St. Regis River and the Milwaukee Road

Mineral Co St Regis Mullan statueAlong Interstate I-90 as you travel northwest into Idaho, St. Regis is the last town of any size in Montana, and, at that it only counts just over 300 residents. The town has a long significant history in transportation. Old U.S. Highway 10 follows part of the historic Mullan Road–the Mullan monument above marks that route in St. Regis. The town lies at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork River and the St. Regis River. It is also the point where

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Since my last visit in 1984, school officials had expanded the St. Regis school and added a new entrance but the historic facade still commands attention.

the Milwaukee Road left the Clark’s Fork corridor that it had followed from southwest Montana–the Northern Pacific kept on that route however–while and tackled a much more demanding path through the Rockies–that of the St. Regis River towards Taft.

 

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IMG_7387As the photos above show, one of the Milwaukee’s bridges over the Northern Pacific right-of-way has been cut while the interstate rises high above and dwarfs both earlier railroads along the Clark’s Fork River. From St. Regis to Taft, the Milwaukee Road route has new life. In the 21st century the U.S. Forest Service and local residents have worked diligently to preserve the corridor,  not to restore the tracks but to find a new recreational use for the abandoned railroad bed.

IMG_7398Note in the photograph above, how one of the distinctive electric power poles that carried electricity to the Milwaukee’s engines remains in place. In the central part of Montana, many of these poles are long gone from the corridor. The Milwaukee’s stretch of electrified track began in Harlowton and ended in Idaho–and the St. Regis to Idaho section has some of most intact features of this distinctive engineered landscape.

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IMG_7414The village of Haugan is also the location of the Savenac Nursery, which the U.S. Forest Service established here c. 1907, as the Milwaukee’s tracks were being constructed. Under the direction of Elers Koch of the forest service, Savenac’s became one of the largest seedling operations in the department of agriculture, yielding as many of 12 million seedlings in one year.

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Mineral Co Haugan Savenac Nursery CCC 14The historic nursery is open to the public, another example of the important work that the Forest Service has carried out for both preservation and public interpretation in the last 30 years.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the property has a museum that operates in the tourist season.

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The nursery is also among the most important landscapes in the state associated with the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built most of the extant historic buildings in the 1930s.

Thus it is most appropriate that a monument to the CCC workers has been located on land between the interstate highway and the nursery grounds.The monument, dedicated in 2005, notes that agency’s work in Montana from 1933 to 1942, a decade of transformation in the state’s public landscape that millions have experienced since then.

IMG_7421Haugan is also home to one of the state’s modern pieces of roadside architecture along the interstate, Silver’s truck stop, restaurant, bar, and casino.

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Saltese lacks the formal monuments found at its neighbor, but this small Milwaukee Road town has an industrial landmark in the high iron trestle that cuts through its residential side.  There you can see one of the rectangular wooden catenary supports for the electric lines to the speeding trains.  The route itself is part of recreational trail that takes bikers and hikers to the National Register-listed tunnel and railroad yards ending at the St. Pass Pass Tunnel (1908) at Taft near the Idaho border.

IMG_7410Saltese’s contemporary styled school from c. 1960 remains but has closed.  Its historic motels and businesses, as well as an abandoned c. 1930 gas station on old U.S. Highway 10, welcome travelers from the west to Montana.

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IMG_7405The railroad trail route from Taft provides access to some of most spectacular industrial ruins of the old Milwaukee route left in the west.

Laurin, Alder, and the Ruby River Valley

IMG_0211For travelers along Montana Highway 287 the villages of Laurin and Alder are a mere diversion as you motor along from Sheridan to Virginia City.  From those towns the Ruby River winds into the mountains, and they were the “end of the line” for the railroad spur that tied the southern part of Madison County to the state’s rail system. About two miles south of Sheridan is a former late 19th century Queen-Anne style ranch house that now houses the Ruby Valley Inn, a bed and breakfast establishment.

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IMG_0217At Laurin, St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church is a major Ruby River Valley landmark. It roots the settlement history of this place deep in the valley;  John Batiste Laurin, for whom the village is named, established the place in July 1863. The church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Laurin was never large and a few repurposed commercial buildings indicate that.  The historic Laurin School is now a private home, an excellent example of adaptive reuse of a historic rural school.

IMG_0221While Laurin has a reserved, calm feel to it, Alder feels like the highway road-stop it has been for decades.  Its historic brick school is not as architecturally elaborate as Laurin but in 2012 it was still open and serving local students.

IMG_0203Other commercial buildings from the early 20th century were now abandoned, including the eye-popping, yellow-painted false front bar and steakhouse, which I understand has moved its business elsewhere since 2012.

The town’s combination store, gas station, and post office I trust remains in business although if not, I wouldn’t be surprised.  These buildings are disappearing from the roadside across the state.IMG_0212At Alder you can go south on Montana Highway 357 and follow a good, paved road to the Ruby Dam and Reservoir.  Part of the New Deal’s contributions to reshaping rural Montana through new or expanded irrigation projects, the Ruby Dam is not an awe-inspiring engineering feat on par with Fort Peck Dam.  But the views are striking and here is another engineered landscape created by mid-20th century irrigation projects from the Bureau of Reclamation.

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IMG_0210Back on Montana 287 is one of the first log buildings that I visited in Montana, known as Robber’s Roost.  Listed in the National Register, this two-story log building dates to 1863, constructed by Pete Daly as a road house for travelers to the Virginia City mines.  Tradition has it that it also became a hang-out for road agents who stole from travelers, thus the name.  It is an important part of the vernacular log construction tradition of the territorial era in Montana history.

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The next post addresses Virginia City, the birthplace (in many ways) of Montana preservation.

Choteau to the Blackfeet Reservation on U.S. 89

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 021The two lanes of U.S. Highway 89 as it winds northwest from Choteau to the southern boundary of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, cross a stark yet compelling landscape, a jaunt that has never ceased to amaze me. To those only with the mountains of Glacier National Park in their minds will see merely open land, irrigated fields, scattered ranches.

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 001But there’s a deeper landscape here, some embodied in the tiny towns along the way, others in places just ignored, certainly not recognized. In the first post of 2016, and the 200th of this series of explorations of the Montana landscape, let’s once again look a bit harder.

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot 011For one, this is a landscape shaped by Cold War America.  Nuclear missile silos were installed throughout the region with some easily accessible from the roadway.  You wonder  how many tourists realize that.

2011 US 89 to Glacier Canon Sureshot nuke base 022 – Version 2The federal imprint has lingered on this land for almost 150 years.  Today north of Choteau this highway historical marker, and a lonely boulder set square in the adjacent field, mark the first federal intrusion, the creation of the Teton River Agency, where in 1868-69 the federal government established its reservation headquarters for the Blackfeet Indians.  The agency was only here for about 7 years but this spot was where the first white-administered schools for Blackfeet children began, in 1872.

Teton Co Blackfeet Agency site US 89 2Irrigation systems would be a third federal imprint on the landscape and it came early to this region–through the Reclamation Service’s Valier Irrigation Project–but to find that place you need to venture a bit east of U.S. 89 to the town of Valier, on the banks of Lake Frances, which was created as a reservoir for the irrigation project.

Pondera Co Valier Lake FrancisValier has never been a very big place, but its investors in 1908, including William S. Cargill of the powerful Cargill family of Wisconsin (today’s Cargill Industries), had high hopes that the engineered landscape could create a ranching and farming wonderland.

The investors funded the Montana and Western Railroad, a spur to connect the project to the Great Northern line to the east.  The depot was still here in 1985 but is now gone.  Local residents spoke to the hopes for the town through the construction of the landmark Valier Public School, built of locally quarried stone in 1911.

Pondera Co Valier NR schoolListed in the National Register of Historic Places, the school remains in use today, as a bed and breakfast establishment. Even though Valier never reached the dreams of the Cargills and other outside investors, it has been a stable agricultural community for 100 years–the population today is only 100 less than what the census takers marked in 1920.  Valier has that

physical presence, that businesses may be changed but that they are still there, which is often missing in other plains country towns.  There is a sense of identity too, expressed by the town’s sign, and the obvious pride in the public school and the town’s civic center.

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Valier is the exception to the towns between Choteau and Browning on U.S. Highway 89.  Bynum, Pendroy, and Dupuyer, are more than dots on the map but not much more than that.

Fun local bars and historic school buildings link these three places.  The two-story white frame Bynum school still served local children when I visited in 2013; the bright brick Pendroy school had closed long ago, and is now private property.

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IMG_9376Heritage tourism also remains alive along U.S. Highway 89, and for those travelers who slow just a bit there is now the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center at Bynum.

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U. S. Highway 89 heading south

After taking a long look at the depth of nationally significant heritage stories and historic places in and around Great Falls, I want to change regions, to the Upper Yellowstone valley and get there by one of my favorite western highways, U. S. Highway 89.

Cascade Co Neihart US 89 NAs the highway leaves the central plains east of Great Falls, it heads east through coal country (see the earlier post on Belt) and south into the Little Belt Mountains and the old mining towns of Monarch and Neihart (above).  Both Cascade County towns are proud of their heritage, a story embodied in the Monarch-Neihart School, a wonderful bit of log craftsmanship from the New Deal era, a WPA project finished in 1940 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Another point of pride is the ongoing renovation of Neihart’s Great Northern Railroad depot, a mark of the town’s beginnings, which also serves the greater Monarch-Neihart area as the local museum and heritage center. While on the other side of the road, another turn of the century historic building has been converted into a self-described junk shop where you can acquire bits and pieces of the past.

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After traversing through the mountains, by a sky resort, you suddenly drop back into the central Montana plains, a landscape shaped by the Smith River, one of the state’s most compelling natural and historic landscapes.  You are now in Meagher County, discussed in an earlier post, where the town of White Sulphur Springs is the county seat. It too has its New Deal landmark, the Classical Moderne styled county courthouse.

IMG_7160When I last visited there in 2015 the combined route of U.S. 89 and 12, which passes in front of the courthouse and the center of town, was being rebuilt, giving the historic business district the look of a ghost town.

The Fort Logan Road, on the east side of town, was not under construction, allowing for easy access to the other significant transportation link, the railroad, and the still surviving White Sulphur Springs depot, a place certainly worth of listing in the National Register.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs depot 3U.S. Highway 89 continues south, crossing the historic corridor of the Milwaukee Road at Ringling, another Meagher County town discussed in an earlier post, marked by the landmark St. John’s Catholic Church.

IMG_9498Travelers continuing south soon find themselves in Park County, entering the Shields River Valley just north of Wilsall, where highway markers and monuments, like that for “Thunder Jack” (2006) by sculptor Gary Kerby, convey the significance of the place.

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IMG_1158Wilsall was not much a place 30 years ago, a small trade town on the edge of a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line, a past still recalled by the tall elevator and old railroad corridor.

Park Co US 89 wilsall elevator 1But the growing popularity of the Shields River Valley has led to a new boom in Walsall, with old banks converted into bars and old general stores

being revived and expanded. The town has its own museum now, in a converted gas station from the 1920s that served travelers and locals. The stories preserved there, along with the mural of Walsall over 100 years ago, show the residents’ sense of place and the past.

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Park Co US 89 wilsall mural

The next town down the old Northern Pacific line, Clyde Park, has a similar story of revival from 30 years ago. Glenn’s Shopping Center is still going strong, as is the town community hall across the street, and the town park is neatly kept and in regular use.

Park Co US 89 Clyde Park stores 1Clyde Park Tavern is still the place to go for an adult beverage, or two.  Historic grain elevators still serve local ranchers, marking the railroad line that defined the town’s landscape until the impact of the highway in the early 20th century.

The sojourn to the Yellowstone Valley will stop here, on the edge before we cross bridges, backtrack to Springdale and Fort Parker, before we explore in some depth Livingston, Montana’s gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

 

The Disappearing Act of the Milwaukee Road

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Montana State 294 is one of my favorite highways.  For Montana it is a short route, just around 30 miles between Martinsdale and where the road junctions with US 89 and meets up with Ringling.  But these 30 miles are packed–well in a Montana sense–with resources of the original mainline of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) as an electric line, such as the roadbed that parallels the state highway above at Lennep–it now serves as a secondary dirt road for residents.

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The Milwaukee maintained transformer stations about every 30 miles of its electrified tracks so AC power could be converted into DC current for its trains.  I apologize for the poor quality of my 1984 image of the station along Montana 294 but then it was still generating power for local use.  Thirty years later that had ended–the power lines were gone, taking away context from the building itself and leaving those who don’t know any better wondering why a big two story brick building was out here by itself.

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The station is about five miles west of Lennep, which I described in 1986 as “a tiny village where residents have preserved an old store and where the schoolhouse is still in use.”

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The school is now a residence and the store is still there, though not in business.

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The true landmark of the entire road is the Trinity Lutheran Church, built in 1910.  Its soaring Gothic bell tower, gleaming bright in the sun, is a beacon for anyone traveling along the road. It is one of my absolute favorite rural Montana churches and clearly eligible for listing in the National Register–as would be the entire remaining hamlet of Lennep.

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To the east of Lennep is Martinsdale, a tiny place that somehow has already managed two different blog posts about it.  Maybe that tells you that it too is a favorite place.  In 1984, its intact combination depot, what the Milwaukee called a “Standard Class A Passenger Station.”  This standardized design building, standing at the head of the town, spoke

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volumes of how the Milwaukee reshaped this landscape in the first decade of the twentieth century. But since this image from 2013 I have learned that the depot is gone–part of the roof decking was missing then so I am not surprised at the lost.  Just disappointed in the lack of vision of keeping this heritage asset together for the future.

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The news is not all bad from Martinsdale.  In 2013 the Stockmen’s Bank was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, only the sixth such place in Meagher County.  Yeah I know the photo above from 2007 shows it missing one entire bay from when it was converted from a bank into a garage.  But its brick construction and classical style made it

Renovations at the Stockman's Bank, 2013

Renovations at the Stockman’s Bank, 2013

a landmark in Martinsdale.  Can’t way to see its condition in 2015 because the town has several key buildings, and I just don’t mean the Mint Bar.

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I really mean the Martinsdale Community Center.  Rural reformers in the early 20th century pushed western communities to establish centers–where people could gather in a secular public space, vital for not only individual sanity but community togetherness in the dispersed population of the northern plains.  The center at Martinsdale has always been well maintained, and now that the depot is gone, it is the community landmark.

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Business, however, is not booming in Martinsdale.  The Crazy Mountain Inn serves as the local restaurant and lodging option, the older classic false-front Martinsdale Hotel is now shuttered.

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Even classic roadside institutions like the town’s two historic service stations/garages have closed–their mid-20th century designs are reminders of the days when automobiles came this way in numbers.

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Now let’s shift attention to the “eastern end” of this route, the town of Ringling, a place once of high hopes founded by the circus master John Ringling.  Like Lennep, the Ringling townscape is dominated by two elements:  the Milwaukee Road standardized depot–in

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better shape in 2011 than the Martinsdale station–and the sacred landmark that dominates the view from U.S. Highway 89 for miles:  St. John’s Catholic Church.  The church dates c. 1910 and is a wonderful example of Arts and Crafts style in an otherwise basic gable-front rural church building.  Although used much more sparingly today, it has been restored and maintained well.  It too is eligible I would think for the National Register.

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Montana 294, like the Milwaukee Road itself, is no longer a major artery–it wasn’t really in 1984 and it is even moreso in 2015.  But what remains is a reminder of how the Milwaukee Road shaped the state’s landscape for 100 years, leaving in its wake landmarks of transportation, engineering, architecture, settlement, and faith.

Wolf Point on the Hi-Line

Great Northern corridor along U.S. in Roosevelt County

Great Northern Railway corridor along U.S. 2 in Roosevelt County

When I encountered the northern prairie of Roosevelt County in 1984, it was difficult to tear your eyes from the omnipresent tracks of the Great Northern Railway.  The trains roared past regularly, and the tracks defined space and town location throughout this stretch of U.S. Highway 2.  So when I arrived in Wolf Point, the seat of Roosevelt County, I immediately looked for the depot, and came away disappointed.  Here, for northeast Montana, was a large town: certainly I would

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt  County

Wolf Point depot, Roosevelt County

find more than the standard-issue Great Northern design.  It was different but nothing as I expected.  No grand architectural statement–rather a modernist building with little ornament or aesthetics to it, except here was what the railroad had become in the second half of the 20th century–a functional transportation system not the town builder and landmark of the turn of the century.

IMG_7737 But as I explored the town in 1984, and visited it again in 2013, I found several places worth considering in this small county seat of 2621 in 2010.  First was the impact of the New Deal.  Roosevelt County–named for TR not FDR–received one of the most striking modernist courthouses in the state, courtesy of the Work Projects Administration.

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Encountering such a gleaming landmark of the federal imprint on the region startled me, but also started me looking much more carefully at the impact of federal projects on the region, a research interest that culminated in an essay titled “The New Deal Landscape of the Northern Plains” for the Great Plains Quarterly.

Wolf Point, like almost every Hi-Line town, had suffered from population decline.  The town’s heyday came in 1960 with a population of 3585, which had dropped by 500 by 1980, and another 400 since then.  Yet Main Street was alive, not dead, but dilapidated with later day “improvements” marring historic commercial facades.

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Yet the town retained its historic movie theater, and had recently expanded a local history museum that has a remarkable array of objects.  Wolf Point in the 2010 census was about 1/2 Native American in population; the most impressive building added to the town since 1984 was the Fort Peck Community College.

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Wolf Point also had hoped to become the final landing spot for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.  It was a worthy contender not just for its open plains, but the Wolf Point Rodeo is among the state’s oldest, and the historic fairgrounds continue to host the “Wild Horse Stampede” every summer.

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Smack in the middle of U.S. 2 is another monument to the Montana Cowboy, and a symbol of the hopes that the Hall of Fame would land in Wolf Point.  This bronze statue titled Homage was executed by Floyd DeWitt and given to the town by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

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To travelers along U.S. 2 Wolf Point may be considered as one or two blinks and that it is, but the history here is deeper, and strongly felt.  Yes it has the rails and the elevators to define the horizontal and the vertical but its landmarks continue to say:  we’re here and we matter.

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Dinosaurs on the Roadside

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One of the most fun discoveries I made along the U.S. Highway 2 roadside in Valley County was the Buck Samuelson “zoo” just west of Glasgow.  No dinosaurs hunting mountain sheep roamed the high plains when I traveled this region in 1984, and again in 1988, but they are there now, thanks to this self-taught sculptor.

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Samuelson began adding the sculptures to the roadside in the early to mid-1990s, just as the region’s latest dinosaur touring craze took off.  Now there is a small zoo of creatures overlooking the road, and railroad tracks, adding a bit of whimsy, but also a strong dose of patriotism to the mix.  Who still thinks that roadside art–so famous in stretches of U.S. 2 to the east in North Dakota and Minnesota–is not a Hi-Line tradition?

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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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Traveling the historic Manitoba Line, from Havre to Big Sandy

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The impact of the Great Northern Railway on the settlement of northern Montana really can never be over-emphasized–its mark on the settlement landscape and later transportation routes is that important.  Most travelers, and many residents, do not realize that the railroad, then named the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, did not initially strike straight across the plains to Glacier National Park.  In 1887 it turned at Havre and headed southwest towards Great Falls, creating a distinct modern landscape along Big Sandy Creek that you may still follow today.

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The first important stop was Fort Assinniboine, a U.S. army base established in 1879, before the first settlers arrived. The army maintained this major base until the 1910s and later in that decade its land and buildings became the Northern Montana demonstration farm, allowing state and federally supported agricultural reformers learn and demonstrate best practices in farming techniques and crops for the region.  Today it remains part of the state’s extension service, which has adapted some buildings for new uses while keeping others preserved as part of the nationally significant story of the U.S. military and its occupation of the northern plains.  

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When I visited the fort site in 1984, the highway marker was the primary interpretation.  The farm’s administrators have since worked with the Montana State Historic Preservation office to locate interpretive markers outside of several buildings.  Tours of the complex are also available by reservations.

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 As part of the federal process of transforming the landscape of Big Sandy Creek, the homesteading boom left its mark everywhere in the 1910s.  But also in 1916 the federal government established the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation for the Chippewa Cree.  The Manitoba Road’s intersection with the reservation came at Box Elder, at the border between Hill and Chouteau counties.  In 1984 one of the early Great Northern-era combination depot still stood at the town, although it seemed destined for destruction. Imagine my surprise in 2013 when the depot still remained, but barely so. 

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The gas station’s roadside architecture also faces an uncertain future.  But St. Anthony’s Catholic Church remained a key landmark and along U.S. 87 in the reservation stood a new architecturally distinctive building:  the Northern Wing Casino.  

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Big Sandy is easily the largest town of northern Chouteau County, a place that abounds in surprises.  In 1984 the town’s old homesteader hotel remained, and so many other Montana towns had lost these artifacts of the early 20th century settlement. 

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Thirty years later, the hotel remains in place, as do several other architecturally important buildings, from the Northern Monana State Bank, a vault-like neo-classical style building to the modern contemporary styling of St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church.

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 Impressive adaptive reuse projects also had taken place, with the community turning the historic Great Northern depot into a center for its historical society and museum.  Big Sandy has a t-town plan, with its stem lined by businesses and other ventures, such as the false front Odd-Fellows Lodge or the recently established coffee shop.

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The town’s New Deal era school remained, although the building’s original International Style design was somewhat muted by a new roof and other cosmetic changes. Yet, here was the school that nurtured Jeff Ament, who moved to Seattle and gained fame as part of the internationally significant band, Pearl Jam.  

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Big Sandy has steadily lost population since 1984–600 people remained in the 2010 census–but key landmarks remain standing and in use.  Impressive.  The days of the Manitoba Road are long gone but this early railroad town still makes a powerful historical statement.

Great Northern Towns in west Hill County, Montana

In my 1984 fieldwork, Havre was a base for quite a bit of travel along the Hi-Line.  One of the most compelling landscapes, and among my favorites for the state, were the little towns, regularly spaced about every eight miles, west of Havre.

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At the time, my understanding of this landscape was heavily influenced by recent works by the American Studies scholar John Stilgoe (Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene) and the historical geographer John Hudson (a series of articles that culminated in the book Plains Country Towns.) Stilgoe reminded me that railroads in the late 19th century not only defined towns and urban design but impacted American culture in how small, tiny spaces became part of urban, metropolitan life through the steel tracks.  Hudson explain why towns existed every six to seven miles or so throughout the plains (these were often single track lines so trains needed places to pull over for passing, and places where water and fuel could be acquired as necessary).  Hudson explained differences between railroad division points, where shops and offices would be located, and “country towns,” where typically a combination depot carried out all of the railroad’s corporate functions.

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This arrangement of space, and the ennobling of railroad culture in larger towns, was exactly what I saw in Havre and Hill County.  Ever since 1984, this has been among my favorite places in Montana.  In a posting last year I discussed the “disappearing depots” along the Hi-Line, focusing on west Hill County.  I want to revisit those same places today, with a deeper view on what was there in 1984 and what you find today.

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Inverness, established c. 1909, was the first place I stopped but spent little time there because already in 1984 its Great Northern depot was gone.  But in 2013, I was looking for beyond the Stilgoe-Hudson way of understanding plains country towns.  Inverness in 2010 had 55 residents, but still held several early settlement landmarks, such as its early 20th century elevators along the railroad, a National Register-quality c. 1920 store/gas station, and two large two-story frame blocks–the historic Inverness Hotel (most recently Inverness Supper Club) dates to the second decade of the 20th century.

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The Sacred Heart Catholic Church dates to the town’s beginnings, but a brick school from 1931 with 1952 additions closed in the early 21st century.

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Inverness’s c. 1960 post office is a great example of stone-faced standardized design that the postal service used in small towns across the nation in that decade. It was one of the offices threatened with closure in 2011.

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Rudyard, established 1909, was the largest of the west Hill County towns, about 500 people in 1980 but now with only 258 residents according to the 2010 census.  Its prominence in the second half of the 20th century is reflected in two buildings:  the tall concrete grain elevators along the railroad and the contemporary-styled Wells Fargo bank building on the prominent town corner facing the tracks and Reed Street.

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Thirty years ago, as the construction of a modern bank building attests, several stores and the Hi-Line Theater were hubs of activity; today most businesses are closed.

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Museums now abound–with the moved depot forming a small building zoo while an early 20th century stone building has become an auto museum.

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Rudyard also has one of the highway’s most famous town signs–boasting of a population now greatly diminished but the old sorehead remains–at the Sorehead Cafe in the heart of the four block long commercial district.

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One hundred years ago, Hingham (1910) seemed to be the town that would make it. From the railroad corridor several blocks of commercial businesses were filled in the next decade.

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There was a town square featuring a city park in the midst of it all.

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Here the town’s Commercial Club hosted the Hi-Line Fair, which “presented farmers and ranchers with an opportunity to exhibit their grain and livestock and to exchange ideas with people from other points along the Hi-Line.”

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While the buildings, outside of the brick neo-classical brick bank (1913-14), were frame, town boosters were confident these were only the initial businesses. But the second decade of the 20th century proved to be the town’s high point, and frame buildings still define local businesses.

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In 1930 they defined the town with a large, handsome two-story brick school at its south end (near U.S. 2, a recognition of the highway’s importance in getting students to and from Hingham).

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The Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church is a modernist landmark, and one of the most architecturally important buildings of the Hi-Line, part of the Great Falls diocese effort to improve and modernize its churches in the mid-20th century.  A much earlier frame Methodist Church remains, and has most recently served as a community chapel.

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The boosters of Gildford also had high hopes in 1910 and the homesteading boom brought a full fledged town into existence by 1915-16.

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The boom decade is marked by the extant Gildford State Bank (1914), which also served as the town’s post office when I first visited in 1984.  The town also had an early industry, the Mundy Flour Mill.

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Kremlin acknowledges its distinct name with its highway town sign.

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Settlement began in 1909, with a plat from land agent K.C. Farley, focused on the Great Northern section house, later replaced by a standardized depot, all of which is gone from the railroad corridor today.

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The WPA built a new high school in 1938, which remains a central landmark for the community, a symbol of the future, and a good way to end this posting.

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