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

Sanders Co Thompson Falls courthouse

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.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls 1

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.

IMG_7750

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.

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4 – Version 3

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

Sanders Co Thompson Falls overview 4 – Version 2

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.

 

Dillon: Union Pacific Railroad Town

West Yellowstone and Dillon are Montana’s best examples of railroad towns developed by the Union Pacific.  Dillon is the oldest, established as the company’s spur line, the Utah and Northern, pushed north from the main line and headed into the rich mining country of Silver Bow County and environs.  Not only is the historic Union Pacific depot–part of the railroad’s Oregon Short Line–extant, and used as a county museum and theater, so too is the symmetrical town plan of the early 1880s, with the town’s primary commercial blocks facing the tracks.

Beaverhead County Museum Dillon 9This birds-eye view of the town is at the Beaverhead County Museum at the railroad depot.  It shows the symmetrical plan well, with two-story commercial blocks facing the tracks and depot, which was then just a frame building.  To the opposite side of the tracks with more laborer cottages and one outstanding landmark, the Second Empire-style Hotel Metlen.  The Metlen, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, remains today, one

IMG_3183of the state’s best examples of a railroad hotel.  I recognized the building as such in the 1984 state historic preservation plan and my book, A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History, included the image below of the hotel.

Hotel Metlen, Dillon (p84 54-35) This three-story hotel served not only tourists but especially traveling businessmen–called drummers because they were out “drumming up” business for their companies.  The interior has received some restoration work in the last 30 years but little has changed in the facade, as they two images, one from 1990 and the other from 2012, indicate.

The same can be said for the ornate cast-iron Victorian-styled cornices on the commercial buildings directly across from the depot.  First is a black and white image, c. 1990: note the middle cornice.  The next image, from 2012, shows that the details have been lost in the last 30 years although most of the cornice is intact.

Beaverhead Co Dillon streetscape 1988

Dillon cornice detail

The Dingley and Morse Block from 1888–seen in the historic image of the town at the museum above–has been well preserved and is a significant example of how cast-iron facades defined the look of businesses in Montana’s late 19th century railroad era.

IMG_3240

Dillon, cast-iron storefronts, Montana St

This brief look at Dillon as a railroad town is just the beginning of our exploration of this southwest Montana county seat.  Today Dillon is known as the home of the Patagonia outlet–certainly a key business development here in the 21st century.  But the town’s

IMG_3518built environment has many stories to tell.

Belgrade and transformation in Gallatin County

IMG_7066From 1983-85 Belgrade became one of my favorite Northern Pacific railroad towns.  Often I would leave the interstate here, stop at truly one of the great small town bars/cafes along the town’s railroad corridors, and then travel on old U.S. 10 (the town’s Main Street) on to Manhattan, Logan, and Three Forks before popping up on US 287 and continuing to home in Helena.

Gallatin Co Belgrade 8

The building for my favorite cafe/bar in Belgrade still stands; it has been converted into a sports bar/casino, and additions have been made to either end of the building.

Belgrade has changed so much in the last 30 years:  it is the largest Montana town that is not a county seat, and it is larger than many existing county seats in the state.  As the new adjacent Bozeman airport takes off, growth will continue in this part of Gallatin

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 10.20.19 AM

County, and Belgrade is probably not many months from 10,000 in population.  It had about 2300 residents when I surveyed the town in the early 1980s.

Gallatin Co BelgradeDespite the boom, several landmarks remain.  The Belgrade Community Church, built in 1904 as the town’s Presbyterian church, served in the 1980s as a joint church building for both the town’s Presbyterians and Baptists.  This impressive Gothic Revival building had received several updates and additions in the mid-1970s.  It became the Community Church in 1992 as the Presbyterians left and the American Baptist Church took over sole control of this historic church building.

A similar story is told by the Belgrade Mercantile Company block, a turn-of-the-20th-century two-story brick building, that defined the town’s primary commercial corner and faced the tracks of the Northern Pacific.  Thirty years ago, you saw the potential of the building but several storefronts then were shuttered.  In the early 21st century the landmark received a complete renovation and is a busy place today.

Gallatin Co Belgrade 5

The town’s historic mission-style gas station still stands along the U.S. 10 corridor but was not in use in May 2015.  The Mint Bar–another old fav–had just closed its doors when I visited last.  The town’s downtown blocks retain the historic look of the Northern Pacific symmetrical-plan town from 1881-1882, and many of the building blocks date c. 1900 to 1930.  it is time for Belgrade to take advantage of historic preservation as a tool for downtown revitalization.  In a county where so much is listed in the National Register, Belgrade has never taken full advantage of the program even as the town’s pride and stewardship of its early landmarks remain evident today.

 

 

 

Glendive: the Yellowstone’s first railroad town

IMG_7244
As the tracks of the Northern pacific Railroad pushed west in 1881, they encountered the Yellowstone River at a place that became Glendive, the Yellowstone Valley’s first railroad town. Here the company located a division point and built offices, roundhouses, and other support structures for the trains moving between the Great Lakes and the West Coast. In 1984 when I came to Glendive for the state historic preservation plan survey, it was not my first visit. A year earlier I had began to work with the Western Heritage Center in Billings as a historian for its first major exhibit on the Yellowstone and its history, an exhibit that eventually was titled “Yellowstone: River of Life.” Glendive as a railroad division point played a key role in that story, and when I first visited the town I enjoyed the fact that a late 19th century depot, standing just off the main line, now served as the local visitor center and Chamber of Commerce offices.
IMG_4084
At that time I saw little outside of the railroad’s imprint on the landscape. Glendive, like many initial Northern Pacific towns, had a “symmetrical plan.” The train tracks cut a path through the town, with a combination passenger station/company office commanding the corridor. On the opposite side of the tracks were housing for railroad workers and machine shops, roundhouses, elevators, etc. associated with the railroad.

Northern Pacific corridor in Glendive

Northern Pacific corridor in Glendive


Facing the depot was the primary commercial street, Merrill Avenue, which later served as the town’s primary commercial artery for U.S. Highway 10 and is now designated as “Business I-94.” The many historic commercial buildings along Merrill Avenue facing the depot and railroad tracks captivated me–the dialogue between local entrepreneurs and the massive international capitalism represented by the Northern Pacific was plain to see.
Merrill Avenue Historic District, Glendive

Merrill Avenue Historic District, Glendive


Clearly this long-stretch of buildings recorded the town’s shifting economic fortunes from the 1880s to the depression era, and was worthy of designation in the National Register of Historic Places, work that has since taken place.
Closed for sometime now, the Lulhaven Bar is a classic example of Art Deco, with its black carrera glass and glass block entrance

Closed for sometime now, the Lulhaven Bar is a classic example of Art Deco, with its black carrera glass and glass block entrance


The Jordan Hotel combines both Art Deco elements and an overall International Style feel to reflect not only the depot across the street but to invite customers into its corner entrance

The Jordan Inn combines both Art Deco elements and an overall International Style feel to reflect not only the depot across the street but to invite customers into its corner entrance


The striking 1960s metal facade of the Rose Theater was layer over an earlier brick building

The striking 1960s metal facade of the Rose Theater was layer over an earlier brick building


IMG_7252
What particularly struck my eye was the different eras of prosperity represented by buildings such as those owned by Henry Dion, a leading early 20th century merchant. Dion built the 1905 brick building above during the boom brought out by the launching of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project. Later, as the railroad expanded its presence with the new passenger station and the federal highway came down Merrill Avenue, an Art Deco layer appeared, making a old building suddenly trendy and “modern.”
In 1984, however, I did not much venture beyond the railroad corridor to understand how the shifts documented in those historic buildings also could be found across the town. Much like the residents I was captivated with the railroad’s imprint–as shown in this wonderful mural of local history, prepared by high school students, and installed in the lobby of the modernist Dawson County Courthouse in 1982.
IMG_4233
IMG_4232
I spoke with the community at the courtroom around the corner one March night in 1984 and we all agreed on what was important. But later trips to Glendive, and the town’s push into historic preservation, quickly convinced me that there was more to tell.