Thompson Falls: Railroad Town

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4In my state historic preservation plan work of 1984-1985, Thompson Falls became one of my favorite stops.  No one much in the professional field had been surveyed here yet, and then I was particularly interested in how the Northern Pacific Railroad transformed the late territorial landscape. As the image above shows, Thompson Falls was a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, with a mix of one and two-story buildings from the turn of the 20th century. I focused on this commercial core.

IMG_7752The public meeting at the mid-20th century Sanders County Courthouse was well attended and most were engaged with the discussion:  the pride, identity, and passion those in attendance had for their history and their interest in historic preservation was duly noted. The courthouse itself was not a concern–it dated to 1946 and wasn’t even 40 years old then.  But now I appreciate it as a good example of Montana’s post-World War II modern movement, designed by Corwin & Company in association with Frederick A. Long

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That night at the Falls Motel–a classic bit of roadside architecture that has been recently re-energized–I thought well of this town and its future, surprised by what I had seen.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls MotelLittle did I understand, however, that the sparks of a local community effort were already burning–and within two years, in 1986, Thompson Falls had placed many of its key historic properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Thirty years later, historic preservation is still working well for Thompson Falls.  The historic Rex Theater (c. 1945) holds all sorts of community events.  Harold Jenson established the movie house but in 1997 it closed and remained closed until new owners Doug and Karen Grimm restored it and reopened on New Year’s Day, 2004.

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IMG_7753The old county jail (1907) has been transformed into a museum, both preserving one of the town’s oldest properties but also creating a valuable heritage tourism attraction. The contractors were Christian and Goblet, a local firm that had a part in the construction of the town’s building boom once it was designated as the county seat.

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Above is a view from the railroad corridor of the Gem Saloon building (a local restaurant now; it was an auto parts store when I visited in 1984), built by saloon keeper John Sanfacon in 1914 and then the all-important railroad hotel, built as the Ward Hotel by

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locally prominent developer and politician Edward Donlan in 1908. It is now the Black Bear Hotel. Attractive railroad hotels were crucial for a town’s development–it showed stability and promise to traveling “drummers” and potential investors, and also gave them a place to stay while they were in the area “drumming” up business.

 

Sanders Co Thompson Falls RR overviewThe mid-20th century Sanders County Courthouse is to the west of the commercial core and it marks how the town stretched to the west in the latter decades of the century.

IMG_7748Along with the conversion of businesses and the adaptive reuse of older buildings, Thompson Falls also has located key community institutions, such as the local library first established in 1921, along Main Street facing the railroad tracks.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls lodge 1But many community institutions–fraternal lodges such as the Masonic Lodge above, the public schools, and churches are on the opposite side of the tracks along the bluffs facing the commercial core.  Thompson Falls is a very good example of how a symmetrical plan could divide a railroad town into distinctive zones.

 

The Yellowstone’s Rosebud County Courthouse

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The Rosebud County Courthouse in Forsyth is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Rosebud County encompasses a huge swath of eastern Montana, with its upper reaches touching the Musselshell River in central Montana and extending south almost to the Wyoming border.  A good bit of the Tongue River winds through the county and the name comes from Rosebud Creek, which empties into the Yellowstone at the town of Rosebud.

The county seat of Forsyth is a Northern Pacific Railroad town from 1881.  For its first generation, it was a rather minor place stuck as it was between Miles City to the east and Billings to the west: there is no census data for Forsyth before 1900.  But in the early 1900s, two developments changed Forsyth’s fate:  the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, which cut a new path through the county north of the Yellowstone before turning northwest at Forsyth, and then the homestead boom of the 1910s, which county leaders wanted to take advantage of to change their fortunes.

The business district is based on a symmetrical plan, facing the tracks.

The business district is based on a symmetrical plan, facing the tracks.

Forsyth leaders already understood the need to have an impressive business district facing the railroad tracks.  But they also wanted to show anyone that Forsyth was ready for a stop, and visit, and you could live somewhat classy in a stylish well-appointed hotel. The Howdy Hotel (1903-1906) is a rare surviving small-town “booster” hotel, built to impress traveling businessmen that Forsyth was a place of promise.  Designed by the Billings firm of Link and Haire, the building’s classic Renaissance Revival look was impressive for a small Montana town.

Hiram Marcyes was the owner-operator of this early Forsyth landmark.

Hiram Marcyes was the owner-operator of this early Forsyth landmark.

About five years after the opening of the hotel, local leaders decided that the time was right–and the recent boom had no foreseeable end–to maximize on the promise of their little town and build another landmark facing the tracks.  Construction of a new Rosebud County Courthouse, designed in grand Classical Revival fashion by the firm of Link and Haire of Billings, began in 1912 and was opened, after a dispute over cost over-runs, in 1914.

Link and Haire's original rendering of the courthouse is displayed at the Rosebud County Museum.

Link and Haire’s original rendering of the courthouse is displayed at the Rosebud County Museum.

This courthouse is a marvel for a small town, and speaks so strongly to local boosterism during the homesteader boom of the 1910s.  Little has changed since original construction, except that a separate jury room for women was turned into a law library in the 1930s, and of course there has been updates to lighting and technology since then.

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The courtroom features two historical murals, interpreting two events seen as crucial underpinnings of the American system of justice:  Moses bringing the Ten Commandments and the signing of Magna Carta.

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Then, in the upper Rotunda lobby outside the courtroom, are four symbolic depictions of themes such as Obedience, Reverence, Defense of Libery, and Justice.  Of the four Justice has been my favorite since faintly, in the background, is the Rosebud County Courthouse itself.

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The Rosebud County Courthouse was a remarkable building, and when in 1984 I spoke to the community about preservation and local landmarks at the adjacent Rosebud County Museum we discussed how its recognition would be a good place to start anew a local heritage effort.  When I visited then the county had only one property listed in the National Register, the Rosebud County Deaconess Hospital, a very worthy Colonial Revival style building dating to the late 1910s and representing the local reaction to the great flu epidemic of 1918.

Deaconess Hospital, Forsyth, MT, 1919-20, by McIver, Cohagen, and Marshall of Billings.  McIver, 30 years later, would design the VA hospital at Miles City.

Deaconess Hospital, Forsyth, MT, 1919-20, by McIver, Cohagen, and Marshall of Billings. McIver, 30 years later, would design the VA hospital at Miles City.

In 1986, the county would have its second building, the Rosebud County Courthouse, and today the two public buildings still ennoble the town’s architecture and remind anyone passing by of the hopes and sense of community found among eastern Montana town builders in the early 20th century.

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Back on the Hi-Line at Chinook: a town that got it

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Chinook, the seat of Blaine County, has long been among my favorite Hi-Line towns.  Certainly there is the Elk Bar, with its cowgirl in the champagne glass neon sign,–is there a better bar sign in the Big Sky Country?  But then Chinook is most definitely a railroad town of Great Northern vintage.  Then it is part of U.S. highway corridor, and I loved staying at what was then a Mom and Pop Bear’s Paw motor lodge on the west side of town in 1984.  And it is irrigation country, and the impact of the federal Milk River Project in the early 20th century.  Railroads, highways, irrigation, bars–throw in that the town is also the gateway to the Bear’s Paw National Battlefield and the end of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail:  little wonder I stayed there for 3 days in 1984 exploring a wide swath of the region.

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This post is subtitled “a town that got it” for the simple reason that when I visited in 1984, outside of the battlefield (which was little more than preserved ground with a few early 20th century markers not the more fully interpreted landscape you find today) and the local museum (which was since grown considerably) the words “historic preservation” were new, and somewhat foreign.  Nothing was happening–30 years later however you can see a range of preservation work, along with some exciting adaptive reuse projects.  Chinook treasures its past and sees it as an asset for the present, and future.

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A U.S. 2 service station converted into a great ice cream stop in Chinook

What didn’t I “see” in 1984:  the New Deal imprint on the town.  Frankly put, the Chinook High School is one of my favorite New Deal buildings in the state–perhaps its slick International modernism made it hard to grasp 30 years ago but today its powerful statement of 1930s aesthetics can’t be missed.

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That’s not all the New Deal left the town–it also energized public buildings with a new City Hall and an annex to the county courthouse, both somewhat subdued architectural statements.

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I did a better job of understanding the transportation corridors and how they impacted Chinook.  Most prominent to my mind was a three-story brick hotel, serving both railroad passengers and newly arriving homesteaders.  In 1984 it looked as if only minor changes had occurred since first construction-it still looks that way 30 years later with a few more windows filled-in, and general hard times apparent.

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The Great Northern depot was another focus of my work but somehow I missed a great 1920s gas station that has been restored and converted into new uses by a local financial institution–it is now on the National Register of Historic Places and good example of how the roadside architecture of the 1920s can find new uses in the 21st century.

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Another big miss was the Sugar Refinery–especially considering the role that Chinook played in the Milk River project, both in its origins, the nationally significant case of Winters v. United States at the turn of the century (see Beth LaDow’s epic study The Medicine Line (2001), and then the impact of this major federal project from 1911 to the present.  Not to mention that the high school nicknameImage

was the Sugarbeaters, surely one of the GREAT names in high school sports.

You cross a major ditch on the way to the refinery, on the outskirts of town.  A good bit of the property remains, with the tall stack speaking strongly to the merger of homestead and factory on the northern plains.  The refinery began an new era in the town’s history–a theme worth exploring in the next post.

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