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.

 

Powell County’s Little Blackfoot River Valley

IMG_2251Between Garrison Junction, where U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate I-90 meet, to Elliston, at near the Mullan Pass over the continental divide, is a beautiful, historic valley carved by the Little Blackfoot River.  It is a part of Powell County that hundreds whiz through daily as they drive between Missoula and Helena, and it is worth slowing down a bit and taking in the settlement landscape along the way.

NP and Mullan Road, Powell Co

Mullan Rd marker and mining, E of Elliston, US 12Captain John Mullan came this way shortly before the Civil War as he built a military road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington.  A generation later, in the early 1880s, the tracks of the Northern Pacific Road used the Mullan Pass to cross the divide and then followed the Little Blackfoot River west towards Missoula.

Elliston was the first Northern Pacific town of note on the west side of the divide and while today it is perhaps best known for Lawdog Saloon–definitely worth a stop–it also retains key public buildings from the early twentieth century, including its Gothic-styled

community church, a large gable-front log building that to my eye reads like a 1930s era community hall (I have not verified that), and then a quite marvelous  Art Deco-styled brick school, built by the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration in the 1930s.

Elliston school, Powell CoThe oldest federal imprint in Elliston comes from the ranger’s headquarters for the Helena National Forest in its combination of a frame early 20th century cottage and then the Rustic-styled log headquarters.

Helena National Forest ranger station, EllistonThe next railroad town west is Avon, which is also at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Montana Highway 141 that takes travelers northwest toward the Blackfoot River. Like Elliston, Avon has several buildings to note, although the National Register-listed property is the historic steel truss bridge that crosses the Little Blackfoot River and then heads into ranch territory.

Powell 3 Little Blackfoot River Bridge US 12 AvonThe bridge is a Pratt pony truss, constructed in 1914 by contractor O.E. Peppard of Missoula, and little altered in the last 100 years. As the National Register nomination notes, the bridge’s camelback trusses are unusual and have not been documented in other Montana bridges from the early 20th century.

IMG_1919Avon has another clearly National Register-worthy building in its 1941 community hall, a late New Deal era building, which has served the community in multiple ways, as a meeting place for the Avon Grange, a polling place, and a place for celebrations of all sorts, including stage presentations and bands.

Avon Community Hall, 1941, probably WPA

Avon Community Hall, New Deal, 1941

Avon Community Hall 1941 New Deal interiorThe Avon School also has a New Deal era affiliation, with the Works Progress Administration. Although remodeled in the decades since, the school still conveys its early 20th century history.

 

Avon School US 12 2Avon even has its early 20th century passenger station for the Northern Pacific Railroad, although it has been moved off the tracks and repurposed for new uses.

IMG_1933In front of the depot is the turn of the 20th century St. Theodore’s Catholic Church.  The historic Avon Community Church incorporates what appears to be a moved one-room school building as a wing to the original sanctuary.

Early railroad era commercial buildings also remain in Avon, with a frame false front building serving both as a business and the community post office.  Birdseye Mercantile is an architecturally impressive stone building, dated c. 1887, that has for a decade housed a quilt business.  It too may be National Register worthy.

Birdseye Mercantile, 1887, AvonAnother important property in Avon, but one I ignored in 1984-85, is the town cemetery, which also helps to document the community’s long history from the 1880s to today.

Avon Cemetery, SE, Powell Co

Avon Cemetery, W, Powell CoHeading west from Avon on U.S. Highway 12 there are various places to stop and enjoy the river valley as it narrows as you approach Garrison.  I always recalled this part fondly, for the beaverslide hay stackers–the first I encountered in Montana in 1981–and they are still there today, connecting the early livestock industry of the valley to the present.

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.