The confluence of the Yellowstone and Powder rivers in Prairie County, Montana, is among the most important places of the American West. Thirty years ago, in my work for the Montana state historic preservation plan, I went to that spot, easily viewed from old U.S. Highway 10, and found only a couple of lonely graves–marked by the county historical society–of buffalo hunters who had ranged this land in the late 1870s. That night, at my public meeting at the Prairie County Museum in Terry, I brought up that place to the folks gathered there, chiding gently, I thought, that there should be some highway markers to direct visitors to that spot, that it was very important and quite a compelling view of the landscape itself. What happened next was a laconic comment that I have told on myself ever since: one community member just replied: “Son, we know where they are.” Of course–I have never forgotten that lesson–locals do know where their history took place; markers are necessary, not for them, but for us, the outsiders, the visitors.
Fast forward 30 years, and the confluence is no longer neglected–now it is one of the best interpreted landscapes in eastern Montana. The Prairie County Grazing District worked with the Montana Department of Transportation and other partners to create a graveled pull-off from the old highway, and then installed not only an appropriate fence around the graves, but also several interpretive signs that tell the multi-layered history of the site.
The story here is big, and the markers do a solid job of capturing it, from the early Native American history to the coming of Captain William Clark during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the later fur trading era of the mid-19th century, and then the marks you can still see on the landscape made first by the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s and from the federal highway era of the early 20th century. It gives particular focus to the Sioux War of the 1870s and how this spot served as a base–known as the Powder River Depot–for 1876-1877 military actions by Terry, Crook, Custer, and others. A good way to access the river is by the Powder River Depot Fishing Access site.
Nearby, back on the highway, is a key transportation landmark, the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Powder River–it was the railroad that introduced a new era of settlement and development into this region. And I will return to the theme of the railroad and its significance as we continue westward to Miles City.
Terry, the seat of Prairie County, has long been one of my favorite places in the Yellowstone Valley. Stuck between the much larger, and more famed, Yellowstone towns of Miles City (to the west) and Glendive (to the east), Terry has somehow developed and kept its own identity as a western place, and landscape, that still speaks strongly to the patterns that transformed the region over the last 150 years: railroads, homesteading, cattle, and town building.
In 1984 I focused on the railroad imprint on the town, which began in the early 1880s as Northern Pacific officials understood the need for a railroad stop at place near the confluence between the Yellowstone and Powder rivers.
In 2013, however, the depot was gone from the tracks but not the town. It had been moved to become part of the solid Prairie County Museum, a local institution that was still quite new when I first visited in 1984. Located in the town’s most prominent neoclassical bank building from the 1910s, the museum was a place where I held a public meeting about the preservation plan process and found a community totally engaged with its past.
The museum highlights agriculture and ranching, and includes the Evelyn Cameron Gallery, which displays and celebrates the life and contributions of this important western photographer. One change I noted last year was the creation of the Evelyn Cameron Heritage Center, on Laudre Avenue just a few yards away from the museum, which is at the crossroads of Laudre and Logan Avenues.
That crossroads was another pattern in Terry’s landscape that caught my eye. Most Northern Pacific towns, originally, were symmetrical plans, with a long line of commercial buildings flanking one side of the tracks and grain elevators and warehouses on the other side. Terry, however, had a classic T-town plan, with the tracks creating the top of the T and then a main commercial artery, in this case Logan Avenue, serving as the stem of the “T.”
Why was Terry different? It is the impact of the Milwaukee Road as it built through the valley in 1906-1907. In 1984 there was still a second set of tracks, and a few scattered commercial buildings, to the north of the Northern Pacific mainline. Today two buildings remain along with the roadbed that marks this second period of Terry’s growth.
Just west of the “downtown” you can find the one still thriving institution associated with the Milwaukee Road impact on Terry: the Prairie County Fairgrounds, which once faced the Milwaukee’s main line. (I have discussed the fairgrounds in an earlier post.)
Another wave of change came to Terry in the 1920s as U.S. Highway 10 gave the town another transportation pattern. The highway’s crossroads with the original T-plan commercial artery is marked by a still extant somewhat Art Deco-styled brick gas station/ auto dealership.
The most recognized roadside landmark is the Kempton Hotel, a true rarity now for this section of the Yellowstone Valley as those rambling montage of buildings that once constituted places of rest and relaxation along the nation’s highways have largely disappeared from the landscape.
Then, just yards away, is another rambling montage of historic buildings, the schools of Prairie County, ranging from the large stately multi-story brick buildings of the early 20th century to more restrained modern buildings of the second half of the century.
At the edge of town are three different properties, all related to the need for highway transportation. The Dizzy Diner is a classic 1950s drive-in while the crumbling Terry drive-in also speaks to past patterns in popular culture. Then the Prairie County Grazing District Stockyards connects the present to the past traditions of stock raising in this region.
Certainly the biggest change is Terry from 1984 and 2013 was the transformation of the county courthouse. In 1984 I was shocked that there was only an unadorned concrete block building for the courthouse, and I have shared images of that building across the country. Well the concrete block building on Logan Avenue is gone, replaced by a much larger, still unadorned building for local government.
Terry’s population has dropped by a third since my first encounter with the town in the early 1980s. But new public investment, and a still commercially relevant “downtown” speaks volumes to the residents’ commitment and faith in this small yet significant Yellowstone valley town.
From Glendive in 1984, I began to move up the Yellowstone Valley, taking a particular interest in the various Northern Pacific railroad towns–that over-arching pattern in the region’s historic landscape was clearly my over-riding interest in 1984. But places like Prairie County added their own intriguing challenges. Here the Milwaukee Road, coming from the southeast, entered into the valley. And then there was the real treasure trove of early settlement photographs produced by Evelyn Cameron. Thirty years ago, Cameron’s stark yet compelling images were just become re-discovered and appreciated. Her images were also in my head as I traveled this small eastern Montana county.
Fallon was the first town I encountered in Prairie County. Established during the building of the Northern Pacific in the early 1880s, it has never been a big place. Its National Register landmark is probably rarely recognized, since it is the steel truss bridge on old U.S. 10 that crosses the Yellowstone at this place. This magnificent continuous span Warren through truss bridge is Montana’s longest truss bridge, 1,142 feet. It was built in 1944 as a wartime emergency project after a ice flow destroyed an earlier crossing at this place. It is also a reminder of how crucial old U.S. 10 was to the nation’s transportation system in the mid-20th century.
When I visited Fallon 30 years ago, the school was a focal point of the community. In 2013, it was closed, and counted as one of the National Trust for Historic Places threatened rural schools of Montana.
The old bank building was the post office, a great adaptive reuse I thought in 1984. This neoclassical brick building is still the post office–having survived the earlier postal service to close many small town Montana post offices.
Another really important place of continuity was the Lazy Jo’s bar and cafe. Housed in one of those typical Eastern Montana buildings that grew, morphed, and changed again over the last 100+ years, it is still a great place, and an active community center.
Across from the bar, between the town’s main street and the railroad tracks, was the water trough, a reminder of those days amply recorded in Cameron’s photographs 100 years ago, and the town’s only marked historic structure.
Community pride is probably expressed best through the tiny but still active Fallon Town Park and the quietly dignified Grace Lutheran Church. These are anchors for a place that has experienced and survived much and faces an uncertain 21st century future.
I apologize for the gaps in recent posts, just extremely busy in the job that actually pays money–hopefully I can catch up in what goes for winter in Tennessee. Next is Terry, Montana.