Stevensville’s Fort Owen: 2018 Update

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Fort Owen is one of Montana’s most significant historic places—where interaction between American traders and Native Americans date before the Civil War—and it is one of my favorite places, for both its layered history and the beauty of its location. I rarely pass on an opportunity to see how this little place is hanging on in a rapidly suburbanizing part of the state.

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From my visit in May 2018, the news is still good.  All of Ravalli County is growing like gangbusters (we knew that the recent four-lane US Highway 93 would have that type of impact), but the fort retains a strong sense of place.

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The buildings and structures are well maintained, aided immeasurably by the neighboring ranch family who constantly keeps an eye on the place.

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The interior of the fort building is solid enough and conveys in its material and design a mid-19th century feel.  What needs help, though, are the exhibit panels. They are what I encountered in the mid 1980s, meaning that new research is not reflected in the content nor are they as graphically compelling as, for example, the exhibits at First Nation outside of Great Falls.

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Montana State Parks are jewels, but even the most sparkling jewel needs polishing every now and then.  It is time to give that new look and due justice to Fort Owen.

 

 

 

 

Travelers Rest: New State Park Jewel in Missoula County

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One of the most significant developments in Montana historic preservation has been the verified location of “Travelers Rest,” outside of Lolo in Missoula County.  Here is where the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped along Lolo Creek in 1805. During my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, we agreed on the general location–the property had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark for years.  In fact, as indicated in the marker above, the Daughters of the American Revolution had also marked the place as early as 1925.  But one was convinced that the campsite had been definitely located. Not until archaeology in 2002 had the actual campsite been proven, and by the time I visited Missoula County in 2006 I happened to arrive on the day a celebration for the new Travelers Rest State Park was underway. The park was not yet finished but the Travelers’ Rest Preservation and Heritage Association wanted to host an event during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial period.  It was exciting to see the launch of this new, important historic site not only for Missoula County but the state and nation as a whole.

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Move forward almost ten years to the completed Travelers Rest State Park.  It is one of the best interpreted sites along the entire length of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It doesn’t have grand monuments–but it does have a walking trail that gives you different vantage points on the camp site.  Although not far from U. S. Highway 12, it is quiet, peaceful, and you can imagine what the expedition members thought about this landscape some 200 years ago.

The interpretive markers do not overwhelm the site.  But by text and illustration, along with use of primary documents, the markers tell an inclusive story, one that draws you into the landscape by reminding you that generations of Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Nez Perce people used these resources long before Lewis and Clark arrived in the fall 1805.

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IMG_2159Since I last visited in 2012 efforts have been underway to secure additional acres and to preserve a buffer around the property since growth and highway expansion between Missoula and Stevensville has engulfed Lolo.  The park now has 51 acres and represents quite an achievement by the non-profit Travelers Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, local government, and Montana State Parks.

Pintler Scenic Route and Granite Ghost Town

Granite Co, Granite road overview 1The late 19th century discovery and development of silver mines high in the Granite Mountains changed the course of this part of the Pintler route.  The Granite Mountain mines yielded one of the biggest silver strikes in all of Montana, creating both the mountain mining town of Granite and a bit farther down on the mountain’s edge the town of Philipsburg, which by 1893 served as the seat for the new county of Granite.

Granite Co, Granite USFS signThe U.S. Forest Service’s rather weathered and beat-up sign marks the historic entrance to the mining town of Granite, located at over 7,000 feet in elevation above the town of Philipsburg.  During the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work Granite was the focal point.  The office knew of the latest collapse of Miners Union Hall (1890) turning what had been an impressive Victorian landmark into a place with three walls and lots of rubble–it remains that way today.Granite Co, Miners Union Hall, Granite

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Miners Union Hall was one of two National Register landmarks in Granite.  The other was the massive stone Superintendent’s House, which Montana State Parks has stabilized, adding hopefully decades to its life, but so much else of the town is nothing but a historical archaeological site, a fate held by the old bank, Catholic Church, the California House, and a score of other significant buildings.

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The drive to Granite can be harrowing for the novice but affords great scenic views of the mountains plus multiple deteriorating mining sites.

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Granite Co, tilting headframe, GraniteConnecting the Granite road to the town of Philipsburg, today as in the past, is the site of the Bi-Metallic Mill, which is still in limited use today compared to the mining hey-day.

 

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The mines around Philipsburg are not as important as they were during my early 1980s visits, and population began to drop from the steady number of approximately 1100 the town had held for decades to just over 800 by 2010.  But in this decade, population is growing again, and historic preservation and heritage tourism are playing key roles in the revival of fortunes, as the next post will explore.

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.

 

 

Montana’s Three Forks: Crossroads of Rivers and Rails

 

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The Missouri River headwaters, located just north of the town of Three Forks, is one of the most important places in all of the United States.  Here, within the boundaries of a state park that has improved its public interpretation significantly in the last 30 years, was one of the primary goals that President Thomas Jefferson gave the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803–to find the headwaters of the Missouri River.  When the expedition

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traversed this land in 1805, they followed the footsteps of Bannock, Shoshoni, and Flathead Indians who had found this place and hunted the abundant game along the rivers long before the “explorers” arrived.  Nevertheless, it was the Corps of Discovery that named the place.  They found three sources–that they named the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin after the president and two of his cabinet officers–creating the Missouri River.

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While fur trappers such as John Colter, who was an expedition member, soon returned to this site, and in the 1860s the settlement of Gallatin City was established, but only the

historic log Gallatin City Hotel of 1868 remains to mark a place where early Montana settlers thought an important town along the rivers would develop.

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Recreational and interpretive features are now much more plentiful than 30 years ago but the park still exudes that feeling of openness and wildness that attracted that only the

Native Americans but later waves of 19th century trappers and settlers.  It is a very special place within Montana and certainly earns its National Historic Landmark designation many times over.

IMG_6668As you leave the Missouri Headwaters State Park access road (Montana 286) and return south to old U.S. Highway 10, you encounter a plaintive sign hoping to attract the thousands of heritage tourists who come to the state park–go a bit farther south and west and find the town of Three Forks.

IMG_6711The story of Three Forks, on the western edge of Gallatin County, is not of rivers but of railroads, of how both the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road corridors shaped this part of the state at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

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The Milwaukee Road came first, with Milwaukee Land Company agent John Q. Adams establishing the townsite in 1908, and later contributing its first landmark building, the two-story Colonial Revival-styled Sacajawea Hotel in 1910.  Adams began the hotel in true Montana vernacular fashion, having contractors tack together existing moved buildings

into some type of lodging for railroad workers.  Bozeman architect Fred Willson finished the building with a new facade along with various additions, leaving housing for railroad employees along with providing services for travelers.  Heritage tourists were part of that mix, especially once the Montana Daughters of the American Revolution in 1914 placed a large boulder with a bronze plaque in honor of Sacajawea across the street from the hotel. Here was one of the state’s early examples of public interpretation of the Sacajawea story. In 2005, as part of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Three Forks Area Historical Society commissioned artist Mary Michael to add a stylized statue of Sacajawea and her baby Pomp, turning the spot into a 21st century memorial to the Shoshoni woman.

Thirty years ago, the hotel was a renovation project we all at the Montana Historical Society wanted to happen.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, it was a proud relic of that railroad that had just closed but also of the early automobile age when travelers could stop here, spend the night, and then travel by car to Yellowstone National Park far to the south.  I would stay here when working in the region, reveling in

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Sacajawea Hotel, 1990

the feel, the look, the sounds of a historic railroad hotel.  Unfortunately the restart only lasted about 20 years.  The hotel closed in 2001, and looked to have a bleak future in the new century.  From 2009-2010 new owners, however, took this historic hulk and have

polished back into a jewel, better suited for more upscale travelers than in the past.  It is the center point of a renewal of Three Forks, and part of a minor population boom that has seen the town, which basically had a flat population of 1100 to 1200 from 1950 to 1990 reach a population of almost 2000 in 2015. More on Three Forks in the next post

Great Falls Heritage Area, part two: First Nations Buffalo Jump

Ulm Pishkun, Cascade Co NR (29-23)Successful heritage areas have chronological depth to their history, and places that are of national, if not international, significance.  To begin that part of the story, let’s shift to the other side of Cascade County from Belt and explore the landscape and significance of the First Nations Buffalo Jump State Park.  When I visited the site in 1984 there was not much to it but the landscape:  no interpretive center existed and there were only a few markers.  To give the state its due, it then only owned a portion of the site, with the first land acquisition dating to the New Deal.  Listed in the National Register in 1974, the site only had opened as a state park a few years earlier, and no one seemed to know much about it or even how to get to it.  But as this photograph from “A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History” shows, wow, what a view:  it was totally impressive, and had a big story obviously to convey.

IMG_9585Buffalo jumps were ways that the first nations in Montana could effectively kill large number of bisons–by planning, gathering and then stampeding a herd over a steep cliff.  Native Americans used this site for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The cliff is hundreds of yards long and kill sites are throughout the property.

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IMG_9587State park officials, working with local residents and ranchers, have significantly enhanced the public interpretation at the park since the late 1990s.  Hundreds of additional acres have been acquired, better access roads have been installed. and new interpretive features, such as these reproduction sweat lodges on the top of the cliff, have been added to the landscape to physically enhance the Native American feel to the park.

IMG_9589The interpretive center is a model of 21st century Native American-focus history.  It provides facilities and exhibits for visitors, and encourages a longer stay and exploration of the site.

IMG_9576Park managers understood that this site had special significance to all Native Americans thus they included capsule history displays about all Montana tribes of today along with displays that emphasize the Native American dominance of the landscape when the jump was in use.

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IMG_9573As the park was being expanded and improved into an effective heritage asset, both in its public interpretation and visitor facilities, research on the property continued.  The buffalo jump is now considered the largest in the United States, and quite likely the world.  In the summer of 2015, the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark as one of the nationally significant archaeological and Native American properties in America. The bone deposits remain deep and rich in artifacts, still awaiting further exploration despite being mined for a brief time during World War II for phosphorus production. Indeed the entire site is one of reflection and respect for the cultural contributions made by the First Nations long before the arrival of Lewis and Clark just over 200 years ago.

IMG_9591Here is a property that today tells us how the earliest Montanans used their wits and understanding of nature and landscape to enrich their diet and to make their world, one far from that of our own, and one still difficult for those of us in the 21st century to grasp.

IMG_9586This buffalo jump remains a place of mystery and meaning, and when you look to the south and see the shadow of Crown Butte you glimpse into that world of the deep past in Montana,.  If you look in an opposite direction you find the patterns of settlement that surround this sacred place.  And that is where we go next to St. Peter’s Mission and the Sun River Valley.

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