Montana’s oil landscape

Fallon Co? MT 7 oil fieldThe last post addressed Montana’s famous ranching landscape.  Intermixed with the ranches, especially in the eastern third of the state, is a very different landscape of technology, one of pumps, storage facilities, pipelines, and refineries–the oil landscape of 20th and 21st century Montana.

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Billings is the largest city in Montana, and oil refineries along the railroad lines, are a major reason why.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Billings was not close to being the largest town in the Yellowstone Valley–both Glendive and Livingston held that honor.  But due to its railroad network, and the rise of oil from the 1940s onward, Billings had far surpassed any place in the Yellowstone, and, in fact, had become the largest city of the northern plains.  Go up on the bluffs overlooking the city and it is easy to see how oil has impacted this place.

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 13 oil

Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 19 oil

Billings boomed in the mid-20th century because of oil–and the impact spread throughout the county.  The former Cenex refinery at Laurel–the next railstop to the west–dominates the town’s exit on Interstate Highway I-90.

 

Yellowstone Co Laurel Refinery 2

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Yellowstone County is the distribution center for oil and petroleum in Montana.  The production areas can be found in almost any eastern county, where companies have established wells that pump crude non-stop–there are few oil fields here but plenty of pumps within the fields of Montana.

Musselshell Co US 87 oil wells at MT 244

Sheridan Co Homestead oil well

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 2 oil

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 1 oil

The number of pumps stretched across the landscape amazed me during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan fieldwork.  I didn’t really think of oil when I thought about Montana back then. The focus 30 years ago was not on the transformative boom that had begun ten years earlier but we did know enough to consider the earlier boom from the 1920s which began at a place called Cat Creek in what became Petroleum County in central

 

Petroleum Co Winnett courthouse 2

Petroleum County Courthouse in Winnett is listed in the National Register.

Montana to the similar 1920s boom, which lasted a good deal longer, in east side of the Rockies next to the Canadian border in Toole and Glacier counties.  Cut Bank, the seat of

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Glacier County, still bragged about its role as the “north oil center” in 1984.  To the south of Cut Bank at Kevin, you can still find both active and historic resources associated with the region’s oil production.

Toole Co Kevin 7 oil

Toole Co Kevin 8 oil

The towns of Kevin and Oilmont, however, have lost hundreds of residents since the boom–their deteriorating buildings tell a common Montana story of boom and bust, the patterns of extractive industries everywhere.

Toole Co Oilmont school

The former Oilmont School.

Now I wonder what will be the fate of the sudden boom towns of the fracking excitement of the early 21st century.  When I planned my fieldwork for the revisit to the Montana landscape, I decided that I must go to the eastern counties first–places like Plentywood, Sheridan, Culbertson, etc., because they would be the next to transform due to the Baker

Roosevelt Co Bainville fracking

field expansion.  Fracking I found–like in Roosevelt County above–but fractured communities–not so much, as I have discussed in earlier posts.  And now the boom has subsided–for how long? International markets will decide.

Toole Co Kevin oil storage

No matter what happens, Montana’s oil landscape will remain, past and present, and become one of the layers of history that speaks to how technology and international markets shaped the Big Sky Country.

 

 

Fracking Roosevelt County: The Boom Seeps into the Montana Hi-Line

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The 21st century boom in the Williston Basin has significantly reshaped western North Dakota, and as that region “fills up,” the boom has spread into far eastern Montana, especially along the Hi-Line corridor of U.S. Highway 2 and the historic Great Northern Railway. The photo above is along U.S. 2 on the outskirts of the tiny town of Bainville, the first place of any size you encounter as you travel west along the highway, or railroad, into Roosevelt County.
Bainville, Roosevelt Co (p84 11-14)
When I visited Bainville in early 1984 I recorded a town in decline. True, its 1950s modernist passenger depot was still there, but there had been a steady drop in population for decades. Thirty years later, the remnants of that decline were still there: abandoned brick neoclassical-styled bank; an elevator complex on the verge of collapse.
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But signs of new growth were there as well in 2013. The recently expanded public school was one thing while the large man camp then under construction just east of the town was another–and a project that really concerned local residents since the camp’s population would be larger than the town itself.
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The next town west on the Hi-Line is Culbertson, where the impact of the Williston Basin was even more noticeable. A modern school complex had replaced one that dated to the New Deal. Indeed the New Deal’s once profound impact on Culbertson–a public office building and armory–had been eclipsed not only by the modern school but also a new county office building all shiny and bright.
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The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

The 1930s armory in Culbertson MT

New county office building in Culbertson

New county office building in Culbertson


The man camps were already taking available land, even becoming a village in itself between the town’s historic cemetery and the railroad tracks. To capture the burial site of Civil War veteran Marcus A. Denney of the 6th Minnesota Infantry in the foreground and the man camp in the background by the elevators creates a snapshot, literally, of the periods of change in Culbertson over 150 years.
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Truckers and workers flying along U.S. Highway 2 in past decades would have spied the metal sculptures of Lewis and Clark near the local museum–but these iconic figures are no longer what immediately captures your eyes as you speed along the corridor.
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What you notice is everyone lined up for that human fuel that powers the commute between man camp and tracking well: the Frackin’ Java coffee stand. A true sign of the times along the eastern gateway of U.S. 2 in Montana.
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Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Poplar, Montana

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

Grain elevators on Great Northern line, 1984

If you arrived in Poplar, Montana, via train, as tens of thousands did 100 years ago, you saw little that made this place seem different than dozens of other northern plains towns.  Grain elevators dominated the skyline; almost as imposing were multi-story hotels–not luxury lodgings but a place to literally land for newly arrived homesteaders or “drummers,” salesmen traveling the line trying to drum up business for industries located in faraway metropolitan centers.

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Gateway Hotel, Poplar MT

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Poplar Hotel, Poplar MT

 

 

 

 

 

But if you move north away from the tracks and toward the modern-day U.S. Highway 2, a different, distinct world is found, in the historic buildings of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.  Near the Montana Highway Historical Marker telling the reservation’s story is a historic jail building from the late 19th century–the town’s most identifiable historic landmark in my 1984 work and today.

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Next to the jail was a new arts and crafts shop, aimed at travelers along U.S. Highway 2, part of a significantly expanded presence for the Fort Peck Community College.

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Indeed, the new college buildings are among the most attractive institutional buildings that you can find along the eastern end of U.S. Highway 2 in Montana.  Their bold colors and dramatic placement along the highway demonstrates the importance of education for the future of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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North of the new buildings are many historic buildings associated with the reservation’s development in the early 20th century.  Some are abandoned and in poor repair but most are in use, still serving the tribes in the 21st century.

This building was a museum in 1984; now that activity has moved to the highway, better to attract visitors

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No doubt as to my favorite new building in Poplar in 2013:  The Perculator.  Not only a classing roadside building, but they also made great coffee–perfect for a long day of fieldwork in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

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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