal, the federal government worked with local and state government to improve local infrastructure and irrigation.  It also sponsored the construction of the Colonial Revival-styled Glendive post office, by federal architect Louis A. Simon, in the mid-1930s.

img_7269With recovery and the arrival of more and more automobile traffic from the late 1930s to the 1950s, many of the older buildings received mid-century updates.  The remodels could

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overwhelming, like the glass block windows and brick wall inserts at the Classical Revival styled Masonic Lodge, above, or they could be more effective blending of the early 20th past with the mid-century present as at the Kolstad Jewelry shop, below.

Dawson Co Glendive Kolstad Jewelry decoThe 1950s and 1960s brought many changes to Glendive.  Post World War Ii growth both in the town and the many surrounding ranches led to expansion and remodeling at the historic Glendive Milling Company in 1955.  When the historic districts for Glendive were designated in the late 1980s, preservationists questioned the inclusion of this important industrial/agricultural complex due to the changes of the 1950s.  Viewed today, however, the mill complex is clearly a very significant historic site.

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As passenger traffic on the Northern Pacific Railway slacked, automobile traffic on the Yellowstone Trail (U.S. Highway 10) became more important as the old motel above also attests.  Architectural signs like for the Gust Hauf located at 300 West Bell Street downtown don’t really make sense today but it did in 1965 when travelers were still using U.S. Highway 10 every day.

img_7218More contemporary styled church buildings were also dedicated in the mid-century, such as the classic “contemporary” styling of the Assembly of God building, with classrooms at

img_7292at the front rather than the rear, or the modified A-frame style of the First Congregational Church, which I shared in an earlier post on Glendive.

Dawson Co Glendive Congregational churchGlendive is very much a blending of different 20th century architectural styles, reaching back into the region’s deep, deep past, as at Makoshika State Park, where the visitor

img_7297center/museum is an excellent example of late 20th century modern style–clearly a building of the present but one that complements, not overwhelms, the beauty of the park itself.

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Conrad’s railroad corridor

Pondera Co Conrad signConrad, the seat of Pondera County, is a railroad town, although the town’s close proximity to Interstate I-15 means that so many have forgotten the importance of this Great Northern Railway spur line that stretches from Shelby on the main line south to Great Falls.

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img_9361The town’s 1920s Arts and Crafts/ Chalet style Great Northern passenger station, along with grain elevators, serve as a reminder of the railroad’s importance to transporting the grains from neighboring ranches.

2011-mt-pondera-county-conrad-006Facing the depot is a combination symmetrical town, with one story brick buildings, several of them classic western bars, and then a block long T-plan that connects to the historic federal highway U.S. 87.

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The Orpheum Theatre (1917-1918) was barely hanging on when I visited in 1985 and then by the end of the century, it appeared that the theatre would never be the center of community life it had been in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Pondera Arts Council then acquired the building, restored, and it is now once again a centerpiece of the community, one of several signs of how Conrad has turned to historic preservation to build new futures out of its pasts.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

Circling Back to Rosebud, Montana

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Rosebud, Montana, is a small Northern Pacific era railroad town in Rosebud County.  A recent commentator on the blog asked for more about this town, admitting that a real loss had been a fire that destroyed its historic school from the turn of the 20th century.  But Rosebud has rebuilt a modern school and like any credible Montana town, students maintain a “R” for the school on a bluff outside of town, and when the football season starts this month, this tiny field will be full of spectators, family, and players.

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One reason I liked Rosebud back in 1984-1985 was the town bar, which had great food.  I didn’t remember it as the Longhorn Bar, but that’s the name today and the place still is friendly and worth a stop along old U.S. Highway 10. Another blog reader reminded me that it has always been known as the Longhorn Bar–so that shows you what you can forget in 30 years plus of Montana field study.  Note also in this photo–at the far right in the background is the football field goal posts, a visual of how small the place is.

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Rosebud was never a major railroad town in this part of the Yellowstone Valley but it has kept its school, a handful of businesses, and its post office, which had been updated since my last visit here. It’s still an important part of the valley’s historic landscape. And an important intact 1920s section of the Yellowstone Trail–the initial transcontinental highway that followed the Milwaukee Road’s tracks into eastern Montana.

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Grassrange: Fergus County Crossroads

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Grassrange is a central Montana crossroads, where U.S. Highway 87 meets Montana highways 19 and 200, and it serves as the eastern gateway to Fergus County.  The wonderful vernacular roadside statement of “Little Montana”–an obvious homage to the much larger and more famous “Little America” in southeast Wyoming–reminds even the most oblivious traveler that you have reached a highway crossroads.

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As the name implies, this is ranching country, with several of the state’s most famous spreads nearby.  The school reflects the pride in ranching, witness its school emblem and name the Rangers.

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There is more than livestock to the history of Grassrange, as the elevators attest.  This is also farmers’ country since the early 20th century homesteading boom.  Yet Grassrange has never been a bit town itself.  It dates to 1883 when the first post office was stab listed to serve surrounding ranchers; the town still has its standardized 1970s post office building.

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Grassrange has a definite sense of its past.  Despite its scant population–just over 100 in the 2010 census–it has a city park (top image of this blog) plus its own public interpretation of its history, literally carved from local hands.

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It also has surviving historic landmarks, from a false-front Masonic Lodge to a vernacular Gothic-styled United Methodist Church, to a well-worn one-block commercial building that, considering its add-ons and alterations, has served the community in several different ways over the last 100 years.

Fergus Co Grassrange masonic hall  - Version 2

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Many rural Montana crossroads are little more than a combination bar/cafe/store/gas station today.  Grassrange has dwindled in size since my first visit in 1984 but it has kept its school and such community buildings as the church, Masonic hall, and city park.  It is home than the home of “Little Montana”; it’s a reminder of the precarious state of Montana’s small towns across the vastness of the northern plains.

The Disappearing Act of the Milwaukee Road

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Montana State 294 is one of my favorite highways.  For Montana it is a short route, just around 30 miles between Martinsdale and where the road junctions with US 89 and meets up with Ringling.  But these 30 miles are packed–well in a Montana sense–with resources of the original mainline of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) as an electric line, such as the roadbed that parallels the state highway above at Lennep–it now serves as a secondary dirt road for residents.

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The Milwaukee maintained transformer stations about every 30 miles of its electrified tracks so AC power could be converted into DC current for its trains.  I apologize for the poor quality of my 1984 image of the station along Montana 294 but then it was still generating power for local use.  Thirty years later that had ended–the power lines were gone, taking away context from the building itself and leaving those who don’t know any better wondering why a big two story brick building was out here by itself.

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The station is about five miles west of Lennep, which I described in 1986 as “a tiny village where residents have preserved an old store and where the schoolhouse is still in use.”

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The school is now a residence and the store is still there, though not in business.

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The true landmark of the entire road is the Trinity Lutheran Church, built in 1910.  Its soaring Gothic bell tower, gleaming bright in the sun, is a beacon for anyone traveling along the road. It is one of my absolute favorite rural Montana churches and clearly eligible for listing in the National Register–as would be the entire remaining hamlet of Lennep.

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To the east of Lennep is Martinsdale, a tiny place that somehow has already managed two different blog posts about it.  Maybe that tells you that it too is a favorite place.  In 1984, its intact combination depot, what the Milwaukee called a “Standard Class A Passenger Station.”  This standardized design building, standing at the head of the town, spoke

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volumes of how the Milwaukee reshaped this landscape in the first decade of the twentieth century. But since this image from 2013 I have learned that the depot is gone–part of the roof decking was missing then so I am not surprised at the lost.  Just disappointed in the lack of vision of keeping this heritage asset together for the future.

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The news is not all bad from Martinsdale.  In 2013 the Stockmen’s Bank was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, only the sixth such place in Meagher County.  Yeah I know the photo above from 2007 shows it missing one entire bay from when it was converted from a bank into a garage.  But its brick construction and classical style made it

Renovations at the Stockman's Bank, 2013

Renovations at the Stockman’s Bank, 2013

a landmark in Martinsdale.  Can’t way to see its condition in 2015 because the town has several key buildings, and I just don’t mean the Mint Bar.

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I really mean the Martinsdale Community Center.  Rural reformers in the early 20th century pushed western communities to establish centers–where people could gather in a secular public space, vital for not only individual sanity but community togetherness in the dispersed population of the northern plains.  The center at Martinsdale has always been well maintained, and now that the depot is gone, it is the community landmark.

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Business, however, is not booming in Martinsdale.  The Crazy Mountain Inn serves as the local restaurant and lodging option, the older classic false-front Martinsdale Hotel is now shuttered.

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Even classic roadside institutions like the town’s two historic service stations/garages have closed–their mid-20th century designs are reminders of the days when automobiles came this way in numbers.

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Now let’s shift attention to the “eastern end” of this route, the town of Ringling, a place once of high hopes founded by the circus master John Ringling.  Like Lennep, the Ringling townscape is dominated by two elements:  the Milwaukee Road standardized depot–in

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better shape in 2011 than the Martinsdale station–and the sacred landmark that dominates the view from U.S. Highway 89 for miles:  St. John’s Catholic Church.  The church dates c. 1910 and is a wonderful example of Arts and Crafts style in an otherwise basic gable-front rural church building.  Although used much more sparingly today, it has been restored and maintained well.  It too is eligible I would think for the National Register.

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Montana 294, like the Milwaukee Road itself, is no longer a major artery–it wasn’t really in 1984 and it is even moreso in 2015.  But what remains is a reminder of how the Milwaukee Road shaped the state’s landscape for 100 years, leaving in its wake landmarks of transportation, engineering, architecture, settlement, and faith.