A first look at Mineral County’s Milwaukee Road corridor

IMG_7379The two railroads and the river that shaped Missoula also carved the landscape to the northwest.  Following the Clark’s Fork River to the northwest, the Milwaukee Road passes through Mineral County, adding to a transportation corridor that, earlier, included the Mullan Road, and then later U.S. Highway 10.  It is now the route of Interstate Highway I-90 as i heads west to Idaho and then Washington State.

When I carried out the survey for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Mineral County had one property listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  The DeBorgia School, built in the wake of the Milwaukee Road’s construction through the mountains in 1908, somehow survived the horrific fire of 1910 that claimed most of the county’s earliest buildings.  As the railroad’s impact declined, and school consolidation took place, the building stopped being a local school in 1956.  It has now served as a community center for longer than it was a school.  A small town library has been constructed nearby since my last visit some 30 years ago.

But what was a solitary landmark in 1985 has become a county proud of its transportation history, especially the impact of the Milwaukee Road and the towns of Superior, Alberton, and St. Regis all have National Register properties that interpret railroads, transportation, and transformation in Montana’s northwest.

IMG_7380As the interstate crosses the Clark’s Fork River near Tarkio it bypasses the earlier transportation network.  A particular marvel is the Scenic Bridge, listed in the National Register in 2010, especially how the bridge of U.S. 10, built in 1928, was designed in dialogue with the earlier high-steel bridge of the Milwaukee Road.

IMG_7378 The Scenic Bridge has been closed to traffic but is safe to walk across, creating great views of both bridges and the Clark’s Fork River–travel here has always been challenging.

Alberton also has important transportation landmarks, especially its National Register-listed Milwaukee Road passenger depot.  The railroad was why the town was established–it is so appropriate that now the railroad headquarters has been converted into city hall and other public uses.

Mineral Co Alberton MR depot

IMG_7367Twenty years historic preservationists stepped up to add numerous properties to the National Register throughout the county.  In addition to the passenger depot, the Montana Valley Book Store, above, was listed.  This two-story false front building, with attached one-story building, was once the town’s commercial heart and known as Bestwick’s Market–it has been close to the heart of book lovers for years now.  Montana Valley Book Store was a relatively new business when I first visited in 1984 but now it is one of the region’s cultural institutions, especially when a visit is combined with a quick stop at the adjacent Trax Bar.

Mineral Co Alberton school

IMG_7369The historic three-story brick Alberton High School (now the Alberton School) operated from 1919 to 1960 as the only high school facility within miles of the railroad corridor.  It too is listed in the National Register and was one of the community landmarks I noted in the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.

Mineral Co Alberton modern h.s.I gave no notice to the replacement school, the modern Alberton High School, c. 1960.  That was a mistake–this building too reflects school design ideas of its time–the Space Age of the late 1950s and 1960s, when open classrooms, circular designs, and a space-age aesthetic were all the rage.  Alberton High School is one of my favorite small-town examples of Montana modernism.

Mineral Co Alberton modern h.s.The school is a modern marvel just as the high school football field and track are reminders of how central the schools are to rural community and identity in Montana. Alberton has held its own in population in the decades since the closing of the Milwaukee Road, largely due to its proximity to Missoula and the dramatic gorges created by the Clark’s Fork River.  Change is probably coming, and hopefully these landmarks will remain in service for years to come.

Mineral Co Alberton football field 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missoula County’s country towns

IMG_8038Missoula County has grown, a lot, since my state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985, especially in the county seat of Missoula and surrounding suburbs.  Yet Missoula County still has several spectacular rural drives, like Montana Highway 83 above at Condon, along with distinctive country towns.  This post will share some of my favorites.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon roadsideIMG_8033

Let’s just stay at Condon.  The Swan Valley Centre–it was just a general store back in the day–still operates, providing for locals and in the summer the tourists who are flocking to Seeley Lake or passing through on the way to Glacier National Park or Flathead Lake.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club 2The Condon Community Center and adjacent Swan Valley Community Library serve as additional hubs for those living along the lakes and mountains of northeast Missoula County.  Both buildings are excellent examples of mid-20th century Rustic style–a look that, in different variations, dominates the Highway 35 corridor.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center 1Condon is also the base for the Condon Work Center, home to the Great Northern Fire Crew, of the Flathead National Forest.  Here you can take a mile-long Swan Ecosystem Trail and learn of the diversity of life in this national forest region.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley LakeSouth of Condon on Montana Highway 83 is Seeley Lake–a place that certainly has boomed in the last 30 years–witness the improved highway, new businesses, and population that has increased over 60 percent since my last visit in 1992.  Yet it still had places rooted in the community’s earlier history such as the Sullivan Memorial Community Hall–a good example of mid-20th century Rustic style.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley Lake community hallAnd it had added one of my favorite bits of roadside architecture in this part of Montana: the Chicken Coop Restaurant as well as opening a new Seeley Lake Historical Museum and Chamber of Commerce office at a spectacular highway location just outside of town.

Let’s stay in the mountains but go northwest of Missoula to the historic Ninemile Remount Depot of the U.S. Forest Service.  In earlier posts I have praised the historic preservation work of the Forest Service at various places across Montana–30 years ago it might have been like pulling teeth to have forest service managers to recognize the many heritage assets under their jurisdiction but no more.  The Forest Service has done right by many of its National Register historic places, with Ninemile Depot being a particularly good example. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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In 1984 too few of us were focused on resources coming from the New Deal era.  When I was at Ninemile in 1984 I was looking for the historic school house–and was pleased 30 years later to find that it stood, and had been converted into a residence.

Missoula Co Ninemile schoolI don’t recall even thinking about the forest service facility, but here was an entire complex devoted to the forest service’s use of mules and horses before the days of the ATV that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The remount depot is an interesting

mix of restrained Colonial Revival styled offices and residences combined with a early 20th century functional aesthetic for the various barns and work buildings, which could have come straight from the USDA’s standardized plans for farm buildings of that time.

If you want to explore how the New Deal transformed the Montana landscape, the Ninemile Remount Depot is a must stop.  It has a museum about what has and still happens here and campgrounds are located nearby in the national forest.

Missoula Co Frenchtown RR corridor

Frenchtown is a Milwaukee Road railroad town closer to Missoula and the city’s sprawl to the northwest has impacted the town, as evident from the new school complex. When I visited in 1984 the town was a paper mill town.  Waldorf Paper Products Company opened the mill in 1957, but a successor company, Smurfit-Stone, closed the mill in 2010.  At that time the town had experienced a significant population boom, having grown from 883 in 2000 to over 1800 in 2010.

Missoula Co Frenchtown school 2The name Frenchtown dates to 1868 and is a reference to a number of French Canadians who moved here in the early settlement period.  A National Register-listed church, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (1884) marks that first generation of settlers.  Its classical-tinged cupola has long been the town’s most famous landmark.

Missoula Co Frenchtown St John Baptist Catholic NR 3The Milwaukee Road built through here in 1907-1908 and there remains a handful of historic business buildings from the time of the Milwaukee boom. There is one landmark

Missoula Co Frenchtown 6

from the paper mill days that I recall from my work in 1984–because I stopped here for a break back then: the Alcan Bar–and note the “F” for Frenchtown on the hill behind it.

Missoula Co Frenchtown 7

Evaro is also northwest of Missoula, more north than west along U.S. Highway 93.  The highway’s four-lane expansion has changed so much of the roadside landscape between this place and Hamilton far to the south.  Yet Evaro still has its c. 1930 one-room school, which is now the community center, helping to preserve this historic building. And its has

IMG_7827another roadside landmark–the Bucksnort Bar, just further evidence to add to the Chicken Coop and the Alcan that you won’t go hungry if you explore the small towns of Missoula County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the Blackfoot River and Ovando

Abandoned farm landscape, s MT 141, Powell CoMontana Highway 141 cuts north from Avon On U. S. Highway 12 to halfway between the towns of Ovando and Lincoln on Montana Highway 200.  Its is high mountains prairie travel at its best, although the height of ranching along this route disappeared a while back. About 12-13 miles north of Avon you cross into the Nevada Creek drainage, which has long watered the land, enhanced after the New Deal added the Nevada Creek earthen dam that created Nevada Creek Reservoir in 1938.

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Nevada Creek Dam Spillway.

Nevada Creek Reservoir, N, irrigation, MT 141, Powell CoAlong the east banks of the lake are remnants of the Fitzgerald Ranch, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I highlighted the property in my book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986). Jimmy Isbel established the property in 1872,

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 5

Fitzgerald Ranch facing Nevada Creek Reservoir.

building a log cabin.  But he did little to develop it and c. 1885 he sold it to J.F. Fitzpatrick.  His family patented his homesteading claim in 1890 and in the next decade, they built a two-story log home, a wooden-frame barn, and other outbuildings before adding a Queen Anne-influenced frame wing to the house, totally transforming the look of the ranch.

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 1Thirty years ago, this significant collection of vernacular buildings were in good condition, but the years since have been hard on the property, and the complex now needs serious preservation attention. The loss of the roof on the log barn, and the general poor condition of the roofs of the outbuildings are major concerns.

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Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 2

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 3 log

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 4 logBetween the Fitzgerald Ranch and Helmville is the Barger Ranch, also from the late 19th century judging from the more polished example of Queen Anne style in the ranch house. It is living proof that not all of the Nevada Creek ranches have passed away.  The Nevada Creek Water Users Association at Helmville still operates to distribute the invaluable water from the reservoir.  Barger Ranch, 18565 MT 271, s of Helmville, Powell CoHelmville was another topic in my 1986 book.  Throughout the Nevada Creek drainage, you could help but be impressed with the log construction, and the various types of notching used for the buildings.  Helmville had a particular interesting grouping of wood frame and log buildings, which were highlighted by a 1984 photograph in the book. That exact view could not be replicated 30 years later but several of the old buildings still stood.

Helmville, Powell Co (p84 62-15)

MT 271 log buildings, Helmville, Powell CoHelmville has a good bit of continuity.  Along with the row of buildings on Montana 271 there is a turn of the 20th century gable-front cottage and a two-story lodge building that has been turned into a garage.

There was also a good bit of change: new post office and community center, new Catholic church building, and the school has been significantly expanded, although someone thought enough of the past to keep the old historic school bell cupola.

Helmville had changed little, however, compared to Ovando, the next village to the northwest.  Ovando is on Montana Highway 200, north of the Nevada Creek drainage, past the 1960s era Blackfoot Waterfowl Production Area, and along the Blackfoot River.

IMG_2250Trixie’s was the same fun dive that I always recalled, but the village’s historic buildings had been restored, looking good.  Business appeared to be brisk. A new community church has been opened, and a major interpretive place for the “Lewis Minus Clark” expedition had been installed. Kudos to both the U.S. Forest Service and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for allowing a bit of humor in this marker.

Ovando market and gas, Powell Co

Ovando store, Stay Bullet, Powell Co

IMG_2235Ovando school, Powell CoThe school had also expanded from its New Deal core of the 1930s, courtesy of the Works Progress Administration. But the most noticeable change was the town’s street signs–first the fact that a small place had street signs but then the nostalgic backpacker theme of these cast iron marvels.

IMG_2241Ovando is a good location on the Blackfoot River for sportsmen, anglers, and hikers headed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness–its recent change demonstrates the influence on those groups on the 21st century Montana landscape.Ovando highway sign, MT 200, Powell Co

 

 

 

Powell County’s Little Blackfoot River Valley

IMG_2251Between Garrison Junction, where U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate I-90 meet, to Elliston, at near the Mullan Pass over the continental divide, is a beautiful, historic valley carved by the Little Blackfoot River.  It is a part of Powell County that hundreds whiz through daily as they drive between Missoula and Helena, and it is worth slowing down a bit and taking in the settlement landscape along the way.

NP and Mullan Road, Powell Co

Mullan Rd marker and mining, E of Elliston, US 12Captain John Mullan came this way shortly before the Civil War as he built a military road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington.  A generation later, in the early 1880s, the tracks of the Northern Pacific Road used the Mullan Pass to cross the divide and then followed the Little Blackfoot River west towards Missoula.

Elliston was the first Northern Pacific town of note on the west side of the divide and while today it is perhaps best known for Lawdog Saloon–definitely worth a stop–it also retains key public buildings from the early twentieth century, including its Gothic-styled

community church, a large gable-front log building that to my eye reads like a 1930s era community hall (I have not verified that), and then a quite marvelous  Art Deco-styled brick school, built by the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration in the 1930s.

Elliston school, Powell CoThe oldest federal imprint in Elliston comes from the ranger’s headquarters for the Helena National Forest in its combination of a frame early 20th century cottage and then the Rustic-styled log headquarters.

Helena National Forest ranger station, EllistonThe next railroad town west is Avon, which is also at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Montana Highway 141 that takes travelers northwest toward the Blackfoot River. Like Elliston, Avon has several buildings to note, although the National Register-listed property is the historic steel truss bridge that crosses the Little Blackfoot River and then heads into ranch territory.

Powell 3 Little Blackfoot River Bridge US 12 AvonThe bridge is a Pratt pony truss, constructed in 1914 by contractor O.E. Peppard of Missoula, and little altered in the last 100 years. As the National Register nomination notes, the bridge’s camelback trusses are unusual and have not been documented in other Montana bridges from the early 20th century.

IMG_1919Avon has another clearly National Register-worthy building in its 1941 community hall, a late New Deal era building, which has served the community in multiple ways, as a meeting place for the Avon Grange, a polling place, and a place for celebrations of all sorts, including stage presentations and bands.

Avon Community Hall, 1941, probably WPA

Avon Community Hall, New Deal, 1941

Avon Community Hall 1941 New Deal interiorThe Avon School also has a New Deal era affiliation, with the Works Progress Administration. Although remodeled in the decades since, the school still conveys its early 20th century history.

 

Avon School US 12 2Avon even has its early 20th century passenger station for the Northern Pacific Railroad, although it has been moved off the tracks and repurposed for new uses.

IMG_1933In front of the depot is the turn of the 20th century St. Theodore’s Catholic Church.  The historic Avon Community Church incorporates what appears to be a moved one-room school building as a wing to the original sanctuary.

Early railroad era commercial buildings also remain in Avon, with a frame false front building serving both as a business and the community post office.  Birdseye Mercantile is an architecturally impressive stone building, dated c. 1887, that has for a decade housed a quilt business.  It too may be National Register worthy.

Birdseye Mercantile, 1887, AvonAnother important property in Avon, but one I ignored in 1984-85, is the town cemetery, which also helps to document the community’s long history from the 1880s to today.

Avon Cemetery, SE, Powell Co

Avon Cemetery, W, Powell CoHeading west from Avon on U.S. Highway 12 there are various places to stop and enjoy the river valley as it narrows as you approach Garrison.  I always recalled this part fondly, for the beaverslide hay stackers–the first I encountered in Montana in 1981–and they are still there today, connecting the early livestock industry of the valley to the present.

Pintler Scenic Route and the Flint Valley

Flint valley S from Valley Cemetery, Mullan Rd, Granite CoMontana Highway 1, the Pintler Scenic Route as I knew it during the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan survey, provides travelers with two distinct experiences.  The southern half is a mining landscape, centered on the urban places of Anaconda and Philipsburg. The northern half is very agricultural, a place where cowboys and cowgirls still roam.  It is one of my favorite parts of the state.  Fret not, I won’t explore every nook and cranny but I will talk about three favorite places.

Granite Co, Hall post office, St 512First up is the village of Hall, which is north of Phillipsburg.  The Northern Pacific Railroad ran its spur line from Drummond to Philipsburg through the middle of the valley, leaving Hall as the halfway stop between the larger towns.  Just as in 1984, the old town bank still served as the post office.  Hogan’s Store still stood near the railroad tracks and a lone grain elevator stood along the old railroad corridor.

Hogan's store, MT 512, Hall

IMG_2076So too was the historic school at Hall still standing–in fact this c. 1920 brick building continues to serve local children as it has for decades. The same was true for the Stockman

Granite Co Hall school MT 513

Granite Co, Stockman bar and store, MT 513, HALLBar–maybe not as old as the school building but not far behind and still in business despite the proximity to Drummond and Philipsburg. Then there is a wonderful piece of yard art in Hall–leaving no doubt about the primary agricultural product here.

Yard art, Hall, US 10A, Powell co

Mullan Road, E, at Valley CemeteryAs you travel north on Montana Highway 1 you next, unexpectedly, cross the historic Mullan Road, one of the oldest roads in the northwest.  Parts of the road are graveled and graded, others are paved, but whatever the condition the road takes you to 19th century log

Log buildings at ranch off Mullan Road, s of Drummond, Granite Co

Log Building, Mullan Road, S of Drummond, Granite Cobuildings, even a dog-trot type log dwelling as well as the spectacular Valley Cemetery. I call it spectacular not for its cemetery art–although there is more than you would expect–but for its setting in the Flint Valley.

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Valley Cemetery, Mullan Road, Granite Co 2

Valley Cemetery, Mullan Road, Granite Co 3Wherever you look the vista is jaw dropping and can’t be that different than what Capt. Mullan and crew experienced in the late 1850s as they trekked this way.  The Annie Milroy grave marker and statue (1912) speaks to the sadness that many homesteaders experienced as they tried to make a go of it in this demanding land.

Union Army Civil War veteran Franklin Taylor found his final resting place here, an indication of the cemetery’s early date as is the beautiful cross marker for Michael Dooley, who died in 1886.

IMG_2297The nearby elaborate carving of the Bergman family marker is just another indication that this cemetery deserves additional, full research. (Not far away from Hall is the lone obelisk marker for the historic Emmitsburg Cemetery, another early settlement site.) My next post will finish the Pintler Scenic Route with a deep look at Drummond.

 

Basin: a Jefferson County Mining Town

brick stores, Basin St., Basin, Jefferson Co.I’m taking a break from the Pintler Scenic Route to take a look at Basin, a turn of the 20th century mining town, in Jefferson County.  A perceptive reader contacted me and wondered if this once very important town in Jefferson County would be discussed.  Since its time-frame reminded me of Phillipsburg, I thought why not now.

BasinWhen I carried out the Montana State Historic Preservation Plan field work in 1984-1985 I passed through Basin Street in the heart of “downtown” Basin quite frequently, not because of the Silver Saddle Bar–fine place it is–but because I had no choice if headed

Basin bar

Photo from the winter of 2007

south from Helena.  Interstate I-90 was not finished then and all traffic used the old U.S. Highway 91 route (Basin Street) passing through the town.

IMG_0533The glory days of Basin had long since passed, although some locals and visitors would go to the Merry Widow Mine for a dose of radon, thinking it could cure their ills (of course radon exposure is actually dangerous). Led by the Butte capitalist Augustus Heinze, the town from the mid-1890s to mid-1920s had been a quite thriving place, served as both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads with its Basin Street becoming the route for U.S. Highway 91.  The numerous two-story brick commercial buildings reflected that era of prominence while a decaying c. 1930 garage on the town’s outskirts documents the impact of the federal highway.

Basin Valley Service, Basin, Jefferson CoSeveral key community landmarks remain.  The most impressive is the two-story frame Basin School, built in 1895 and still in use as a school today. Here is another great Montana rural school building–the state is so rich in this type of public architecture.

Basin School, Jefferson CoNearby is the Community Church, another late Victorian-era styled building, with its tall bell tower and distinctive corner entrance.

The third building is Basin Creek Pottery and Gallery, located on Basin Street, which is a

Basin Creek Pottery, Basin, Jefferson Co

poignant reminder that from 1993 to 2011–in the aftermath of the interstate’s completion and the sudden end of traffic through town–Basin was home to the Montana Artists Refuge.  For 18 years a wide range of nationally significant artists made Basin their home and their studios.  Board chair Sean Sheehan told the Helena Independent Record on August 10, 2011:  “We’ve had internationally published authors, Guggenheim fellows — all of these people have been extraordinarily kind and open to the community. We’ve had

Stone and frame stores, Basin St., Basin, Jefferson Co

wonderful artists and you could just stop in their studio — artists from all over the world and country. Many national artists have done workshops at local schools. I’m really going to miss the stimulation of having such talented and gifted artists right in our community.” Few small towns in Montana have ever been blessed with such exposure to the arts.

 

 

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.

Georgetown Lake MT 1

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.

On to Ravalli County via US 93

IMG_2882When most people think of Ravalli County they think of the ever suburbanizing northern half, as you take U.S. Highway 93 south–a four lane highway–from Missoula and encounter the new suburbs of Florence.  But if you use U.S. Highway 93 from the southern end, you find a very different place, one that starts with Ross’ Hole.

IMG_2887There are few more beautiful places in the state, even on this cloudy day in 2012, the hole beckoned, as it has for centuries.  In western American history, its importance has multiple layers, from ancient Native American uses to the peaceful encounter between Flathead Indians and the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.  Without the horses the expedition acquired from the Flathead, its journey would have been much more difficult, if not impossible.

ross holeMontana “cowboy” artist Charles M. Russell painted the scene as a prominent historical mural in the House of Representatives chamber at the Montana State Capitol in 1912. His composition, as I used to like to point out when I gave state capitol tours in 1982, emphasized the centrality of the Native Americans in the region–the expedition were minor characters, in the background of the painting’s right side.  The place name Ross’s Hole refers to Hudson Bay Company trader Alexander Ross who traded there in 1824.  Hole was a trader and trapper term for mountain valley.

Ravalli Co Ross Hole interpretation, US 93, SulaAt the time of the 1984 survey, Ross’ Hole was interpreted by this single wooden sign, now much worse for the wear of the decades.  But like many important landscapes in the state, today you find a rather full public interpretation in a series of markers sponsored by the Montana Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Sula is the primary “town” of Ross’ Hole, and its 20th century settlement history is chartered by two community institutions.  A local grass-roots preservation group has done a great job of restoration of the historic school building–a one-room frame building that fits into its rural surroundings brilliantly.

The Sula Community Club dates to 1915, although its clubhouse is a more recent building of rustic log style–while the nearby Sula Post Office is a more contemporary, bland take on “rustic”style.

Nearby all three of the buildings is a historic beaver slide hay stacker, another reminder of the early 20th century ranches that represented a new era in the hole’s history.

IMG_2881Any trip to Ross’ Hole would not be complete with a stop, however brief, at the roadside architecture-a log bungalow–home to the Sula Community Store, which can basically provide you with about anything you might need while traveling on U.S. Highway 93.

 

 

 

Ravalli County Sula country store, US 93And the coffee is always hot, and strong.

Country Towns in Beaverhead County, Part II

Jackson MT, MT 278Jackson, Montana, is another favorite place of mine in Beaverhead County.  Located on Montana Highway 278, far away from any neighborhoods, the town dates to the 1880s, as

Jackson Mercantile, MT 278, L&C sign on sidethis area of the Big Hole Valley opened up to ranching. Its name came from Anton Jackson, the first postmaster; the town still has a historic post office building even though its

population barely tops 50.  That is enough, once kids from surrounding ranches are added, to support the Jackson elementary school–a key to the town’s survival over the years.

Jackson School, MT 278Jackson grows significantly during the winter, as it is an increasingly popular winter get-away destination, centered on the historic Jackson Hot Springs, which had been upgraded and significantly expanded since my last visit in 1984.

Jackson MT Hot SpringsBut my real reason to tout the wonders of Jackson, Montana, lie with a simple but rather unique adaptive reuse project.  A turn of the 20th century church building has been converted into a hat manufacturer business, the Buffalo Gal Hat Shop–and I like hats!

IMG_2995Grant is another ranching town along a Montana secondary highway, this time Montana Highway 324.  Like Jackson, it too has enough year-round residents and children from nearby ranches to support a school, a tiny modernist style building while an older early 20th century school building has become a community center.

Grant only attracts the more hardy traveler, mostly hunters.  The Horse Prairie Stage Stop is combination restaurant, bar, and hotel–a throwback to isolated outposts of the late 19th century where exhausted travelers would bunk for a night.

Grant bar and lodgeBack when I visited in 1984, Monte Elliott (only the third owner of the property he claimed) showed off his recent improvements made within the context of a business location that dated to the Civil War era.  The lodge still keeps records from those early days that they share with interested visitors.  In the 21st century, new owner Jason Vose additionally upgraded the facilities,  but kept the business’s pride in its past as he further expanded its offerings to hunters and travelers.

IMG_3499Far to the north along Montana Highway 43 is the Big Horn River Canyon, a spectacular but little known landscape within the state.  Certainly anglers and hunters visited here, but the two towns along the river in this northern end of Beaverhead County are tiny places, best known perhaps for their bars as any thing else.

 

Certainly that is the case at Dewey, where the Dewey Bar attracts all sorts of patrons, even the four-legged kind.  The early 20th century false-front general store that still operated in 1984 is now closed, but the town has protected two log barns that still front Montana Highway 43.

Wise River still has four primary components that can characterize a isolated western town:  a post office, a school, a bar/cafe, and a community center.  It is also the location for one of the ranger stations of the Beaverhead National Forest.

The station has a new modernist style administrative building but it also retains its early twentieth century work buildings and ranger residence, a Bungalow design out of logs.

The forest service station has provided Wise River with a degree of stability over the decades, aided by the town’s tiny post office and its early 20th century public school.

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IMG_2967Just as important as a town anchor is the Wise River Community Center, which began in the gable-front frame building as the Wise River Woman’s Club but has expanded over the last 30 years into the larger building you find today.

Wise River Woman's Club with extension

But to my eye the most important institution, especially for a traveler like me, is one of the state’s most interesting bits of roadside architecture, the Wise River Club.  I have already written about this building, from my 1984 travels.

Wise River Beaverhead Co. MTThe liveliness of that 1984 exterior–note the mini-totem pole, the log benches, wagon wheels, and yes the many antlers defining the front wall–is muted in today’s building.

IMG_1660But the place is still there, serving locals and travelers, and a good number of the antlers now grace the main room of the bar.

IMG_0549Wise River, unlike Dewey but similar to Jackson, has been able to keep its historic general store in business.  The post office moved out in the 1990s to the new separate building but the flag pole remains outside to mark how this building also served both private and public functions.

Wise River Mercantile, Wise RiverThe country towns of Beaverhead County help to landmark the agricultural history of this place, and how such a huge county as this one could still nurture tiny urban oases.  Next I will leave the rural landscape and look at Beayerhead’s one true urban landscape–the county seat of Dillon.

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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