Missoula’s historic neighborhoods

Missoula Co Missoula East Pine HDTo wrap up this multi-post look at Missoula and Missoula County, let’s take a brief look at the city’s historic neighborhoods.  With seven historic districts, Missoula is rich in domestic architecture, and not only the homes built during its rise and boom from the early 1880s to the 1920s–there also are strong architectural traditions from the post-World War II era.  This post, however, will focus on the early period, using the South Side and East Pine historic districts as examples.

IMG_7667Listed in the National Register of Historic Places 25 years ago, the south side district was platted in 1890, with development especially booming after the turn of the century and the arrival of the Milwaukee Road depot by 1910.  Within that 20 year period, an impressive grouping of domestic architecture, shaped by such leading architects as A. J. Gibson, was constructed, and much of it remains today.  When the state historic preservation office designated the district in 1991, there were over 200 contributing buildings.

IMG_7659The neighborhood contains some of the city’s best examples of Queen Anne style, as seen above but also has many different examples of other popular domestic styles of the era, such as the American Four-square and variations on the various commonplace turn of the century types as the bungalow.

As true in so many turn of the century neighborhoods, various community institutions were crucial to growth and development and historic churches and schools help to define the place even if they are used for different purposes today.

Missoula Co Missoula church  south side

IMG_7673Apartment blocks and duplexes from the turn of the century also are important contributing buildings to the neighborhood.  They reflect the demand for housing in a rapidly growing early 20th century western city.

The East Pine Street historic district is on the north side of the Clark’s Fork River, and its long, linear plan reflects the planning assumptions of what is often called the City Beautiful Movement of the turn of the century–that homes should be set on large lots, with a boulevard-type median dividing the street, giving an urban environment a bit of a country estate feel. Governor Joseph Dixon hired A. J. Gibson to build his mansion along the street and the neighborhood long held the reputation as the city’s most exclusive.

 

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But the grand architectural statement is not the only defining feature of the East Pine Street neighborhood–here too are more vernacular variations from the 1870s to 1900 domestic architecture, while stuck here and there you also find mid-20th century modern styles anchoring the neighborhood.

Missoula Co Missoula East Pine HD 11Before we leave Missoula, I want to also briefly consider its historic 1884 cemetery, an often forgotten place as it is located on the northside of the Northern Pacific Railroad corridor, and a property, like so many in 1984-1985, I gave no consideration to as I carried out the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan.

Missoula Co Missoula Cemetery

Missoula Co Missoula CemeteryFort Missoula has the Missoula ‘s oldest cemetery but the city cemetery developed within a year of the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  The entrance gates were erected in 1905. The cemetery reflects the design ideas of the 19th century Rural Cemetery Movement , with curvilinear drives, large canopies of trees, and an overall naturalistic, serene setting.

Missoula Co Missoula Cemetery 7A large concrete cross and adjacent river rock stone lined marker pay homage to the cemetery’s earliest burials as well as the many first citizens interred here.

As expected, there are many grave markers from the 1890s to the 1930s, and several good representative examples of the mortuary art associated with the late Victorian and early 20th century eras.

The fraternal organizations of the late 19th century also are well represented, with the Masonic marker given a primary location within the cemetery’s looping driveways. Its symbolism of the broken column is matched by that of the Order of the Eastern Star.

I must admit that my favorite monument in the cemetery returns us to a theme that I have discussed across the state–the importance of remembering and commemorating the Civil War in late 19th and early 20th century Montana.  Monuments related to this theme were another under-explored aspect of my 1984-1985 work; today I remain intrigued by just how much Civil War memorialization exists in Montana.

 

The Missoula City Cemetery’s obelisk marker takes on added meaning due to its relative scarcity.  In 1905, the Women’s Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the post-war Grand Army of Republic, erected this memorial.  Scholarship is relatively scant on the Women’s Relief Corps, although a colleague of mine, Dr. Antoinette van Zelm, is making headway on this issue.  Compared to the pro-South United Daughters of the Confederacy, the WRC is little recognized today.  But this marker shows their devotion to Union veterans buried at the City Cemetery.

 

 

Bannack: Boom Town to Ghost Town to State Park

IMG_3078My first trip to Beaverhead County in 1981 had two primary goals–and the first was to explore Bannack, the roots of Montana Territory, and one of its best connections to Civil War America. As this simple wooden sign below remarks, here in 1862 the first gold strike in what became Montana Territory occurred.

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The road into Bannack passes through sparsely populated country, and you wonder what the miners, and then the families, who passed this way thought as they approached the town by foot or by horse, if they were lucky.  The “road” then of course was not more than

Bannack Roada path because the glistening bits of metal loose in the sands of the creek had never interested the Native Americans but news of the find was enough to drive easterners, many of them southerners, away from the landscape of war and into a wholly different place, crested by beautiful mountains.IMG_3138Grasshopper Creek was not much of place then, and even now, but this stream of water became the source of a boom that eventually reshaped the boundaries of the northern Rockies and nearby its banks grew the town of Bannack, a name taken in part from the Bannock Indians who had used this landscape in far different ways for many years.

Bannack streetscapeThe story of the preservation of Bannock begins with local land owners, who protected the site, and kept most of the buildings from being scattered across the region.  There was little official interest in the place at first.  The state Daughters of American Revolution

IMG_3023marked it in 1925, otherwise the buildings remained, some in use as residences or for public purposes, others melting away in the demanding climate. The Boveys moved the Goodrich Hotel to their preservation project at Virginia City and transformed it into the Fairweather Inn, which is still in use as lodging.

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Fairweather Inn in Virginia City.

The old Goodrich Hotel is not the only thing that Virginia City got from Bannack.  Bannack was the first territorial capital of Montana, but then in early 1865 the territorial offices moved to Virginia City.  Bannack’s boom had already started to decline, and the boom seemed never ending to the east in Madison County.

IMG_3071In 1954, the Beaverhead County Historical Society transferred about 1/3 of the present property to the state for protection and development as a state park.  Not until 1961 did the National Park Service recognize the town as a National Historic Landmark.

Ever since the state has repaired buildings and structures as necessary but decided long ago to preserve the town as a ghost town–last residents outside of park rangers left in the 1970s–and not to “restore” it like a Colonial Williamsburg treatment.  Thus, it is very

much a rough, open experience for visitors at the town.  Doors are open, nooks and crannies can be explored.  Public interpretation, outside of the small visitor center, is scant, although more than what I found in 1984, as this back room of old interpretive markers reminded me.

IMG_3110Gritty, dusty, forlorn:  yes, Bannack is the real deal for anyone wanting to explore ground zero of the gold rush era in Montana, and to think about how in the midst of the great Civil War, federal officials found time to support adventurous citizens to launch a new territory in forgotten expanses of the northern Rockies.

Bannack NHL school, masons 10I thought that 30 years ago I “got” Bannack–there wasn’t much that I missed here.  I was wrong.  Probably like thousands of other visitors who fly into the town, and leave just as quickly, I missed what is still called the “new” town cemetery.  Almost hidden in the sagebrush along Bannack Road, the “new” cemetery is not Boot Hill–where is Plummer

IMG_3082buried people still want to know–but it is a remarkable place of hand-carved tombstones, others rich with Victorian imagery, and a few that are poignant reminders of the Civil War veterans who came here and stayed.

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Bannack is one of the great rural cemeteries in Montana.  Don’t make my mistake from 1984–stop here and explore.

 

 

Rural Landscapes of Silver Bow County

IMG_1004When travelers, and most Montana residents even, speak of Silver Bow County, they think of Butte.  Outside of the Copper City, however, are small towns and a very different way of life.  To the west we have already discussed Ramsay and its beginnings as a munitions factory town during World War I.  Let’s shift attention now to the southern tip of the county and two places along the historic Union Pacific spur line, the Utah Northern Railroad, into Butte.

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The Union Pacific Railroad, by means of the narrow gauge Utah Northern extension, became the first transcontinental railroad to reach Silver Bow County, arriving in 1881.  Its first stop in the county was at a freighting stop for the Hecla mines, established in the 1870s, that was renamed Melrose.  This place grew as transportation and trade crossroads between the Hecla mines to the west and the Butte mines to the north.

Melrose still has several log and frame buildings typical of late 19th century mining towns gathered along Hecla Street.  There is a substantial brick one-story Victorian styled commercial block and two-story brick railroad hotel facing the tracks, both reminders of

Brick stores, symmetrical plan, Melrose

IMG_1015when Melrose was a substantial, busy place.  This 1870s-1880s history is largely forgotten today as the town has evolved into a sportsmen’s stop off Interstate I-15 due to its great access to the Big Hole River and surrounding national forests as well as the quite marvy Melrose Bar and Cafe, a classic western watering hole.

Melrose bar, murals, US 91Community institutions help to keep Melrose’s sense of itself alive in the 21st century.  Its school, local firehall, the historic stone St John the Apostle Catholic Mission and the modernist styled Community Presbyterian Church are statements of stability and purpose.

The next stop on the historic Utah Northern corridor is a turn of the 20th century engineering marvel, the Big Hole Pump Station.  Already listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the pump station was in the midst of comprehensive documentation from a HABS/HAER team when I visited it for the state historic preservation plan in 1984.

Big Hole Pumpstation, Divide, Silver Bow Co NR eligible (56-12)The photo above was published in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, in part because of the preservation excitement over this landmark but also because it documented how the boom in Butte helped to transform the historic landscape on the “other side of the divide.”  The pump station took water from the Big Hole River and pumped it over the mountains to the Butte Water Company–without the pump station, expansion of the mines and the city would have been difficult perhaps impossible in the early 20th century.

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The pump station remains in operation but access now, due to security concerns after 9/11/2001, is restricted compared to my explorations of 1984.  Divide is also distinguished by two community institutions–its one-room school, its grange hall, and its standardized post office, still in business following the threat to close many small town Montana post offices last decade.

Divide post office, Silver Bow CountyIn 2014, in reaction to the listing of Montana rural schools as a threatened national treasure by the National Trust of Historic Preservation, CBS Sunday Morning visited Divide School for a feature story.  Teacher Judy Boyle told the Montana Standard of May 16, 2014: “The town of Divide is pretty proud of its school and they want to keep it running. We have a Post Office, the Grange and the school — and if you close the school, you basically close the town.”

Divide School, Silver Bow CountyDivide is one of many Montana towns where residents consider their schools to the foundation for their future–helping to explain why Montanans are so passionate about their local schools.

 

Butte’s historic cemeteries

IMG_0907Far from the bustle and grime of the Richest Hill on Earth are the historic cemeteries of Butte.  As I have said many times already in this blog, I rarely considered cemeteries during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work.  That was a huge mistake for Butte.  The three historic cemeteries I wish to consider here–Mt. Moriah, St. Patrick’s, and B’nai Israel–document the city’s ethnic diversity like few other resources, reinforcing how groups survived in a city together although they often keep to their separate communities.  But the cemeteries also have sculpture and art worthy of attention and preservation–they are outstanding examples of late 19th and early 20th cemetery art and craftsmanship in the United States.

IMG_0908The Masons established Mr. Moriah Cemetery Association in 1877.  The cemetery has many striking markers, especially the Thompson Arches (seen above and below), an elaborate statement to mark a family plot, especially when compared to the cast-iron

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fences found elsewhere in the cemetery, like for the Nicholls family. The Victorian cast

IMG_0911iron fence, when combined with the carving and detail of the gravestone itself makes quite the statement for Cornish identity in Butte at the turn of the century.  Note the dual fraternal lodge marks, one for the Masons, another (the linked chain) for the Odd Fellows.

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IMG_0904Frank Beck left this earth in 1909, and the marker for Frank and his wife Agnes is remarkable for the inclusion of the family pet, noted above as Frank and His Faithful Dog.

The early 20th century gravestones and family plots are impressive largely wherever you ramble in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, and I am limiting my comments to merely a few markers. But you cannot help but notice the family gravestone, sculpture actually, for the Noyes family, a large neoclassical setting with the motif “The Day Break and the Shadows Flee Away,” framed by two large metal angels holding wreaths.

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Not everything in Mt. Moriah is so spectacular, but the evidence of the skill and creativity of Butte’s gravestone makers can be found throughout the property.

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B’nai Israel Cemetery is small in comparison yet it is a valuable space that documents the Jewish community’s long history in Butte. It is not quite as early as Mt. Moriah, dating to

IMG_09281881 when the Hebrew Benevolent Association first acquired the land from the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Congregation B’nai Israel acquired the property in 1905, two years after finishing its landmark synagogue in uptown Butte.

B'nai Israel Cemetery, Butte

St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery is also located in this part of the city.  It dates to the 1870s and contains thousands of burials.  When I visited in 2012 the cemetery was in OK condition but needed help, not just in basic maintenance but in the repair of tombstone damaged over the decades.  Just about a year ago in a story in the Montana Standard of March 1, 2015, members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Irish Catholic fraternal group, pledged new efforts for the cemetery’s preservation: “‘A walk around this holy ground will tell you more about the people of Butte than a week spent at the library,’ said Jim Sullivan, one of 60 members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Butte.”

IMG_0927The cemetery seems to stretch to the very edge of the city, but it is worth a long walk around for what you can discover about the Catholic impact on Butte in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

IMG_0926There are spectacular sculptural monuments to prominent city builders, such as the Classical Revival-style temple crypt for merchant price D. J. Hennessy.

IMG_0919Adjacent are separate plots maintained for Sisters who served and died in Butte as well as larger, more elaborate memorials for priests who served in Butte over the years.

A surprise near the rear of the cemetery is a large memorial section for military veterans of the Spanish-American War of the late 1890s.  This conflict is often ignored in today’s history books but numerous cemeteries in Montana have memorial sections for those who fought and died in that war.

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The dominant grave marker at St. Patrick’s is a small stone tablet but cemetery sculpture emphasizing the cross can be found throughout the property.

Then there are a handful of sculptural markers with an angel theme, and these are among the most spectacular in the cemetery. The Daly marker (below) is an elegant, moving

statement of loss and sorrow.  The O’Farrell monument (below) likewise conveys sorrow and loss in the combination of an angel and the cross but by including a relief carving of O’Farrell it also serves as a very public memorial for a prominent family member.

Throughout this brief exploration of three historic cemeteries, I have deliberately left the stories associated with this remarkable cemetery art to the side.  A few years ago, in 2010, local historian Zena Beth McGlashan published her book “Buried in Butte.” I wished the book had existed in 1985–maybe then I would not have ignored one of the most fascinating and significant sections of Butte: its three adjacent historic cemeteries along South Montana Street.  Next, an exploration of Mountain View Cemetery.

 

Telling Butte’s Stories

Archives and fire station, ButteLet me just jump right in:  I do not know of another town in Montana that has done more with the concept of heritage development than Butte in the last 30 years.  Heritage development, in brief, means that a community identifies the stories and places that define their past and sense of identity and then uses them as tools for community revitalization and growth.  The stories and places must be authentic, meaningful, real–fake pasts don’t get you very far.  In 1981, out of fears that its storied and nationally significant history would be lost in the haze of late 20th century urban renewal and economic change, Butte created as part of local government the Butte-Silver Bow Archives–everyone I knew were excited about its potential and its early discoveries at the time of the state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985.  Now that institution is one of the key rocks upon which Butte’s future lays.  Above is the conversion of a historic firehall into the modern archives/heritage center the institution is today–in itself a great example of adaptive reuse and historic preservation at work.

Professional staff and volunteers, all led by Ellen Crain, keep both the community and scholars engaged–the number of strong histories, public projects, and exhibits that have come, in whole or in part, from this place in the last 30 years is very impressive.  Plus it is

IMG_1105a vibrant institution, always in touch as its community room hosts other heritage groups and special programs throughout the year.  The archives is just around the corner from one of the most important, and solemn,  places in the city, the location of the Butte Miners’ Union Hall, which was bombed in 1914.

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Now an interpretive monument talks about the union, the bombing, and addresses directly a chilling chapter in the long struggle between labor and capital in Butte. Installed c. 1993 near the “top” of Main Street, this site sets the stage for the amount of public interpretation found in the city today.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 033Heritage development has become part of the basic sinews of Butte. Along with its active archives board, the city also maintains an effective historic district commission, and provided seed money for several key projects over the past generation.  The Original Mine site below, the city’s first copper mine, not only serves as part of the city’s public

interpretation efforts, it is also a place for community gatherings, such as the Montana Folklife Festival in recent years. It is important to note that the marker at the Original just doesn’t celebrate the technology it also notes how many men–43–died at that mine.  The progress of Butte happened on the back of its working class miners.

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Here is another promising change:  the willingness to landmark and discuss the human costs of mining.  Butte’s most infamous event was the Granite Mountain/ Speculator Mine disaster of 1917 in which 168 miners died–still the single most deadly disaster in American hard-rock mining history. Not that the event was ignored at the time.  In fact the North Butte mining company erected the memorial above to those who perished in Mountain View Cemetery, far from the scene, shortly thereafter.  Who knew this memorial existed?  There were no signs marking the way there–you had to search to find it.

IMG_1230Today the Granite Mountain site is one of the best interpreted mining properties I have encountered.  The miners’ stories are told–often with the words they were able to write down before dying from the lack of oxygen–and their multiple ethnic backgrounds are acknowledged, and celebrated.

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IMG_0977The interpretive memorial overlooks the mine, and is located high over town.  But when I visited in May 2012 a school group was there too, along with visitors like me.

ARCO, along with public partners, funded the site in this century, as part of the general Superfund cleanup of the mining district.  But the park was long overdue as well as the recognition that some 2,500 miners lost their lives in the Butte district.  The marker’s statement–“you are standing on hallowed ground”–is typically reserved for military parks.  Within the context of Butte, however, it is totally justified, and an important point to remember wherever you are in the city.

The reality that Butte’s mines contributed significantly to American war efforts in the 20th century is recalled through a public art mural near a public transit stop.  Public sculpture also interprets what was and what has been lost in Butte.

Through the efforts of the state historic preservation office, and its commendable program of providing interpretive markers for National Register properties, the residential side of Butte’s story is also being told.  You have to love the “blue” house, associated with U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, one of the New Deal era movers and shakers.

I-15 interpretive markers, ButteAll of these efforts considerably enhance earlier efforts at public interpretation, be they along Interstate I-15 and its overview of Butte or the visitor center maintained just off the

Butte Visitor Centerinterstate by the local chamber of commerce.  The center, yet another change in the last 30 years, is an attractive reproduction of a classic railroad depot design.  It also provides a useful perspective of the city from its south side, giving special prominence to the soaring clock tower of the historic Milwaukee Road depot.

Butte overview from visitor centerThe Berkeley Pit in 1984 was a giant hole in the earth, with a viewing stand.  It too now has a more comprehensive heritage experience with a small visitor center/ museum adding to the public understanding of the massiveness and significance of the pit.

Berkeley Pit, entrance, Butte

Then of course, designed for highway travelers and tourists, there is the now classic World Museum of Mining, established in 1965 around the Orphan Girl mine.  The WMM lets rusting industrial artifacts convey part of the story while the existing mining buildings are open, allowing you to get a more physical experience of what the head frames and mines were really about.  And, as typical of Montana museums of the 1960s and 1970s, there is the attached “frontier village,” interpreting what early Butte was all about. Don’t get me

wrong: there are many things to like about the WMM–it is rich in artifacts, as the miners items above suggest (and more about it in another post).  But it is a controlled, sterile experience, and I would hate for that to be the only takeaway visitors have about Butte and its significance.  The museum is away from uptown Butte, and visitors who stop here may never go explore the deeper story within the town and its historic neighborhoods.

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Old Butte Historical Adventures on Main Street is just one group of heritage entrepreneurs who provide visitors with a “up close and personal” viewpoint and experience of Butte’s historic landscape.  Walking tours of Uptown along with various special theme tours engage visitors and residents with local history in a way different from traditional monuments, markers, and historic sites.

But one must be aware that the pressure to commercialize can also distort, and demean, the significance of it all.  What happens at the Dumas Hotel–a historic brothel–will be interesting to watch.  The story of prostitution is very much part of the fabric of the city, but one that for many years people did not want to tell, except with snide references and a snicker or two.  Let’s hope that changes as the Dumas is restored and opened as a heritage venue:  addressing the sex trade and role of women and men accurately and in context would add immeasurably to the sense of authenticity, of realism, in the Butte story.

Butte Greenway towards Walkerville

The most exciting part of Butte’s heritage development to my mind are the series of greenways or trails that link the mines to the business and residential districts and that link Butte to neighboring enclaves like Centerville (shown above).  Recreational opportunity–walking, jogging, boarding, biking–is a huge component of livable spaces for the 21st century.  When these trails are enhanced by the stories they touch or cover,

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they become even more meaningful and valuable.  If you have lived in Montana for 6 months or 60 years, it is time to return to Butte and take the Montana Copperway (trailhead shown above) –not only would it be good for your health, it also gives you a lasting perspective of a mining town within the vast Northern Rockies landscape, and how men and women from all sorts of backgrounds and nations established a real community, one that has outlasted the mines that first created it.

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Butte: A place transformed, and still going

Badger State Mine, 1883-1966, ButteButte–the copper city that was once the largest urban area in Montana–was a place undergoing tremendous stress at the time of state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985.  The closing of the Berkeley Pit–the most scarred landscape of that time in Montana (the coal pits of Colstrip now surpass it)–shocked so many since Anaconda

Berkeley Pit in p.m.

The environmental disaster of the Berkeley Pit, as it has filled with water in the last 30 years, seems tranquil, even peaceful today

Copper Company officials had promised that when the town of Meaderville was destroyed for the pit generations of work would ensue.  Schools, homes, churches were uprooted, sometimes even buried so the frenzied mining could continue, tearing away half of the town’s built environment.  What had been lost to gain so little.

Butte hwy marker and pit, I-15

Note the gash of the pit to the left of the highway marker

Then in the early 1980s came the next blow: the Anaconda smelter closed too–an era had passed, with the boom of the 1970s suddenly crashing.  What would replace it, what could replace it, was there even hope in Butte?  I remember the pessimism of those days.

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Overview of Butte, 1985, from Montana Tech

Naturally some immediately said that the past was now in the way, that only massive urban renewal would save butte and create opportunity for the future.  Residents combined with professionals and activists to say no:  the past was the future for Butte.  The state office certainly provided what resources it could.  Butte was the largest National Historic Landmark in Montana.  We didn’t really have any idea of the number of resources and exactly what the boundaries included but everyone accepted that Butte was a place apart not only for Montana but much of the United States.  Really strong preservationists and archivists (I admired what Fred Quivik, Ellen Crain, and Brian Shovers were doing there in the mid-1980s) were already in place, doing everything they could to record, identify, and preserve the stories, places, and individuals who shaped this most unique place.  For me, in 1985, Butte was literally a morass: so rich in story, architecture, sense of place, ethnic identity that it was difficult to grasp.  And frankly it remained that way until I returned for a serious engagement with this place in 2012. That is when I stood at the Mile High, Mile Deep Mine, now accessible to the public through the marvelous Copper Trail.

Butte from Mile High MineFrom here you understood that Uptown–the state’s most sophisticated urban setting–was little more than a speck within a larger landscape where people lived and toiled, scratching out lives for their families, building communities, providing raw materials to a hungry industrial world.  But what seemed to me to be the vastness of Butte was actually a decidedly human response to the far greater vastness of the northern Rockies. Here was a landscape of work like few others in this nation.

2011 MT Silver Bow County Butte 001There are few better places in the United States to explore the landscape of work, and how opportunity attracted all types of people from all sorts of lands to mine the copper, to house the workers, to feed the families, to provide rest and relaxation, to do all of things big and small it takes to keep a place humming 24 hours a day for decades, taking from the earth materials that made modern suburban America possible.

Headframe from Mountain ConI cannot touch upon everything or everyone that define the Butte experience today but in the next several posts I want to dig deep into this landscape and discuss how this transformed place is now, for me, the most compelling spot of all in Montana.

Mountain Con Mine E

 

The Great Falls Heritage Area, part one

IMG_9146Along the Missouri River is Paris Gibson Park, deep in the heart of Great Falls, Montana.  Gibson was one of the classic civic capitalists of the late 19th century who understood that as the community prospered he too would achieve this dream of building a great western empire, with his town of Great Falls as the center.  Almost 100 years after his death, in 2015, residents, preservationists, historians, and economic developers began discussions on establishing a heritage area, centered on Great Falls, but encompassing the Missouri River as the thread between the plains and mountains, that has shaped the region, and the nation, for hundreds of years.  I strongly endorse the discussion and will spend the next several posts exploring key resources in Cascade County that could serve as the foundation for a larger regional story.

Sand Coulee Coal Mine, Cascade Co (32-34)

Abandoned coal mine at Sand Coulee from the 1984 preservation survey.

Let’s begin with the coal deposits to the east of Great Falls, often forgotten places today but the exploitation of the easily accessible belts of coal not only provided the railroads crisscrossing the region with necessary coal but also left in their wake classic mining communities such as Belt, just off of US 87/Montana 200.

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Situated along a creek nestled within coulees of coal, Belt is a classic mining town, where all of the historic buildings are situated along the main road into town.  When I visited in 1984, Belt like most central Montana towns was no where near its population height of over 1100 residents during the homesteading boom, but its 800 plus residents in 1980 was a marked increase from recent decades and many of the town’s historic buildings were in use.

Belt, Cascade Co (32-23)

The Farmers and Miners State Bank said so much to me in 1984, and beyond its classical facade so in keeping with the Classical Revival style favored by state banks throughout the state.  It was the name:  farmers and miners–both walked the street and helped to make the town.

IMG_8860Thirty years later, Belt’s population had bottomed out, declining to under 600 by the time of the 2010 census.  But both times I have stopped by, in 2013 and 2015, the town has a sense of life about it, and hope.  The town’s two historic taverns, the Harvest Moon Tavern  and the Belt Creek Brew Pub, as well as the Black Diamond Bar and Supper Club attract visitors from nearby Great Falls and elsewhere, giving the place a sense of life at evenings and weekends.

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IMG_8868When planners talk about heritage areas, they often focus on the contributions of local entrepreneurs who take historic buildings, like the Pioneer above, and breathe new life into them.  Throughout small town Montana and urban commercial districts, new breweries and distilleries are creating such opportunities.

Cascade Co Belt Hardware 1896 Belt historic district NR  - Version 2

IMG_8859IMG_8862Belt has a range of historic buildings, mostly of vernacular two-part commercial style that speak strongly to the boom of 1900 to 1920.  The Victorian-styled cornice of the Belt Hardware Store (1896) speaks to the town’s origins.  The Knights of Pythias Lodge of 1916 has been restored as a community theater, another reason for visitors to stop and explore.IMG_9850.jpgThe result is a living cultural experience, since nothing in Belt is over-restored or phony feeling.  It is still a gritty, no frills place. That feel is complemented by the Belt museum, which is housed in a historic jail on road down into town and within sight on a railroad trestle, a reminder of what literally drove the town’s development, coal for the railroads.

IMG_8865During the 1984 survey, I gave the jail a good bit of attention since this stone building spoke to the craftsmanship of the era, the centrality of local government as the town developed, and the reality that this building was the only thing in Belt listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But in 2004 the state historic preservation office approved the Belt commercial historic district, and that designation has done much to drive the town’s recent revival.  Belt is just the first place that speaks to the promise of the Great Falls heritage area concept.