Harlowton and the Milwaukee Road Division Point

In my work of 1984-85 for the state historic preservation plan, there were few places in Montana that fascinated me more than Harlowton, a division point for the Milwaukee Road and the place where the railroad began its electric line to the west.

from the Milwaukee Road Depot Museum at Harlowton.

The line abruptly stopped work in 1980 and declared bankruptcy, devastating not only Harlowton but many other towns and villages in the west. By the time I began my work in 1984 the dismantling of the railroad was well underway, and I was playing catch-up as track was ripped up for the steel and buildings began deteriorating.

Colleagues in the preservation field had been at work on documenting and understanding the railroad’s history. Dale Martin produced an insightful overview of the railroad and its landmarks for the Montana Historical Society Press in the 1980s. Others carried out preservation studies and in the cities key landmark depots became restored office buildings, restaurants, and other businesses.

But the complex in Harlowton–despite its overall significance to the railroad’s story and its national significance–withered. Compared to the resources in Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls, where the depots were already under preservation and adaptive reuse, the task at Harlowton just seemed to be overwhelming, and some said impossible. Below are copies of some of the images that I took from the mid-1980s to c. 1990, which mark the deterioration of the division point complex but also the fact that resources were there–they just needed help.

the passenger station from the rail yard c. 1985
passenger station and abandoned tracks, c. 1985
the roundhouse and maintenance shops c. 1985
roundhouses and maintenance shops c. 1985
interior of roundhouse c. 1985
interior of roundhouse c. 1985

The division point complex was listed in the National Register in 1988 and by the 1990s some preservation efforts and underway, with the installation of a historical marker and some repair work on the passenger station.

repair work from the town (street side)
repair work and roundhouse in background, c. 1990

Would enough help come in time to preserve this nationally significant place–by start of the 21st century I thought not. Imagine my complete delight in 2021 when visited the magnificently restored passenger station, which had become a well-conceived and executed museum, not just about the Harlowton division point but a place of research for the entire line.

passenger station and railcars from the rail yard
Part of the archives and library room for researchers.
The Winnecook post office has been moved to the site as another museum building

What has been in accomplished in the last few years is impressive and must be commended. What an achievement by a group of dedicated volunteers and residents. Finally, one of Central Montana’s most important stories can be fully explored. But, still, there is work to be done, on the roundhouses and maintenance buildings.

I look forward to my next visit to Harlowton and the continued preservation and interpretation of this nationally significant property in the railroad history of not just Montana but the United States.

Red Lodge Cemetery, Carbon County, Montana

As you leave downtown Red Lodge on Montana Highway 78 heading towards Roscoe, you find the Red Lodge Cemetery high on the bluffs overlooking the town, and not far from the gateway to the county fairgrounds. The cemetery is remarkable. A few years ago residents worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation Office to place the Red Lodge Communal Mausoleum, from the 1920s, in the National Register of Historic Places. The impressive Classical Revival styled building is certainly the centerpiece of the cemetery.

Red Lodge Mausoleum

But as the grave markers in the front of the building document, the cemetery itself makes a powerful statement of the ethnic diversity of Red Lodge, especially during its coal mining era from the late 1880s into the middle of the 20th century. Twenty years ago Bonnie Christensen’s book on the ethnic groups who worked in and around Red Lodge, mostly in coal mines but not always, documented how local history went against the stereotypes of the mythic West. A walk through this cemetery, with grave markers from residents who came from the United Kingdom and Ireland or Central Europe or the Mediterranean and especially from Scandinavia, makes history books like that of Christensen become jarringly real.

Two of the more interesting markers bookend the mausoleum and mark the lives of immigrants from Italy who were also members, judging from the markers’ form and style, of the Woodmen of the World.

The mausoleum is not the only crypt. Located behind the mausoleum and facing the mountains to the west is the Powers grave house, built of concrete.

Scattered throughout are child grave markers from the early 20th century, perhaps none more poignant that the hand-scripted concrete marker for Angjelka Rodjena who died not even one year old in 1923.

The concentration of ethnic markers around the mausoleum and to the north of the building is the central pattern of the cemetery. But to the southwest of the mausoleum is the veterans section, marked by an American flag, which documents the long tradition of military service from the 20th century, and 21st century, residents of Red Lodge and Carbon County.

The veterans section in the center of the cemetery is a powerful reminder of what the United States is about. We are a nation of nations–here that reality is loud and clear–but when faced by the enemy, we bind together and sacrifice for the good of the country.

Boulder Cemetery, Jefferson County, Montana

Boulder (population 1200 in 2020) is the seat of Jefferson County. Since the time of my historic preservation survey of Montana in 1984-1985, Boulder has lost about 200 residents (the state’s closure of the historic Montana Development Center a few years ago definitely didn’t help). But there remains a vibrancy and hope to the place, centered as it is within easy distance of a larger rural boom in Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, and Gallatin counties.

Note the streetscape improvements as you enter Boulder from the north on Highway 69.
Jefferson County Courthouse, listed in the National Register.
The local heritage center in a stone building faced with brick.
The historic Northern Pacific Railroad depot still serving the community as a senior center.

The cemetery is on a hill overlooking the town with the entrance modern by a modern sign formed out of stones from the Boulder River. The view from the top of the cemetery provides a great overview of the town’s residential, commercial, and government areas.

Boulder Cemetery, looking southwest.

As observed in many other Montana cemeteries that date to the nineteenth century, the Boulder Cemetery has several family plots marked by Victorian posts and fence, even though over time some of the fencing may have been replaced by other wire panels.

McDonough family plot, c. 1891

The cemeteries have many Victorian-themed grave markers as the previous images have shown. The urn-topped marker for Michael Lynch, a native of Ireland who died in 1910, is an excellent example of Victorian grave art in the cemetery.

There are several historic markers for veterans of the Indian Wars of the 19th century, and a beautiful stone marker for John Norman, who died in a World War I training camp in 1918.

The Boulder Cemetery could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a marker of early settlement and development of the town and for its cemetery art. But then a simple boulder marker tells of a more contemporary significance. The Boulder Women’s Club restored the cemetery from 1972-1976 as its contribution to the American Bicentennial commemoration. The Bicentennial saw thousands of history projects and events take place all over the nation. Here is a place that local women carried out a preservation project that clearly created a new place for community pride and identify, marking a unique and lasting contribution to the Bicentennial period. Impressive.

Decision Point on the Missouri River

Confluence of Marias and Missouri Rivers

In my 1984 field study for the Montana state historic preservation plan, there were many places that were “known” to Native American tribal historians, students of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and scholars of the northern plains fur trade. But few of these places were provided public interpretation. much less public access. Such was the case with the Lewis and Clark campsite of early June 1805 at the confluence of the Missouri and Marias River.

Location of Lewis and Clark Expedition campsite

The campsite became known as decision point because as the expedition rested and regrouped there, they also decided which river to follow. After initial investigations, the members chose correctly and soon found themselves at the great falls of the Missouri River.

When I carried out my 1984 work, everyone knew that the confluence was at Loma, seen in the background of the photograph above. But access to the actual location and significant public interpretation was still to come. As I have written in numerous prior posts, one of the most significant changes from 1984-1985 and my recent work in Montana from 2012 to 2021 is the amount and quality of public interpretation and public access to significant historical landscapes. There has been a huge improvement, and Decision Point is an excellent example of federal agencies working with landowners and state and local government as part of the Upper Missouri River Breaks project.

The image above tells the story of the steamboat Ophir and the amount of river trade that once marked the Missouri River. The interpretive marker below tells the story of the early American Fur Company trading post known as Fort Piegan.

Fort Piegan site

Even if you are not into the history of the region, the overlook created and maintained by the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument is a beautiful vista, and conveys strongly the landscape as encountered by generations of Native Americans and then in much more rapid succession by the Lewis and Clark expedition, American and Canadian fur traders, steamboat travelers, and by the 1880s the tracks of the Great Northern Railroad. An absolutely stunning historic site.

Canton, a forgotten Missouri River town

Canton was one of the early Missouri River towns in what is now Broadwater County, Montana. Canton was never much of a place but it had enough people and vision to build one of the first landmarks in this part of the Missouri River valley, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in 1875-76.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the church served local residents from almost the beginning of the town’s settlement through the homesteading boom of the early 20th century. The Northern Pacific Railroad ran along the other side of the River, diminishing the importance of Canton but never really indenting the significance of the church as a territorial-era landmark and as a compelling example of vernacular church architecture. Regularly held services continued until 1954.

The church faces the River (now Canyon Ferry Lake)

It really is a splendid bit of craftsmanship. The Gothic influenced bell tower entrance dates to the homestead boom of the early 20th century while the rounded arches over the windows well express its late 19th century roots.

Determined residents saved the church from destruction in 1954. They had the building moved to this place, higher ground away from the lake and lakeside developments created by Canyon Ferry Dam and Reservoir. The grand Bureau of Reclamation project totally reshaped Broadwater County. The town of Canton was erased but St. Joseph’s remained.

Thirty years later when I stopped at the church in 1984, it was ragged and needed attention. Residents did that in the 1990s and ever since the church has stood as a quiet but imposing marker of the territory days of Montana.

Barber, a disappearing Milwaukee Road Town

Barber, Montana

I first visited Barber, a Milwaukee Road-associated town in the Musselshell River Valley, in 1984. Now almost 40 years later, I revisited the place to see, particularly, if the landmark Grace Lutheran Church still stood. Yes, indeed, it has survived another four decades, but now had a handicap access ramp to better serve its aging congregation.

Grace Lutheran Church photo from 1984
Grace Lutheran Church, Barber, MT
Grace Lutheran Church, Barber, MT

This vernacular Gothic styled building dated from 1917–the one decade of Barber’s prosperity–and when I visited in 1984 it was the smallest American Lutheran congregation in the country. Its defining Gothic architectural elements–the Gothic window hoods and the tracery in the gable ends–remain intact. Clearly the surrounding ranch families are effective stewards for this National Register-listed jewel of a rural northern plains church.

Barber, MT

I noted in 1984 that a store still operated–but now it is barely hanging so, with the foundation has failed and you wonder how much longer its false-front facade will remain standing. I observed that all that was left of the town bank was the vault–that is still there–but a two-story turn-of-the-century house is now abandoned, almost on its last legs.

Abandoned Victorian-styled house, Barber, MT

The Milwaukee Road created scores of towns similar to Barber across the plains in the first two decades of the twentieth century. One hundred years later–some 40-plus years since the railroad went bankrupt–a few buildings remain at these spots on the map, physical reminders of the homesteading boom and bust of that era. Hats off to the residents keeping Grace Lutheran Church alive–as along the church remains, there will be a Barber, Montana.

Transformations in Helena

St Mary’s Catholic Church became a 6th Ward landmark upon its opening in 1910 and a recent renovation will keep the building in community service for another generation.

The sixth ward in Helena in the late nineteenth century was a focal point for the new capital city of Montana. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the location of its railroad yards some mile and a half southwest of Last Chance Gulch created a new part of the city with plenty of bars and cafes for rail workers and travelers but also a historic neighborhood that often gets forgotten.

The historic block o& commercial buildings facing the depot
Hap’s has served customers for decades along this commercial block.
Nationally recognized railroad architect Charles Reed of the St Paul firm Reed & Stem designed a new modern passenger station for the Northern Pacific in 1904.
Northern Pacific depot’s clock tower. The passenger station is the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s National Register-listed historic district

The architecturally expressive Northern Pacific passenger station of 1903-1904 led to new investment of brick buildings in the neighborhood but many small vernacular dwellings remained in use and today the neighborhood retains a railroad workers’ feel.

Hap’s Beer Parlor transformed from a rail workers’ hangout to a neighborhood institution. It was a popular place when I lived in Helena almost 40 years ago—it remains legendary.

In 2016 the city of Helena established the Railroad Urban Renewal District which encouraged new investments in the neighborhood and its immediate environs, such as the Vanilla Bean coffee shop and bakery. Another key addition was the Sixth Ward Garden Park, an impressive example of the community garden movement.

The changes in the neighborhood are promising but also challenging as new businesses such as Headwaters brewery move to the outskirts. Let’s hope the modern does not crowd out the historic in Helena’s Sixth Ward.

The new Headwaters brewery

The Phillipsburg Boom

Over eight years ago I wrote about Phillipsburg as a Victorian mining town that had the “bones” to become a heritage tourism magnet along the Pintlar Scenic Route.

A booming weekday in Early June 2021

I was astounded at the number of people there in early June 2021 Thursday—not the weekend. Certainly the reputation of the Sweet Shop has grown, and grown. it was a busy place.

The other attraction was just under construction when I visited in 2012. The Phillipsburg Brewery, located in the late 1880s Sayres Building, is a great local micro brewery but you can taste its wares at restaurants statewide.

It’s an impressive adaptive reuse project for even the interior still retains a late 19th century. Not over built or over restored. Just re-energized to serve the town again.

There was a historic change from 2012 at the most unlikely place—the city cemetery. In 2012 I commented on the Victorian theme of several of the burial plots. It remains a remarkable place for that artwork in cast iron.

What was new? A commendable effort to address the silences of the past, in the case of Phillipsburg the large Chinese community who once lived there, worked there, and many prospered there during the mining boom of 1890-1920s.

The Granite County Historical Society in 2014 placed an interpretive marker in the cemetery to tell the story of the Chinese burial ground—located in a corner far from the Victorian center of the cemetery. We are now challenged to learn more about the names on the plaque and understand better their contributions.

The marker stands alone, as did the Chinese community in the era of racial segregation. The burials in this section range from the late 1880s to 1932. When were the headstones removed? I don’t know yet. But here is the place, several names are listed in primary sources. The next steps to end this silence await.

Fort Owen: 2020 update

Great news this weekend from the Stevensville newspaper. A new parking area and expansion of the Fort Owen State Park is now in its planning stages. Parking a car and not being in the way of the ranchers who live next door has been problematic for decades. As the photo below indicates the ranch is immediately adjacent to the park.

The new parking area will be at the south entrance to the fort, eliminating traffic snafus and creating new possibilities for public interpretation rather than the only single marker of today.

Plus the new parking area should not distract from the marvelous view of the Bitterroot Valley from this oh so important place. let’s hope the archaeological work before the lot is built uncovers new information.

Shelby Montana’s historic downtown

Toole Co Shelby sign and BNSF train

As we all have read the newspapers over the last six weeks, it has been doubly sad to learn of the devastation COVID-19 has brought to the people of Toole County, where the town of Shelby is the county seat.  The virus has ravaged most of the United States but the level of its impact on such rural places as Shelby and Toole County has been especially devastating since in places like these everyone does know everyone.  The impact is so direct and personal.

Toole Co Shelby courthouse 4

In this weekend’s papers, reporters stressed how residents are moving forward the best they could, despite the sadness, and fear.  I would expect no less.  I last visited Shelby seven years ago; indeed I made two stops between 2011 and 2013.  Of course people were friendly, helpful, just as they had been when I started my initial Montana survey in 1984 with an overnight program in Shelby at the courthouse.  Imagine my delight to learn in those same news stories that the town had met virtually of course to discuss a pending proposal to place the downtown in the National Register of Historic Places.  I fully agree: the range of buildings along Main Street (historic U.S. Highway 2) has always ranked among my favorite Main Streets in the state.

Toole Co Shelby Main St 2 roadside bars

Let’s me share today views of the downtown commercial buildings that I took in 2011 and 2013.  They reflect the impact of the 1920s oil boom on the town and county–so many date to those decades–but as a group they also show how Shelby grew in the early to mid-twentieth century on both sides of the Great Northern Railway that passed through the heart of town, with its historic depot still serving passengers on the Empire Builder today.

Toole Co Shelby depot

The range of roadside architecture in the tavern, restaurant, and motel signs is particularly significant–in so many other places these touchstones of mid-century commercial design have been lost.  But I also like the unpretentiousness of the buildings, and the commercial district they create.  The architecture in that way reflects the residents themselves:  flashy if you want it, but also solid, grounded, and ready to face what comes their way.

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 010

Toole Co Shelby Main St roadside

Toole Co Shelby Main St 3 Mint Club bar

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 013

2011 MT Toole County Shelby bar 009

Toole Co Shelby Main St 4 Deco

Toole Co Shelby bar n of depot

The downtown district would add much to the National Register of Historic Places.  Shelby was already represented by a historic garage and the original City Hall, recently a visitor center, that was built for the famous Fourth of July 1923 heavyweight

bout between Jack Dempsey-and Tommy Gibbons.  But these additions tell its full story of commercial growth in the age of the highway.  I hope the project moves smoothly forward–Shelby and Toole County deserves that break, along with many, many others as they fight back against the scourge of our time.