In my work of 1984-85 for the state historic preservation plan, there were few places in Montana that fascinated me more than Harlowton, a division point for the Milwaukee Road and the place where the railroad began its electric line to the west.
The line abruptly stopped work in 1980 and declared bankruptcy, devastating not only Harlowton but many other towns and villages in the west. By the time I began my work in 1984 the dismantling of the railroad was well underway, and I was playing catch-up as track was ripped up for the steel and buildings began deteriorating.
Colleagues in the preservation field had been at work on documenting and understanding the railroad’s history. Dale Martin produced an insightful overview of the railroad and its landmarks for the Montana Historical Society Press in the 1980s. Others carried out preservation studies and in the cities key landmark depots became restored office buildings, restaurants, and other businesses.
But the complex in Harlowton–despite its overall significance to the railroad’s story and its national significance–withered. Compared to the resources in Butte, Missoula, and Great Falls, where the depots were already under preservation and adaptive reuse, the task at Harlowton just seemed to be overwhelming, and some said impossible. Below are copies of some of the images that I took from the mid-1980s to c. 1990, which mark the deterioration of the division point complex but also the fact that resources were there–they just needed help.
The division point complex was listed in the National Register in 1988 and by the 1990s some preservation efforts and underway, with the installation of a historical marker and some repair work on the passenger station.
Would enough help come in time to preserve this nationally significant place–by start of the 21st century I thought not. Imagine my complete delight in 2021 when visited the magnificently restored passenger station, which had become a well-conceived and executed museum, not just about the Harlowton division point but a place of research for the entire line.
What has been in accomplished in the last few years is impressive and must be commended. What an achievement by a group of dedicated volunteers and residents. Finally, one of Central Montana’s most important stories can be fully explored. But, still, there is work to be done, on the roundhouses and maintenance buildings.
I look forward to my next visit to Harlowton and the continued preservation and interpretation of this nationally significant property in the railroad history of not just Montana but the United States.