Gold Creek and Pioneer: bypassed landmarks

Gold Creek overview from school

When I began my fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, there was one spot I was particularly eager to visit:  Gold Creek and Pioneer on the west side of Powell County.  Granville Stuart and Conrad Kohrs both loomed large in the history of Montana; they were associated, respectively, with the two mines.  Stuart was been among the party who first struck gold there in 1858; Kohrs later owned the Pioneer mines.  Plus the two mining areas were counted among the state’s earliest.  Then one winter in 1982 traveling along Interstate Highway I-90 I had looked to the west and saw the faded wooden signs marking what they called the first gold strike in Montana–one of 1858 even before the Mullan Road had been blazed through the area.  Not far away was

NP last spike,jpg (2)

another nondescript sign–this one about the last spike of the Northern Pacific Railroad–it too was visible from the interstate. I had to know more.

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Gold Creek store and post office, 1984.

What I found was not much, at least anything much that could become part of public interpretation.  The folks at the general store and post office, where exterior signs proudly noted that it began in 1866, told me that the granite marker for the Gold Creek strike was on private property–well maintained but something no one was interested in doing more with.  The last spike for the Northern Pacific Railroad was a similar story. Once that spot was all in the national news.  Now it was a place on the railroad right-of-way and Burlington Northern wasn’t interested in visitors being on such a heavily traveled section.

Tailings at Pioneer, Powell Co

The road west of Gold Creek led into the later placer mining of the Pioneer Mining District (established 1866)–with the high mounds of tailings coming from much later efforts to dredge every bit of precious metal from the property.

Pioneer tailings, Powell CoRanchers had taken bits of older buildings from Pioneer and incorporated them into later structures between the mining district and Gold Creek.  Pioneer as a ghost town barely existed then and little marks its past except for the scars of mining.

Log barn E of Pioneer, Powell Co 2

Old buildings grafted into barn, E of Pioneer, Powell Co

Gold Creek, Powell Co

Gold Creek has existed since the dawn of Montana Territory but it has rarely caught a break–its monument about mining is landlocked on private property.  The interpretive markers about the Northern Pacific’s last spike are on the interstate at the Gold Creek Rest Area.  Much of what is there today dates to its last “boom” when the Milwaukee Road built through here c. 1908, but as regular readers of this blog know, the success of the Milwaukee and short lived and by 1980 it was bankrupt. Today little is left except the roadbed, as is the case, almost, in Gold Creek.

MR corridor, Gold Creek, Powell Co

I say almost because the Milwaukee Road located one of its electric transmission buildings in the middle of Gold Creek, along the electrified line. Abandoned when I surveyed the town in 1984, the building has been restored and put back into business.

MR power plant, Gold Creek, Powell Co

Milwaukee Road Electric Station facing the Northern Pacific line.

Two community institutions still shape Gold Creek. On the “far” end of town is the St. Mary’s Mission Catholic Church, built c. 1910, with its original Gothic design still intact.

Catholic Church, Gold Creek, Powell Co 1But the most important community institution (yes, the Dinner Bell Restaurant out on the interstate exit is important but it is a new business) is the Gold Creek School, a rather remarkable building in that residents took two standard homestead era one-room schools and connected them by way of a low roof “hyphen” between the front doors.

Gold Creek school, Powell CoAdaptation and survival–the story of many buildings at Gold Creek and Pioneer.  Historical markers are scarce there but the history in the landscape can still be read and explored.


Rural to Industrial Landscapes in Missoula County

Missoula Co Potomac school 1

Montana Highway 200 follows the Blackfoot River as it enters Missoula County from the east.  At first you think here is another rural mountain county in Montana, one still defined by community schools like the turn of the century one at Potomac above, and by community halls like the Potomac/Greenough Hall, which also serves as the local Grange meeting place.

Missoula Co Potomac Community Hall New Deal?It is a land watered by the river, framed by the mountains, and famous for its beef–which they even brag about at the crossroads of Montana Highways 200 and 83.

Missoula Co MT 200/83 jct roadside  1But soon after passing the junction, you enter a much different landscape, particularly at the point where the Blackfoot River meets the Clark’s Fork River.  This is an industrial world, defined by the company town design of Bonner and the active transportation crossroads at Milltown.  Suddenly you shift from an agricultural landscape into the timber industry, which has long played a major role in the history of Missoula and northwest Montana.

IMG_8005In 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad was approaching the river confluence.  It contracted with a company led by E. L. Bonner, Andrew Hammond, and Richard Eddy to supply everything the railroad needed but steel as it passed through the region.  Two years later the railroad provided the capital for Bonner, Hammond, Eddy, and M.J. Connell to establish the Montana Improvement Company.  In c. 1886 the improvement company dammed the rivers and built a permanent sawmill–the largest in the northern Rockies, and created the town of Bonner.  The sawmill works and town would later become the Blackfoot Milling and Manufacturing Company and eventually by the late 1890s it was under the control of Marcus Daly and his Anaconda Copper Company.  Anaconda ran Bonner as a company town until the 1970s.

Missoula Co Bonner 8Although buildings have been lost in the last 30 years, especially at the sawmill complex which had a disastrous fire in 2008 and a heavy snow damaged another historic structure in 2011, I found Bonner in 2014 to remain a captivating place, and one of the best extant company towns left in Montana.

Missoula Co Milltown MT 200 bridgeMontana Highway 200 passes through the heart of Bonner while Interstate I-90 took a good bit of Milltown when it was constructed in the 1970s.  Both Bonner and Milltown are heavily influenced by transportation and bridges needed to cross the Blackfoot and Clark’s Fork rivers.

IMG_7320The Milltown Bridge has been restored as a pedestrian walkway over the Blackfoot River.  It is the best place to survey the Blackfoot Valley and the old sawmill complex.

Missoula Co Milltown wildflowers at bridge 5The pedestrian bridge and heritage trail serve as a focal point for public interpretation, for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Mullan Road, and then the lumber industry, which all passed this way over time, a conjunction of rivers and history that lie at the heart of the local and state (Milltown State Park) effort to interpret this important place.

The industrial company town of Bonner is a fascinating place to visit.  On the south side side is company housing, a company store (now a museum and post office), and then other community institutions such as the Bonner School, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and Lutheran Church.

Missoula Co Bonner post office

Bonner Museum and Post Office

Missoula Co Bonner school 2

Missoula Co Bonner St Ann Catholic

St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Bonner.

Missoula Co Bonner Our Savior Lutheran

Our Savior Lutheran Church, Bonner.

The north side of Montana 200 has a rich array of standardized designed industrial houses, ranging from unadorned cottages to large bungalows for company administrators, all set within a landscape canopy of large trees and open green space. The mill closed in the first decade of the 21st century but the town remains and the condition of both dwellings and green space is ample testimony to the pride of place still found in Bonner.

Milltown is not as intact as Bonner.  One major change came in 1907-1908 when the Milwaukee Road built through here and then in the 1920s came U.S. Highway 10. A huge swath of Milltown was cut away when Interstate highway I-90 was built 50 years later, and once the mill closed, the remaining commercial buildings have fought to remain in business, except for that that cater to travelers at the interstate exit.

One surviving institution is Harold’s Club, which stands on the opposite side of the railroad tracks. Here is your classic early 20th century roadhouse, where you could “dine, drink, and dance” the night away after a hard day at the mills.

Missoula Co Milltown 3

The closing of the mills changed life in Bonner and Milltown but it did not end it. Far from it.  I found the residents proud of their past and determined to build a future out of a landscape marked by failed dams, fires, corporate abandonment, and shifting global markets.



The Deer Lodge Valley

Powell 1 Beaver slide Grant Kohrs NHS - Version 2Powell County’s Deer Lodge Valley  is another favorite western Montana landscape.  I visited there often during the 1980s, and in the years since I found myself often back in places like Deer Lodge, the county seat, if for nothing else to stop at the R&B Drive-In.

HPIM0652.JPGLet’s start with the town of Deer Lodge, a place that has changed much in the last 30 years, a process that was underway in the early 1980s after the Milwaukee Road closed its division point and declared the entire line bankrupt.  Besides Miles City, it is difficult to find a town more impacted by the Milwaukee’s failure than Deer Lodge.

My images of the wasting away roundhouses and other buildings that the Milwaukee once operated in Deer Lodge cannot be replicated today–the complex is gone, scrapped. The town’s Milwaukee Road depot survives, has been repainted, and now serves as the Depot Church, a great example of how Montanans practice adaptive reuse with historic buildings.

On the Main Street, there is a memorial to the Milwaukee’s impact, commemorating the line’s “silver spike” event in 1909 and the E-70 electric engine, one of the trains that ran through this region for most of the 20th century.

Another interesting remnant on the Milwaukee’s side of the tracks in Deer Lodge is the Civic Pavilion of 1911.  Here in this large brick building with stone quoins and pilasters is a statement both of the general movement to establish “community halls” in rural communities in the early 20th century plus the Milwaukee Road’s wish to have at least one landmark on its side of town. This was the city’s social center for most of the century.

City Pavillion, 1919, Deer Lodge, on Milwaukee Road side of townYet, Deer Lodge was not a typical small town base for the Milwaukee Road; railroads typically wanted to create their own place.  But Deer Lodge was one of the oldest places in the state, where ranchers in the 1850s first arrived–the early site is now interpreted at the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site of the National Park Service–soon followed by Capt. John Mullan as he and his soldiers built the Mullan Road through this valley.

The Milwaukee in the first decade of the 20th century came to a town whose general outline had been imprinted on the landscape by the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s.  Deer Lodge, in other words, had been a Northern Pacific town for a generation before the Milwaukee arrived.

NPRR depot, Deer LodgeThe Northern Pacific passenger depot exists across the tracks from the Milwaukee Road station.  It too has a new use:  the Northern Pacific depot is now the senior citizens center.

Deer Lodge Main Street


Main Street in Deer Lodge is a long symmetrical commercial district that links the Grant-Kohrs Ranch to another early territorial landmark, the Territorial (and later State) Prison.

State Prison, Deer Lodge 2 - Version 2Before Deer Lodge was a railroad town, it was a prison town, the location for the Territorial Prison, and later the state prison.  Most of the buildings you can visit today are from the state prison era.  It operated here until 1980 when it moved to a facility outside of town.

Trask Hall NR, 703 5thDeer Lodge also was an early center for education, represented by Trask Hall (1870s), which, like the territorial prison, is listed in the National Register. So with the themes of settlement, ranching, railroads, education, prisons, and the beauty of the valley why has Deer Lodge struggled to be recognized as one of Montana’s premier heritage designations? As the next post will discuss, citizens are taking steps to remedy the situation.


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.


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.


Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 4: Lewis and Clark

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 020The Missouri River runs through Cascade County and is at the heart of any future Great Falls Heritage Area.  This section of the river, and the portage around its falls that fueled its later nationally significant industrial development, is of course central to the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806.  The Lewis and Clark story was recognized when I surveyed Cascade County 30 years ago–the Giant Springs State Park was the primary public interpretation available then.  But today the Lewis and Clark story has taken a larger part of the public history narrative in Cascade County.  In 2003 the nation, state, and city kicked off the bicentennial of the expedition and that key anniversary date spurred the


many new efforts to preserve and interpret the “whole story” of the expedition.  The designation of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail led to many upgrades in markers and interpretive signage across the state.  Then Great Falls became a center for trail interpretation through the opening of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center along the river banks not far from Giant Springs State Park.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 023Despite federal budget challenges, the new interpretive center was exactly what the state needed to move forward the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and its many levels of impact of the peoples and landscape of the region.  The center emphasized the harrowing, challenging story of the portage around the natural falls of what became Great Falls but its

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 006exhibits and programs have significantly broadened our historical understanding of the expedition, especially its relationship with and impact on various Native American tribes from Missouri to Washington.

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 045The contribution of the interpretive center to a greater local and in-state appreciation of the portage route cannot be underplayed.  In the preservation survey of 1984, no one emphasized it nor pushed it as an important resource.  When threats of development came about in last decade, though, determined voices from preservationists and residents helped to keep the portage route, a National Historic Landmark itself, from insensitive impacts.

At the south end of the county, the state worked with the national historic trail to established Tower Rock State Park, which preserves and interprets an important natural landmark along the river and trail, which, in 1984, was not part of the public interpretation of the expedition.  It also created a valuable heritage asset easily accessible from Interstate I-15, meaning thousands of visitors have learned about the trail as they have rushed through the state.  These developments in the last 30 years to both preserve and enhance the understanding of the expedition are just the more obvious of the efforts to improve the trail as a real heritage asset for the city, county, and state.  We can only hope that a similar effort will emerge soon to re-energize the preservation and understanding of the next major military excursion through the region–the Mullan Road of the

2011 MT Cascade County Great Falls 075 Mullan Monument - Version 2late 1850s.  Hundreds pass by the monument near the civic center in the heart of Great Falls but this story is another national one that needs more attention, and soon than later.


Great Falls Heritage Area, Part 3: Fort Shaw and the Sun River Valley


Another common features of heritage areas are properties associated with the nation’s military history and the process of nation building in the post Civil War United States of America.  Cascade County has two major sites, one old and often forgotten, the other still at the heart of the nation’s defense.  Let’s start with the oldest federal facility, Fort Shaw along the Sun River Valley in western Cascade County.  As I was conducting the survey for the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985, Fort Shaw was on everyone’s mind at the state historic preservation office.  A proposal to list it in the National Register of Historic Places had been received, and the response was, generally, it is about time.  This place had an important story to tell and was listed in 1985.


Commanders’ Quarters at Fort Shaw

As I noted in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, “Built in 1867 in what was then the heart of the country dominated by the Blackfoot Confederacy, Fort Shaw stood just a few miles west of where the Mullan Road [the important pre-Civil War federal military road through the region] crossed the Sun River.  Colonel I.V.D. Reeves designed the fort, which was built with timber from nearby hills and sandstone and fieldstone found nearby.  The soldiers also made adobe bricks that were used to construct the walls of many buildings at the fort.  You can still see [in 1986 and 2015 as well] several of the original buildings, including two sandstone washhouses for the officers, the officers’ living quarters, and the commanding officer’s house.”

I emphasized in 1985 the property’s military significance in protecting the Mullan Road and the mining camps throughout western Montana.  I also noted how it became a focal point for white settlement in the region.  But I missed the bigger picture on what the site says and means.

Heritage Areas do a good job of looking at the “whole story” and how a landscape can have multiple meanings.  Fort Shaw is an important military story:  established two years after the end of the Civil War it represents an extension of federal military might into the West and how federal officials understood that occupation posts (Fort Shaw remained a post until 1891) represented federal power and authority, some 2000 miles away from Washington D.C.  But certainly part of that process of nation building post 1865 was the federal policy to convert Native Americans.  Here at this same place the Fort Shaw Government Industrial School was established, and here that federal officials and missionaries undertook that process of “civilizing” the Blackfeet.  The idea behind industrial schools was that Native American children would be taken from their families, boarded at the school, and then taught skills that allowed them to contribute and compete in the modern white man’s world.

In the last decade, historical markers have been installed to help tell that story at Fort Shaw, highlighting the accomplishments of the 1904 girls’ basketball team, truly a remarkable story.  Again, heritage areas like to talk about cultural history, and basketball and Indian nations across the northern plains are linked by this sport.  The story of these girls and their successful run to a “World Championship” at the 1904 World’s Fair has been the subject of a PBS documentary (Playing for the World, 2009) and a recent book by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, Full-Court Quest (2014).  Their accomplishments are also marked by a monument at the old

Cascade Co Fort Shaw and Indian School 8 - Version 2

industrial school site, an interpretive site not there in 1984-1985 and another great example of how public interpretation of Montana’s landscape has broadened and improved in the last 30 years.

IMG_9529Fort Shaw was not the region’s earliest mission site.  That designation belongs to St. Peter’s Mission, located on the winding Mission Road to the south of Fort Shaw.  An earlier blog discussed St. Peter’s but this special property is worth further discussion, as it is linked in time and purpose to what happened at Fort Shaw.

IMG_9518The property has limited public accessibility as an active ranch surrounds it and uses some of the remaining historic buildings.  But since my first visit in 1984, a small metal interpretive marker has been installed, which emphasizes its founding date of 1865-1866 by Catholic missionaries, many

whom are buried on a hill, along with some of their Blackfeet converts, overlooking the mission.  The Jesuits established this outpost a year or so before the military post at Fort Shaw.  In 1884 they too established a girls school for Blackfeet children at the site.

IMG_9474Often we forget these connections between religious missionaries and the nation-building process of government.  Within a few hundred yards of Fort Shaw school, for instance, is the old road connecting the school to the historic St. Ann’s Catholic Church (seen above is the historic church building; the congregation has built a modern church in recent years).

IMG_9507And we further forget, or choose to ignore, how the messy present lies side by side with these older, seemingly sacred places.  Along the Mission Road and the Simms Road are nuclear missile bases, some active, some inactive, that are administered by the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.  Much like Fort Shaw from 100 years earlier, military commanders in the 1960s saw Cascade County as part of the edge of America’s national defense, the ideal location for nuclear bases that could protect, or retaliate, in case of a nuclear strike from the nation’s enemies.

IMG_9090The Sun River Valley was transformed by homesteaders and irrigation during the great boom of the early 20th century; it shares that story of course with many towns in the Great Falls heritage area.  Montana Highway 21 (shown above) connects with Montana Highway 200 to provide great opportunities to explore that landscape.  The Sun River project of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation especially left its mark.

While the old roadside stores at Fort Shaw, the project’s headquarters, suggested that the homesteader landscape was everyday vernacular, not designed to last, other properties, such as the wonderful Simms school complex, tells us that some built to last.  At Simms, reclamation engineers designed what they considered to be a model townsite plan, with the school at the center, and broad avenues radiating out from the school.  Simms no doubt never reached the population that the planners envisioned, but here too in an unlikely place is the hand of the federal government, re-orienting the landscape in ways that can be seen, if you know where to look.


Another property of note to my SHPO colleagues in 1984 was the J.C. Adams Stone Barn, which had received a grant for “brick and mortar” work as part of President Reagan’s efforts to jump start the economy in 1982-1983.  This magnificent structure predated the federal agricultural programs, dating to the mid-1880s.  It rather spoke to the promise of stock-raising and freighting–Adams did both–as the region began to develop in the last years of the Montana territorial period.

IMG_9492The barn is part of a still active ranch and is on private property.  But the stone masonry can be viewed and appreciated from Montana Hwy 200.

IMG_9495When one considers a Great Falls heritage area, the Missouri River of course will take center stage; as the next postings will show, it should be at the center of the story.  But what happened along the Sun River, and what remains today, adds immeasurably to the national story and the overall significance of the region.


Transformations in Fort Benton, part 1



In the spring of 1984, there was no doubt that I would spend considerable time looking at the historic preservation issues at Fort Benton, a small county seat today but one of the most important places in all of the northern plains before the age of the railroad.  Here at this bend in the river, shown in a postcard I bought there in 1984, was basically the last stop for Missouri River boat traffic heading west.  The fort dated to the late fur trade era and as the rush for precious metals overtook Montana Territory in the 1860s and 1870s here developed a major trade and outfitting post, with roads running from Fort Benton in all directions.  But the place was a sleepy, almost forgotten town, as the railroads changed routes and the interstates bypassed it by miles and miles.  Landmarks too were there but the old fort had been slowly coming apart, only a recent determined effort by save what remained and then, ambitiously I thought 30 years ago, to rebuild the lost fort and tell fully the story of the fur trade and the significance of the Upper Missouri.

Image  Image


My guide was John Lepley, who was spearheading the local efforts and a member of the SHPO board.  Another key leader was Joel Overholser. And no doubt, there was some heritage tourism and historic interpretation infrastructure in place.  The Chouteau House, a classic river hotel, was still open, rough on the edges but the place where I stayed and took meals. (It was closed when I visited last in 2013).



Nearby was the home of I. G. Baker, a pivotal figure in the region’s history.  It was open, and paneled interpretation in place but certainly a property that could “say” more.



Various monuments and markers could be found throughout the riverfront:  the Mullan Road, the Whoop-Up Trail, and especially the recently installed (1976) State of Montana Lewis and Clark Memorial, a monument piece of public art, sculpted by Bob Scriver with the base by Shorty Shope, another well regarded Montana artist.  The memorial was an American bicentennial project led by the Fort Benton Improvement Association, which Lepley and Overholser served on as commissioners.  Indeed, the state also had donated one of the keelboats used in the film “Far Horizons,” a Hollywood take on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  The waterfront told a story, one dominated by Lewis and Clark.



postcard of Far Horizons boat, c. 1984



The amount and quality of the public art along the riverfront was impressive, but what struck me as speaking most strongly to the town’s future were two completed projects (the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Missouri River Bridge) and the almost completed restoration of the Grand Hotel, a remarkable Victorian building that spoke to the town’s hopes in the late 19th century.

Image Image




I left Fort Benton convinced of two things:  the town had clear preservation needs, not just the fort site but buildings from the Victorian era were decaying too.  But compared to other places that I would visit in 1984, I thought Fort Benton had the one key trait for success–vision, the realization that the steps of the 1970s were just first steps, and many more needed to be taken in the years to come.  Let’s next come back to Fort Benton 30 years later and see how far that vision has reached.