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

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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.

 

Beaverhead’s Mountain Passes

IMG_3417Beaverhead County’s history has deep roots, perhaps never deeper than at the high mountain passes that divide it from neighboring Idaho.  We have already taken a look at Monida Pass, but now let’s shift to the western border and consider Lemhi Pass (Lemhi Road is the image above) and Bannock Pass, both at well over 7000 feet in elevation.

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IMG_3427Lemhi Pass is a magnificent place, reached by a wide dirt road that climbs up to 7300 feet.  The roadbed is modern, and lies over a path worn by centuries of Native Americans who traveled this path between mountain valleys in present-day Montana and Idaho.  That deep past is why the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition took this route over the Bitterroot–and the Corps of Discovery connection is why the pass has been protected in the 20th century.  The pass is also connected with Sacajawea, since her tribe, the Shoshone, often used it to cross the mountains.

The pass is one of the infrequently visited jewels of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, a place that the expedition used and probably would have never “discovered” if not for the prior Native American use.

IMG_3433This kiosk by the U.S. Forest Service is part of the new public interpretation of the property, both at the start of the pass to the top of the mountain itself at the Sacajawea Memorial Area.

IMG_3429Bannock Pass, comparatively has received little in public interpretation.  Unlike Lemhi, it is not a National Historic Landmark associated with Lewis and Clark.  For today’s travelers, however, it is a much more frequently used way to cross the Rockies despite its 300 foot higher elevation.  A historic site directional sign leads to one interpretive

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marker explains that railroad engineers used the pass to connect Dillon and Idaho in the early 20th century, changing the ancient appearance of the pass, used by Native Americans for centuries to connect the high plains of Montana to the rich valleys of Idaho.  The marker also describes the use of Bannock Pass by Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph in 1877, as they escaped back into Idaho after the Battle of Big Hole. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail is more closely associated with Chief Joseph Pass, located to the north.

IMG_2893It was a snowy Memorial Day when I crossed Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes on my way to Big Hole Battlefield.  Once again I was impressed by the recent efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to interpret the epic yet tragic journey of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in 1877, especially the Trail Creek Road that parallels Montana Highway 43.

Kudos to the National Park Service for its new visitor center, exhibits, and interpretive markers at the battlefield–the finally the whole story of the Nez Perce campaign is explored through thoughtful public interpretation, centered on the Nez Perce perspective,

those who lived here until the military force led by Col. John Gibbon thought it could surprise and rout the Indians.  Rather the Nez Perce counter-attacked forcing the soldiers into surrounding woods.  The trek of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce effort to find safety in

IMG_2919Canada was underway. Today the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and Park mark that journey into history. The park today is frankly an amazing transformation, from a preserved battlefield in the early 1980s that only hinted at the true facts of history to a modern of battlefield interpretation, one that does justice to history and to the Nez Perce story.  One only wishes that more western battlefields received similar treatment.

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Shifting Meanings in the Big Horn Landscape

IMG_5494When I first arrived in Montana in 1981 the first place that I stopped at was Little Bighorn Battlefield, then known as Custer Battlefield National Monument.  As a southerner new to the west, here was a place that “everyone” knew about, an iconic western battlefield where Gen. George A. Custer and the 7th Calvary suffered a devastating defeat from a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force.  Everything then was focused on “Last Stand Hill” where

Custer Battlefield, Crow Agency (43-30)

Little Big Horn Battlefield, 1984

Custer and his troops had stood for almost 100 years.  As a veteran visitor to southern Civil War battlefields, it struck me how what you saw and experienced was all about the federal side–similar to what you found back then at southern Civil War memorial parks, where valiant Confederates fought what seemed to be a foe with no name outside of enemy.

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This quotation from Theodore O’Hara’s “Bivouac of the Dead” is found in many Civil War era national cemeteries.

IMG_1364Over the decades I have returned to the battlefield numerous times, even once (by accident I hadn’t even thought that the day would be an anniversary) when re-enactors posed by the famous obelisk monument, creating a very odd juxtaposition between past and present. (I don’t think Custer and his men were smiling on that hill in 1876).

IMG_1383By this time, meaning at the battlefield had shifted to a larger, more inclusive narrative, beginning with the actual name of the park, now Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Public interpretation, fueled not only by the changing times but an intensive archaeological investigation of the park in the late 1980s, suddenly located Native Americans within the battle landscape.  There was a growing feeling that yes this was a battle between enemies, but enemies with names, motivations, and their own sense of what it all meant.

IMG_1377Last Chance Hill was still a focal point in 2015 but now its narrative of unity and sacrifice was countered by a new monument, built to consider the story of Little Bighorn from the perspective of the Native American warriors who fought here.

IMG_5520The monument compels reflection—the metal profiles of Native American warriors blend into the actual battlefield landscape as if ghosts of warriors past were again upon the field.  Text and images add additional layers of interpretation and meaning to the battlefield, from a decided Native American perspective.

IMG_5514Then new tombstones, in a brownish stone, distinguished fallen Cheyenne warriors from the marble tombstones for soldiers from the 7th Calvary.  The place has been ennobled, transformed as a both a park and a place of reflection on what the Indian Wars of the 1870s have meant to the nation and to the peoples who fought in them.

IMG_5504Nearby within Crow Agency is a further addition to the public interpretation of the region’s military history: the exemplary Apsaalooke Veterans Park, an installation that celebrates veterans past and present.  IMG_5530At the I-90 exit for U.S. 212 at Crow Agency, a new landscape has emerged through spaces such as the park, the new Apsaalooke casino, and especially the modernist styled medical center, located near the fairgrounds for the annual Crow fair.

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The sparking bright lights of casino sign stand in stark contrast to the old mission church, now The Father’s House place of worship.

IMG_5524In the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation is another landscape of change, one not so visited by tourists.  St. Xavier was an important Catholic mission among the Crow Indians, established along the Big Horn River in 1887-1888 by Father Peter Prando.  The understated Gothic-styled church was a building documented in my A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History book in 1986 and the survey included both the church and small gable-front residence built for the priests.

St. Xavier Mission Chapel, Crow Reservation (45-2)    

Those same buildings remain today, as does the nearby Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, representing community continuity and the Catholic commitment to the reservation.  But

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IMG_5961the mid-20th century St. Xavier town site has not weathered the decades so well.  Businesses have largely disappeared and the Art Deco-styled St. Xavier public school, a Public Works Administration project from the New Deal designed by Billings architect J.G. Link in 1938 is now abandoned and decaying.

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IMG_5953Across the road from the school is St. John’s Lutheran Church, a weather- and time-worn, a 20th century log building speaking more to the past than the present. And running

IMG_5958nearby is one of many irrigation ditches that promised the transformation of the Big Horn Valley for 20th century homesteaders but as the forgotten ranches surrounding St. Xavier remind us, the irrigated empire of eastern Montana did not bring riches to everyone.

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IMG_6003Transformations and shifting meanings of the past from the perspective of the present make the Big Horn a fascinating place to explore.

Two Forts on the Bighorn

IMG_6010The Big Horn River is among Montana’s most famous as it winds its way out of the high mountains and empties into the Yellowstone River near the village of Custer.  In the southern end of Big Horn County are two forts, one barely noticeable today while the other speaks to the radically different history of the Big Horn over the last 50-plus years.

Fort smith mapThe oldest is Fort C. F. Smith, established by the U.S. Army in 1866-1868 as part of its system of defensive installations to protect travelers along the Bozeman Trail.  Named for Civil War general Charles Ferguson Smith, the post stood near the trail, as seen above, and also near a major Big Horn ferry, a location deemed almost 100 years later as perfect for a major federal dam and reservoir project.  A peace treaty between the federal government and Sioux and Cheyenne Indians who had opposed the trail and the forts led to the abode constructed fort’s abandonment in 1868.  Today, the site is marked–the Big Horn County chapter of the Federation of Montana Woman’s Clubs did so in 1933–but on private property.    It has become a forgotten place within the state’s historic landscape.

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Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service and its website on the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area.

The second Fort Smith is the name given to the government-planned town developed by the Bureau of Reclamation as part of its Yellowtail Dam project of the early 1960s.  The project was part of the massive federal reordering of the plains landscape through the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Program, an attempt to coordinate efforts between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.  The Yellowtail Dam project received Congressional funding in 1961.  The contractors included Morrison-Knudsen Company from Boise; Kaiser Company from Oakland, CA; Perini Corporation from Massachusetts, the Walsh Construction Company of Iowa, and the S Contracting Company from Butte.  The contractors received almost $40 million for the project.

IMG_5985Built from 1961 to 1966, Yellowtail Dam, named for Crow Indian Robert Yellowtail and standing at 525 feet in height, instantly dominated the surrounding landscape and turned the Big Horn Canyon into a huge lake some 72 miles along, that is managed as the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area.

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Access to the dam and its power plant was significantly curtailed after 9/11/2001.

The dam was part of an entirely new engineered landscape that defined this part of Big Horn Canyon and the Crow Indian reservation, with new ditches, the spillway, and a planned town for government employees.

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IMG_5997The town of Fort Smith was an obvious nod to the earlier army installation.  But this was not a rectangle of adobe quarters; it was a typical 1960s suburban development dropped into the middle of the Crow Reservation.  The streets are wide and circular, a concession to suburban models of planning but also taking advantage of the surrounding landscape.IMG_5980

In keeping with other suburbs of the early 1960s, the houses mixed “contemporary” styles such as split-levels and the long, horizontal Ranch house.  There were set-aside open

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spaces for recreation and parks as well as a separate commercial area.

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At the heart of the community was not a agency headquarters but a modernist styled public school–recognizing that children and their needs would help to define community among the different federal officials.

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The second Fort Smith is a fascinating landscape documenting the federal impact on the Big Horn River in the middle decades of the 20th century–a basic reordering of nature that created new impetus for recreation in the county and impacted the county seat of Hardin with its own new wave of modernist styling.  A suburb in the middle of nowhere–Fort Smith is among the state’s most distinctive places.

The Yellowstone and Missouri Confluence

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In the Montana survey work of 1984, there were few places I was more excited about visiting than the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, on the border between North Dakota and Richland County, Montana. I had been working with the Western Heritage Center of Billings for a year on an exhibit, “Yellowstone: River of Life,” that would finally (to my mind) begin to refocus attention on the largely ignored history of the Yellowstone Valley. The story had many beginning points, but certainly where the Yellowstone emptied into the Missouri was one of the most important. This area had long been a Native American landmark. For the early Canadian and American traders, it was a crucial crossroads for the northern plains fur trade. The American Fur Company established Fort Union as its largest post in the region–and the site of the fort was still there, but little else, as the images above from 1984 indicate. Paul Hedren of the National Park Service promised me there was more to come–that the post would be rebuilt and its significant story told.
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When I returned to this spot in 1988, I found that Paul’s promise had already met with success. The Bourgeoise House–the post headquarters and residence of the fort’s administrator (or Bourgeoise) had been rebuilt, finally suggesting the commanding size of the fort. The stockade and the rest of the site awaited a similar reconstruction.
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Twenty-five years later, I returned to Fort Union and explored a fully rebuilt site that finally was starting to receive the visitor count it always deserved: due to the Williston Basin oil boom. Williston, North Dakota, was gaining population as never before, and significant numbers of new residents were also reshaping Sidney, the seat of Richland County.
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The reconstructed fort included a strong physical presence for the Native Americans who were the crucial economic actors for the post’s success. Without the reciprocity in relations and trade between the northern plains peoples and the American traders, the post would not have survived nor prospered.
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More could be done with the size and massing of this Palladian inspired classical styled dwelling–actually a rather late example of this architectural style but somehow a sensible design considering how the post was really on the far edge of the American empire. It would be decades later, after the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1980s, that a dwelling with such architectural pretension would appear in the Yellowstone country.
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More could be said with additional reconstructed spaces and exhibits about the fur traders’ on Native Americans in the fur trade era from 1830 to 1868, but the fort as it exists in 2013 certainly conveys more to the public than the displays I found in 1984. Few places in the yellowstone Valley had changed more than Fort Union between 1984 and 2014.
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The Chief Joseph Battleground in Blaine County

 

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In 1984 I was very eager to see the Chief Joseph Battleground, as many historians and residents called it 30 years ago.  Here in 1877 Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce surrendered to the U.S. Army, which had pursued Joseph and his followers across most of Montana, starting in Beaverhead County in the southeast corner, extending as far east along the Yellowstone as present-day Laurel, and then striking north for the Canadian border.  They made it as far as this wind-swept prairie 15 miles south of Chinook.

In 1984, on a cold winter morning, the site was spectacular and I gave a tip of my hat to the local residents who had made the effort to preserve the site–and acquire enough land that you could gain a strong sense of place, and of destiny.  The level of interpretation at the battleground was disappointing.  There was a mounted bust of Chief Joseph (not full-sized; it looked lost on the vastness of the space) which has since been moved.  There were metal plaques noting Chief Joseph’s surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles, erected by the DAR and the citizens of Blaine County in 1929 and by Congress in 1930. And most recently, a 1966 marker to C. R. Noyes, the local 

 

 

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rancher who had played the key role in saving the battleground.  There was not much else to explain the significance of the Nez Perce campaign nor what happened there in the fall of 1877.  When I next visited in 1988, the story was the same.

In 1989 the National Park Service designated the Chief Joseph Battleground as a National Historic Landmark–the first step in a new future for the park.  Then it became a key property in the Nez Perce Historical Park, which has units from Idaho to Montana.  New interpretive trails and interpretive markers are the most recent additions, telling a much broader story than the old metal markers were capable of doing.  

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The experience today is far different than 1984.  There is still no visitor center–the new one at Big Hole Battlefield in Beaverhead County is superb however–and the Blaine County Museum in Chinook still carries that burden of interpreting the story.  But there is truth in the landscape now, as never before.  The trails, markers, and landscape combine to create a deeper understanding of why the Nez Perce stopped here, why it was difficult to escape the U.S. army, and what that trek and all of those stories might mean today.

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The two layers of interpretation–that of the early 20th century and that of the 21st century–co-exist within a special place.  Here is one preservation success in the last 30 years that deserves to be better known.

A bit farther down the road is Cleveland.  In my time in Montana, it hosted one of the most famous (or was it infamous) local rodeos around.  Its bar/cafe/post office spoke still to the first part of the 20th century.  People there in 1984 were friendly, and it was a good place that I looked forward to revisiting.  But the doors were shuttered in Cleveland.  The corrals were still there, sorta.   And there was no Cleveland Bar.  Wish I could have been here one more time before it went away.

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