In 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.
The 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
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.
Little 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.
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.
The 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.
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
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.
The 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.
Along 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.
But 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.