Red Lodge: Coal Town of the Clark’s Fork Valley

Clark's Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT Clark’s Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

When the Northern Pacific Railroad entered the Yellowstone Valley in the 1880s, officials and investors immediately began the search to find and acquire locally available deposits of coal.  First there came the Klein mines north of Billings and then by the end of the decade, the first move toward mines to the south, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, at what would become Carbon County with its major town of Red Lodge on Rock Creek. Development began slowly, with the Depression of 1893 intervening, but as the era’s financial and railroad magnates combined the Great Northern, the Burlington Route, and the Northern Pacific into one huge co-operative venture, they selected a new place in the Yellowstone Valley, a town called Laurel at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone rivers, to connect the three railroads. In short order, a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line was built down the Clark’s Fork Valley to the place called Red Lodge–U.S. Highway 212 follows this route–and the boom was on.

IMG_5759Entering Red Lodge from the north via U.S. 212 you encounter immediately the town’s roots as a railroad town, as the historic Northern Pacific depot remains rooted at the head of the town.  Here is where my long-interest with the Red Lodge story began in 1984 when

IMG_5760I met with a small group of local historians, preservationists, and civic leaders determined to keep Red Lodge and its still intact historic environment together. The group’s vision for the depot was for it to be a visitor center, an arts center, but more than anything a community center, a visible sign of the turnaround that could happen.  Already, at the head of town artist Peter Toth had begun the new tradition with his mammoth wood sculpture, “In Honor of a Proud and Noble People,” installed in 1979, a theme of the region’s

IMG_5764Native American history and proximity to the Crow Indian Reservation that also was captured in a much more commercial way by the neon sign of the Red Lodge Cafe then, and still to my mind, the best place in town.  The neon, like Toth’s sculpture, was designed

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to attention of the one course of heritage tourism income that locals recognized:  that summer traffic coming out of Billings and off the interstate heading to Yellowstone National Park via U.S. 212 and the Beartooth Pass, one of the true highway wonders of the United States.  How to get people to stop, and how to restore pride and hope for the town itself: those motivated the group I met in 1984 moreso than any well meaning goal of merely preserving history and pretty buildings.

IMG_5758To say that the initial depot project was successful would be an understatement.  Thirty years later the depot is a public space that includes a gazebo, outdoor art, and a setting of history and culture rarely rivaled in the region.  As you move south from the depot, you also immediately encounter several of the dreams the groups discussed in 1984:  a National Register of Historic Places historic district (there are now more than one); restored and treasured public buildings such as the Carnegie Library and Carbon County Courthouse;

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and their biggest goal of all in 1984, the acquisition, preservation, and transformation of iconic Labor Temple into a history museum and heritage center for the Carbon County Historical Society.

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The group understood the power of the Labor Temple:  they could tell a story not just of railroad magnates and economic development but could look at this history from those who came and labored in the mines, and built the town.  The building dated to the decade of Red Lodge’s height, 1910-1920, when the town’s population reached 5,000 but especially once the Northern Pacfic opened new mines at Colstrip to the east in the 1920s,  the town had been in a decades long period of population decline, where less than 2,000 people lived in 1980.  Many had given up, obviously, but those who stayed saw the bones of a possible community renaissance–and preservation was a big part of that.  That more recent story comes next.

The Sweet Grass of the Yellowstone Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chouteau County’s Plains Country Towns

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Thirty years ago geographer John Hudson wrote a series of articles and a book on the topic of “plains country towns,” addressing the landscape patterns he found among the railroad-established towns of the northern plains.  Ever since Hudson’s concept of plains country towns has influenced how I look at the Montana’s small towns.  Even in such river counties as Chouteau County where the Missouri River trade base of Fort Benton has dominated the county’s economy and population since the mid-19th century, you can still find the unmistakeable imprint of the railroad and the grain elevators that mark the presence of a town.

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Earlier in this blog I have discussed Square Butte (above) and Geraldine.  Today I want to review two other small towns, Highwood and Carter.  Highwood is the largest, counting

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just about 175 people in the last census.  Like most plains country towns, it has steadily lost population in the last 50 years.  In fact this weekend’s Great Falls Tribune discussed how the Highwood High School was going to forge a co-op for sports with Geraldine so both schools could continue to have basketball, volley ball and 7-man football, played at this tiny field in Highwood.

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The Highwood School is no doubt the pride and center of this community, a place not often found by travelers nestled as it is in a gulch formed by Highwood Creek along Montana Highway 228.  It began in the 1880s as cattle country but with the coming of the railroad in the 1910s t became an outlet for grains, as its set of tall elevators makes apparent.  A small one-story false front building for the 1912 Highwood Mercantile Company also remains to mark the town’s railroad years.

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Carter has one-third the population of Highwood–only about 50 people in the 2010 census–but is better known to travelers due to its location along U.S. Highway 87 between Great Falls and Fort Benton.  The Rocking K Bar is the roadside landmark but travelers

IMG_9334should turn south and drive down into Carter proper since the town, despite its tiny number of residents, still has many of the community institutions that defined a proper plains country town of 100 years ago.

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First, there is the still operating Carter Elementary School, probably the one institution that keeps the town alive–when country towns lose their school soon everything else goes too.

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Next comes the tracks, railroad depot, and the grain elevators–while not public institutions they do give the community commercial lifeblood, and as long as the trains roll by there remains an economic reason for Carter to exist.

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The depot has been moved from its original location paralleling the tracks, but this early 20th century standardized designed combination depot for the Great Northern Railway still stands–there were hundreds across the state in my survey of 1984-1985 and one of the more disturbing trends of the new survey of 2013-2015 is how many Great Northern depots are gone, eliminating from the landscape they once dominated.

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Faith too has remained in Carter, with the persistence of the town’s small vernacular styled gable-front little white Methodist church, although in its first generation several congregations had been established here.

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Carter also still has its Community Hall–an institution across the northern plains that defined hope and persistence in the years following the homesteading bust of the 1920s.
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Community halls too were more numerous in 1984-1985 than today–the building in Carter is a significant community link between past and present.

IMG_9330Finally there is the federal presence–marked by a concrete block post office from the last decades of the 20th century.  The threat a few years ago to close hundreds of rural post offices across the region brought new, and necessary, addition to role of post offices as modern community landmarks for plains country towns.

Admittedly, Carter is a place that hundreds roar pass daily as they drive U.S. Highway 87. But with its extant school, depot, brace of elevators, church, community hall, and post office, Carter is a valuable physical document of the plains country towns that once populated eastern Montana, serving as important way stations along the metropolitan corridors of rails and sidings that crisscrossed the west.

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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Winnett and Petroleum County

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West of Jordan, crossing the Musselshell River, on Montana 200 is Petroleum County, the last county to be created in Montana in 1925. Its county seat, Winnett, was never big–even at the height of the Cat Creek oil strike the town numbered only 500 residents. It now has 188 in 2010–a slight decrease of twenty from when I first visited in 1984.

Petroleum County Courthouse, mid-1980s

Petroleum County Courthouse, mid-1980s


In 1928, county officials moved the courthouse into the town’s one substantial business block, a beautiful locally quarried stone building from the town’s beginnings in 1918. The courthouse is now the county’s one listed property in the National Register of Historic Places.
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Another public building is the 1960s post office–I noted it in the 1984 because of the use of a stone veneer on the front of the building, different than many other standardized designs found in the region. That building is
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still there, now as then, an important community gathering place, changed only by the growth of landscaping around it in the last 30 years.
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There is only a single historic grain elevator left in Winnett, but it has two bars, one a converted gas station, the other the iconic Winnett Bar, one of the most famed in the region, especially for its steaks. If you only need one reason to visit Winnett, this is the one.
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While there, you also can take in a bit of Montana modernism, in the A-frame First Baptist Church, which the town’s “W” overlooks from the bluffs above. Other earlier classic vernacular designs, such as false front stores await new futures.
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The future in Winnett and Petroleum County is naturally given a physical space by its schools–the most substantial buildings constructed here in the second half of the 20th century. with less than 500 residents in 210, the county’s future seems to be non-existent but the schools say otherwise.
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