Lincoln County’s Gateway Towns

Lincoln Co Troy 5I love Montana town signs, and Troy, deep in the state’s logging country, has one of the best.  The sign lures to a city park nestled along the Kootenai River.  The focus point is a

historic Great Northern depot, which has been moved to the park.  There is also an interpretive trail, part of a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, that tells the story of the Callahan boom, which mining and logging combined to lure investors and residents to the area.  It is a story arc that the forest service follows at other sites in a region the service describes as the Callahan Creek Historic Mining and Logging District. It is a very useful perspective on the town’s history, and not one that I pursued in 1984 when I explored this part of Lincoln County in the fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan.  I paid attention to the historic railroad corridor–Troy (1892) after all was on

Lincoln Co Troy RR corridor

Lincoln Co Troy facing RR

Lincoln Co Troy bar facing RRthe Great Northern’s main line, and I documented the few historic buildings left facing the railroad tracks today.  The Home Bar (c. 1914) and the Club Bar were institutions then, and remain so today.  The Kootenai State Bank building still stands but has experienced a major change to its facade–made better in part by the American flag painted over some of the frame addition.

img_8425The Troy Jail, above, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and it remains the only building so listed in the town today.  D.E. Crissey, a local contractor, built it out of concrete in 1924 during Troy’s boom from 1916 to 1926 when its population jumped from 300 to 1300.  The Snowstorm mine, which produced lead, zinc, and silver, started to serve the demand for raw materials during World War I.  The mine soon turned what had been a small railroad town into a mining camp best known for its brothels and bars.  Then in the early 1920s the Great Northern decided to build a division point here, further booming the town. The Sandpoint Pole and Lumber Company began its logging business in 1923, and Troy suddenly was the largest town in the county

Lincoln Co Troy school 4

Perhaps the most impressive landmark left in the wake of the Troy boom is the public school, with the impressive central block flanked by classroom wings and a gymnasium built in later decades.  Home to the Troy Trojans, the soldier statue in front of the school is also a public art landmark in Lincoln County.

Troy thus was much more than just a gateway into Montana from U.S. Highway 2–it was once a mining center, but one that went broke fast as the mines played out in the 1920s, the Great Northern closed its roundhouse, and the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.

Lincoln Co Troy mural

In 1984 as I traveled from Troy via Montana State Highway 508 to Yaak, the only “town” left in the state’s far northwest corner, you could still encounter key mining properties along the Yaak River, such as this concentrator at Sylvanite.


The Keystone Mill was barely hanging on to the side of the mountain then, now it is nowhere to be seen.  Montana 508 has instead become a gateway to some of the some of the most open, untouched high mountain landscape, one that meanders back and forth with the river, bridges, and, perhaps most importantly, bars.

That would be the Dirty Shame Saloon–another institution that some back in the city thought that perhaps I should avoid.  Glad I did not.  Had a great meal there in 1984, and even though the bar’s dining area has been extended, it still had that vibe, of both a local place but also another remnant of the old logging and mining days along the Yaak.

Lincoln Co Yaak dirty Shame saloon 1

Yaak by way of local paths and trails is a gateway too, between Idaho and Montana and Montana and British Columbia.  More to the point it is a gateway between what was and what still is within the Montana landscape.

Lincoln Co Yaak store/bar

Yaak’s general store, service station, lodging, and whatever else you need is another throwback place, and can be found on the web as the Yaak River Tavern and Mercantile.  You haven’t “done” Montana if you don’t make it to Yaak.


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

Mineral Co St Regis school 2


Mineral Co St Regis school 4

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.



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.

Mineral Co Haugan Milwaukee Road 7

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.

Mineral Co Haugan Savenac Nursery CCC 13

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.

Mineral Co Haugan Savenac Nursery CCC 6

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.


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.

Mineral Co Saltese school

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.

Missoula County’s country towns

IMG_8038Missoula County has grown, a lot, since my state historic preservation plan work in 1984-1985, especially in the county seat of Missoula and surrounding suburbs.  Yet Missoula County still has several spectacular rural drives, like Montana Highway 83 above at Condon, along with distinctive country towns.  This post will share some of my favorites.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon roadsideIMG_8033

Let’s just stay at Condon.  The Swan Valley Centre–it was just a general store back in the day–still operates, providing for locals and in the summer the tourists who are flocking to Seeley Lake or passing through on the way to Glacier National Park or Flathead Lake.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon community club 2The Condon Community Center and adjacent Swan Valley Community Library serve as additional hubs for those living along the lakes and mountains of northeast Missoula County.  Both buildings are excellent examples of mid-20th century Rustic style–a look that, in different variations, dominates the Highway 35 corridor.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Condon USFS work center 1Condon is also the base for the Condon Work Center, home to the Great Northern Fire Crew, of the Flathead National Forest.  Here you can take a mile-long Swan Ecosystem Trail and learn of the diversity of life in this national forest region.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley LakeSouth of Condon on Montana Highway 83 is Seeley Lake–a place that certainly has boomed in the last 30 years–witness the improved highway, new businesses, and population that has increased over 60 percent since my last visit in 1992.  Yet it still had places rooted in the community’s earlier history such as the Sullivan Memorial Community Hall–a good example of mid-20th century Rustic style.

Missoula Co Hwy 35 Seeley Lake community hallAnd it had added one of my favorite bits of roadside architecture in this part of Montana: the Chicken Coop Restaurant as well as opening a new Seeley Lake Historical Museum and Chamber of Commerce office at a spectacular highway location just outside of town.

Let’s stay in the mountains but go northwest of Missoula to the historic Ninemile Remount Depot of the U.S. Forest Service.  In earlier posts I have praised the historic preservation work of the Forest Service at various places across Montana–30 years ago it might have been like pulling teeth to have forest service managers to recognize the many heritage assets under their jurisdiction but no more.  The Forest Service has done right by many of its National Register historic places, with Ninemile Depot being a particularly good example. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


In 1984 too few of us were focused on resources coming from the New Deal era.  When I was at Ninemile in 1984 I was looking for the historic school house–and was pleased 30 years later to find that it stood, and had been converted into a residence.

Missoula Co Ninemile schoolI don’t recall even thinking about the forest service facility, but here was an entire complex devoted to the forest service’s use of mules and horses before the days of the ATV that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The remount depot is an interesting

mix of restrained Colonial Revival styled offices and residences combined with a early 20th century functional aesthetic for the various barns and work buildings, which could have come straight from the USDA’s standardized plans for farm buildings of that time.

If you want to explore how the New Deal transformed the Montana landscape, the Ninemile Remount Depot is a must stop.  It has a museum about what has and still happens here and campgrounds are located nearby in the national forest.

Missoula Co Frenchtown RR corridor

Frenchtown is a Milwaukee Road railroad town closer to Missoula and the city’s sprawl to the northwest has impacted the town, as evident from the new school complex. When I visited in 1984 the town was a paper mill town.  Waldorf Paper Products Company opened the mill in 1957, but a successor company, Smurfit-Stone, closed the mill in 2010.  At that time the town had experienced a significant population boom, having grown from 883 in 2000 to over 1800 in 2010.

Missoula Co Frenchtown school 2The name Frenchtown dates to 1868 and is a reference to a number of French Canadians who moved here in the early settlement period.  A National Register-listed church, the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (1884) marks that first generation of settlers.  Its classical-tinged cupola has long been the town’s most famous landmark.

Missoula Co Frenchtown St John Baptist Catholic NR 3The Milwaukee Road built through here in 1907-1908 and there remains a handful of historic business buildings from the time of the Milwaukee boom. There is one landmark

Missoula Co Frenchtown 6

from the paper mill days that I recall from my work in 1984–because I stopped here for a break back then: the Alcan Bar–and note the “F” for Frenchtown on the hill behind it.

Missoula Co Frenchtown 7

Evaro is also northwest of Missoula, more north than west along U.S. Highway 93.  The highway’s four-lane expansion has changed so much of the roadside landscape between this place and Hamilton far to the south.  Yet Evaro still has its c. 1930 one-room school, which is now the community center, helping to preserve this historic building. And its has

IMG_7827another roadside landmark–the Bucksnort Bar, just further evidence to add to the Chicken Coop and the Alcan that you won’t go hungry if you explore the small towns of Missoula County.







To the Blackfoot River and Ovando

Abandoned farm landscape, s MT 141, Powell CoMontana Highway 141 cuts north from Avon On U. S. Highway 12 to halfway between the towns of Ovando and Lincoln on Montana Highway 200.  Its is high mountains prairie travel at its best, although the height of ranching along this route disappeared a while back. About 12-13 miles north of Avon you cross into the Nevada Creek drainage, which has long watered the land, enhanced after the New Deal added the Nevada Creek earthen dam that created Nevada Creek Reservoir in 1938.


Nevada Creek Dam Spillway.

Nevada Creek Reservoir, N, irrigation, MT 141, Powell CoAlong the east banks of the lake are remnants of the Fitzgerald Ranch, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I highlighted the property in my book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986). Jimmy Isbel established the property in 1872,

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 5

Fitzgerald Ranch facing Nevada Creek Reservoir.

building a log cabin.  But he did little to develop it and c. 1885 he sold it to J.F. Fitzpatrick.  His family patented his homesteading claim in 1890 and in the next decade, they built a two-story log home, a wooden-frame barn, and other outbuildings before adding a Queen Anne-influenced frame wing to the house, totally transforming the look of the ranch.

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 1Thirty years ago, this significant collection of vernacular buildings were in good condition, but the years since have been hard on the property, and the complex now needs serious preservation attention. The loss of the roof on the log barn, and the general poor condition of the roofs of the outbuildings are major concerns.


Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 2

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 3 log

Fitzgerald Ranch, NR, MT 141 Powell Co 4 logBetween the Fitzgerald Ranch and Helmville is the Barger Ranch, also from the late 19th century judging from the more polished example of Queen Anne style in the ranch house. It is living proof that not all of the Nevada Creek ranches have passed away.  The Nevada Creek Water Users Association at Helmville still operates to distribute the invaluable water from the reservoir.  Barger Ranch, 18565 MT 271, s of Helmville, Powell CoHelmville was another topic in my 1986 book.  Throughout the Nevada Creek drainage, you could help but be impressed with the log construction, and the various types of notching used for the buildings.  Helmville had a particular interesting grouping of wood frame and log buildings, which were highlighted by a 1984 photograph in the book. That exact view could not be replicated 30 years later but several of the old buildings still stood.

Helmville, Powell Co (p84 62-15)

MT 271 log buildings, Helmville, Powell CoHelmville has a good bit of continuity.  Along with the row of buildings on Montana 271 there is a turn of the 20th century gable-front cottage and a two-story lodge building that has been turned into a garage.

There was also a good bit of change: new post office and community center, new Catholic church building, and the school has been significantly expanded, although someone thought enough of the past to keep the old historic school bell cupola.

Helmville had changed little, however, compared to Ovando, the next village to the northwest.  Ovando is on Montana Highway 200, north of the Nevada Creek drainage, past the 1960s era Blackfoot Waterfowl Production Area, and along the Blackfoot River.

IMG_2250Trixie’s was the same fun dive that I always recalled, but the village’s historic buildings had been restored, looking good.  Business appeared to be brisk. A new community church has been opened, and a major interpretive place for the “Lewis Minus Clark” expedition had been installed. Kudos to both the U.S. Forest Service and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for allowing a bit of humor in this marker.

Ovando market and gas, Powell Co

Ovando store, Stay Bullet, Powell Co

IMG_2235Ovando school, Powell CoThe school had also expanded from its New Deal core of the 1930s, courtesy of the Works Progress Administration. But the most noticeable change was the town’s street signs–first the fact that a small place had street signs but then the nostalgic backpacker theme of these cast iron marvels.

IMG_2241Ovando is a good location on the Blackfoot River for sportsmen, anglers, and hikers headed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness–its recent change demonstrates the influence on those groups on the 21st century Montana landscape.Ovando highway sign, MT 200, Powell Co




Powell County’s Little Blackfoot River Valley

IMG_2251Between Garrison Junction, where U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate I-90 meet, to Elliston, at near the Mullan Pass over the continental divide, is a beautiful, historic valley carved by the Little Blackfoot River.  It is a part of Powell County that hundreds whiz through daily as they drive between Missoula and Helena, and it is worth slowing down a bit and taking in the settlement landscape along the way.

NP and Mullan Road, Powell Co

Mullan Rd marker and mining, E of Elliston, US 12Captain John Mullan came this way shortly before the Civil War as he built a military road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington.  A generation later, in the early 1880s, the tracks of the Northern Pacific Road used the Mullan Pass to cross the divide and then followed the Little Blackfoot River west towards Missoula.

Elliston was the first Northern Pacific town of note on the west side of the divide and while today it is perhaps best known for Lawdog Saloon–definitely worth a stop–it also retains key public buildings from the early twentieth century, including its Gothic-styled

community church, a large gable-front log building that to my eye reads like a 1930s era community hall (I have not verified that), and then a quite marvelous  Art Deco-styled brick school, built by the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration in the 1930s.

Elliston school, Powell CoThe oldest federal imprint in Elliston comes from the ranger’s headquarters for the Helena National Forest in its combination of a frame early 20th century cottage and then the Rustic-styled log headquarters.

Helena National Forest ranger station, EllistonThe next railroad town west is Avon, which is also at the junction of U.S. Highway 12 and Montana Highway 141 that takes travelers northwest toward the Blackfoot River. Like Elliston, Avon has several buildings to note, although the National Register-listed property is the historic steel truss bridge that crosses the Little Blackfoot River and then heads into ranch territory.

Powell 3 Little Blackfoot River Bridge US 12 AvonThe bridge is a Pratt pony truss, constructed in 1914 by contractor O.E. Peppard of Missoula, and little altered in the last 100 years. As the National Register nomination notes, the bridge’s camelback trusses are unusual and have not been documented in other Montana bridges from the early 20th century.

IMG_1919Avon has another clearly National Register-worthy building in its 1941 community hall, a late New Deal era building, which has served the community in multiple ways, as a meeting place for the Avon Grange, a polling place, and a place for celebrations of all sorts, including stage presentations and bands.

Avon Community Hall, 1941, probably WPA

Avon Community Hall, New Deal, 1941

Avon Community Hall 1941 New Deal interiorThe Avon School also has a New Deal era affiliation, with the Works Progress Administration. Although remodeled in the decades since, the school still conveys its early 20th century history.


Avon School US 12 2Avon even has its early 20th century passenger station for the Northern Pacific Railroad, although it has been moved off the tracks and repurposed for new uses.

IMG_1933In front of the depot is the turn of the 20th century St. Theodore’s Catholic Church.  The historic Avon Community Church incorporates what appears to be a moved one-room school building as a wing to the original sanctuary.

Early railroad era commercial buildings also remain in Avon, with a frame false front building serving both as a business and the community post office.  Birdseye Mercantile is an architecturally impressive stone building, dated c. 1887, that has for a decade housed a quilt business.  It too may be National Register worthy.

Birdseye Mercantile, 1887, AvonAnother important property in Avon, but one I ignored in 1984-85, is the town cemetery, which also helps to document the community’s long history from the 1880s to today.

Avon Cemetery, SE, Powell Co

Avon Cemetery, W, Powell CoHeading west from Avon on U.S. Highway 12 there are various places to stop and enjoy the river valley as it narrows as you approach Garrison.  I always recalled this part fondly, for the beaverslide hay stackers–the first I encountered in Montana in 1981–and they are still there today, connecting the early livestock industry of the valley to the present.

Pintler Scenic Route and Granite Ghost Town

Granite Co, Granite road overview 1The late 19th century discovery and development of silver mines high in the Granite Mountains changed the course of this part of the Pintler route.  The Granite Mountain mines yielded one of the biggest silver strikes in all of Montana, creating both the mountain mining town of Granite and a bit farther down on the mountain’s edge the town of Philipsburg, which by 1893 served as the seat for the new county of Granite.

Granite Co, Granite USFS signThe U.S. Forest Service’s rather weathered and beat-up sign marks the historic entrance to the mining town of Granite, located at over 7,000 feet in elevation above the town of Philipsburg.  During the 1984-85 state historic preservation plan work Granite was the focal point.  The office knew of the latest collapse of Miners Union Hall (1890) turning what had been an impressive Victorian landmark into a place with three walls and lots of rubble–it remains that way today.Granite Co, Miners Union Hall, Granite

Granite Co, Miners Union Hall 1

Miners Union Hall was one of two National Register landmarks in Granite.  The other was the massive stone Superintendent’s House, which Montana State Parks has stabilized, adding hopefully decades to its life, but so much else of the town is nothing but a historical archaeological site, a fate held by the old bank, Catholic Church, the California House, and a score of other significant buildings.


The drive to Granite can be harrowing for the novice but affords great scenic views of the mountains plus multiple deteriorating mining sites.



Granite Co, tilting headframe, GraniteConnecting the Granite road to the town of Philipsburg, today as in the past, is the site of the Bi-Metallic Mill, which is still in limited use today compared to the mining hey-day.


Granite Co, Bi-Metallic Mill stacks

The mines around Philipsburg are not as important as they were during my early 1980s visits, and population began to drop from the steady number of approximately 1100 the town had held for decades to just over 800 by 2010.  But in this decade, population is growing again, and historic preservation and heritage tourism are playing key roles in the revival of fortunes, as the next post will explore.

Bitterroot Valley: Agricultural Wonderland

Ravalli Co Museum 1As the historic promotional image above conveys, the Bitterroot Valley is an agricultural wonderland, but one dependent on irrigation and agricultural science. This image is on display at the Ravalli County Museum, which is located in the historic county courthouse from the turn of the 20th century.

Irrigation in Hamilton coLocal ranchers and boosters understood the economic potential of the valley if the land was properly nurtured.  Some of the best evidence today is along the Eastside Highway,

both north and south of Corvallis stretching onto Darby.  Lake Como, located between Corvallis and Darby, supplied much of this water:  it began as a private irrigation effort in 1909, and the dam has since been rebuilt to keep the water flowing, in addition to creating one of the favorite summer recreation spots in western Montana. In recent years, an interpretive marker by the U.S. Forest Service underscores the dam’s significance.

The water was just part of the story.  There were key farmer organizations such as the Grange, which still has a lodge in Corvallis.  This grange dates to 1884, which Elijah Chaffin led a local effort to join what was then a new national effort to help farmers and ranchers fight back against the railroads and other corporate interests.

An important partnership between the Bitterroot Valley Irrigation Company and the State of Montana came in 1907 when the state, through its agricultural extension program at Montana State University, established what was first called the Horticultural Sub-station and later the Western Montana Experiment Station on 20 acres of land donated by the irrigation company outside of Corvallis. Now known as the Western Agricultural Research Center (see below), the station allowed agricultural

Western MT experiment station 3 Hamilton co

scientists to “determine, by testing, the most profitable varieties of apples, pears, cherries, plums, walnuts, peaches, apricots, strawberries, bushfruits, and vegetables.” Initial success came with apples but after that waned, “the center’s emphasis shifted to the development of small fruits and the sweet cherry industry in the Flathead [Lake] area.”

The nearby Swanson’s Orchards are just part of the industry spawned by the combination of land, water, and science.  Charles J. Swanson began the ranch in 1909, turning to an apple crop by 1910.  Although the apple industry in the Bitterroot is greatly diminished since the boom of the 1910s, Swanson’s still operates as a family-run orchard. Throughout the valley are ranches that trace their roots to the 1880s to early 1900s and the first

307 Hanker Lane at RR tracks, Corvallis vic

Bailey Ranch, Hamilton Co

IMG_2810railroad spur through the valley.  With its Four-Square style dwelling, the Bailey Ranch, immediately above, is a good example of the places of the 1910s-1920s.  The Popham Ranch, seen below, is one of the oldest, dating to 1882.


Popham Ranch,  460 Popham Lane, Corvallis vicinity NROne major change in the Bitterroot over 30 years is the fruit industry has diminished and how many more small ranches and suburban-like developments crowd the once expansive agricultural wonderlands of the Bitterroot. The dwindling number that remain deserve careful attention for their future conservation before the working landscape disappears.

Lazy Drive Ranch at Eastside Hwy, Ravalli Co