The Milk River Project and its Impact on Northern Montana

Phillips Co Dodson ditch

Milk River Irrigation Project Ditch at Dodson, Phillips County

In today’s New York Times (June 15, 2020), Montana Jim Robbins reported on the looming disaster facing Montana’s northern states if the St. Mary’s canal, which recently collapsed, is not repaired.  The informative, insightful story focuses on the beginnings of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Irrigation Project, its pathway through southern Alberta, and its emergence in central Montana’s Hill County.  It included several wonderful images of Havre, the seat of Hill County, and discussed the wide-ranging disaster faced by ranchers and small towns along the Hi-Line if the ditch did not get its long overdue repairs–to the tune of $200 million.

Valley Co Tampico ditch

The Great Northern, the Milk River Project, and original U.S. 2 at Tampico

Robbins’ story immediately took my mind back to my travels throughout the Milk River Valley, from Hill County to Valley County, in 2013.  The story of how modern transportation and engineering combined to transform the northern plains is so fundamental to the region’s history, yet it remains a story seldom told (another reason Robbins’ New York Times story matters).  The image above represents the forces that led to the settlement and development of the Milk River Valley.  Taken outside of the village of Tampico in Valley County, it centers the ditch between the two transportation systems–the Great Northern Railway on the left and the original route of U.S. Highway 2 on the right– that served the settlers drawn by the water.  The image below shows the village of Tampico from the perspective of the ditch–the place would not exist without the ditch.

Valley Co Tampico ditch 3

Valley Co Tampico Milk river bridge hwy markerOne of the very few historical markers in Montana that touches on the state’s irrigation history focuses about a historic bridge that once stood nearby at Tampico.

Hil Co Fresno dam 2

Hil Co Fresno reservoirLarge man-made lakes capture water to reserve it for use throughout the growing season.  The images above are of Fresno Reservoir, on a rainy morning, in Hill County.  While the two images below are of Nelson Reservoir, on a typically bright sunny day, many miles downstream in Phillips County.

Phillips Co Nelson reservoir sign irrigation

Phillips Co Nelson Reservoir USBR 1The Milk River Project shapes so much of the Hi-Line, it has become just part of the scenery.  I wonder how many travelers along U.S. Highway 2 in Phillips County even notice or consider the constant presence of the ditch along their route.

Phillips Co Milk river irrigation ditch near Robinson ranch

Not only are their scattered small towns along the Milk River Project, early agricultural institutions are often centered on the project.  A great example is the Phillips County Fairgrounds, outside of Dodson, and the question may be well posed–why there?  Dodson

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co FairgroundsPhillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 3is a tiny place, almost 20 miles from the county seat of Malta.  But at the time of the Milk River Project, Dodson was vital; the ditch neatly divided the town into two halves, and a major diversion dam was just west of town.  Here was a perfect place, at the turn of the century, for a fairgrounds.  And it is a gorgeous historic fairgrounds.

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 6

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 7

Phillips Co Dodson Phillips Co Fairgrounds 4

My first encounter with the Milk River Project and the beautiful valley it serves came in February 1984 when Eleanor Clack took me on a tour of the bison kill historic site just west of downtown Havre.  It remains an excellent place to see how the waters of the Milk have nurtured countless generations of peoples who called this place home.

Hill Co Havre Wapka Chugn Site 7

Just last week I posted about two other Milk River Project towns–Lohman and Zurich–in Blaine County.  My next post will continue this second look at the Milk River Project as I revisit Chinook, the Blaine County seat, where the ditch once again is almost everywhere, but rarely given a second thought.

Blaine Co Chinook Milk River ditchs of cemetery






Milk River Project Towns: Dodson, Vandalia, and Tampico


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Milk River Project is one of its largest and most significant in Montana; it was one of the agency’s first five projects carried out under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. I have already briefly mentioned the project in regards to Fresno Dam outside of Havre. Now let’s consider the project and its impact on three much smaller villages: Dodson in Phillips County and Vandalia and Tampico in Valley County. All three were once major stops along U.S. 2, but a later re-routing of the highway bypassed Tampico and Vandalia, and not much is left decades later but the canals and ditches of this massive irrigation system.


Original U.S. 2 route between Vandalia and Tampico (to right is Great Northern roadbed)

The Bureau launched the Milk River Project in the first decade of the 20th century but due to disputes over who controlled the water (the Winters case) along with international negotiations with Canada since the Milk River basin passes through both nations, serious construction did not begin until the century’s second decade. The project area encompassed 120,000 acres, with 219 miles of canals, and hundreds more of secondary laterals and ditches. The water begins at Lake Shelburne at Glacier National Park, flows through the St. Mary Canal to the Milk River where then water is stored at Fresno Reservoir outside of Havre and then at the Nelson Reservoir between Malta and Saco.


Dobson developed as a major base for the Bureau. Nearby here was a major diversion dam, and bureau officials established a regional headquarters at Dobson in the 1910s.


This impact of the federal agency is still reflected in the impressive two-story brick high school, the magnificent Phillips County Fairgrounds (discussed earlier in this blog), and the fact that such a small town has impressed contemporary styled churches from the 1950s. I was very impressed with the quality of the town’s built environment, considering its size, when I visited here in 1984.

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But in the mid-1990s the Bureau left Dobson for a more centralized regional office in Billings, hundreds of miles to the south. Dobson’s emptiness was shocking in 2013–even the iconic (and once very good) Cowboy Bar had shuttered its doors.

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Dodson now is entering the same fate suffered by its neighbors to the east, Vandalia and Tampico. Although trains still rumble by on the former Great Northern route, these two towns lost their highway connection when U.S. was re-routed to the north. Ever since they are slowly ebbing away. Vandalia was another location of a Bureau diversion dam on the river along with a historic steel bridge from 1911. The dam remains but the bridge is gone.

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In 1984 I loved the historic Vandalia school (1912) and had a good conversation with folks there–the school was closed but now it was a post office and still very much a community center, competing with the bar next door. Now both businesses are closed.

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Tampico lays just south of both a major canal and the railroad tracks. A scattering of buildings marks its existence.


The water still flows through the Milk River project but the towns it once nurtured are becoming fainter with each passing year. But it is not without promise:  later we will visit the Nelson Reservoir and what is happening at Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs.  Next is Malta, the seat of Phillips County.