Yellowstone Gateways: Cooke City

img_2876Montana’s gateways into Yellowstone National Park are known far and wide.  The most popular are associated with the trains that delivered mostly easterners to the wonderland of the park–West Yellowstone for the Union Pacific line and Gardiner for the Northern Pacific Railway.

img_2887Cooke City, located in the corner of Park County, was never a railroad town but an overland connection that did not become popular until the development of the Beartooth Highway out of Red Lodge in the 1920s.

img_2904It is all about the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) here–when it opens, Cooke City booms as a tourism oasis.  When the highway closes for its long winter, business doesn’t end since the road to Mammoth Hot Springs far to the west is kept open as best as it can be, but the number of visitors drops remarkably. Snow mobile traffic in the winter has meant a lot to local business in the last 30 years.

The one building I focused on when I visited Cooke City for the state historic preservation in 1985 was nearing its 100th year of serving as a general store to this old mountain mining community.  The historic Savage and Elder’s store began business c.1886 and passed through many different owners but remarkably few changes until the time in the second half of the 20th century that it became a community icon and cherished building. New owners in 2003 undertook needed repairs and the old place looks as if it is well on its way to its 200th birthday. In 1986 the state office listed the Cooke City Store in the National Register not only for its late Victorian commercial look but also as a commercial business–general merchandise–that held on through the highs and lows of Cooke City’s history.

img_2879Cooke City uses its mining past to define its identity today, from moving log mining shacks and cabins into town, as shown above, for potential new lures for tourism, to the recently established visitor center and museum, which includes some of the local mining

technology, a moved and restored miner’s cabin, and interprets these resources for the public–a major positive change in the last 30 years.

The rustic log architecture of the miner’s cabin is reflected in several other Cooke City buildings from the mid-20th century as well as from nearby Silver Gate, Montana, located right on the national park border. Some of these properties speak to the local vernacular of building with log, but they also were influenced with the more formal Rustic style buildings constructed by the National Park Service as its signature look in the early decades of the 20th century–witness the Northeast entrance to the park on U.S. 212 next to Silver Gate.

img_2913Perhaps the best example is the rustic yet modern styling of the Mt Republic Chapel of Peace between Silver Gate and Cooke City on U.S. 212. It is no match for the soaring mountains that surround it but its quiet dignity reflects well the people and environment of this part of Montana.

Montana architect Charles Sumner designed the building in 1971 and first services came a year later.  Not yet 50 years, it awaits its National Register future.

img_2877The same can be said for Hoosier’s Bar–a favorite haunt here in Cooke City for several decades, easy to find with its neon sign, and then there is the throwback telephone booth–a good idea since many cell phones search for coverage in this area.  Cooke City and Silver Gate are the smallest Montana gateways into Yellowstone National Park but they tell and preserve their story well.

 

 

The Warrior Trail of U.S. Highway 212

IMG_5457U.S. Highway 212, as it heads west out of the high prairies of southeast Montana, becomes known as the Warriors Trail, an appropriate description because the road provides various access points to some of the most important battlefields associated with the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877.  At Busby, immediately south of the highway, stands a monument and grave of one of the most prominent Northern Cheyenne warriors, Two Moons (1847-1917),

IMG_5472who fought in all three major battles (Rosebud, Little Big Horn, and Wolf Mountains) of the campaign in southeast Montana .  After surrendering at Fort Keogh in Miles City in April 1877, Two Moons joined the U.S. Army as a scout.  He later became a recognized reservation leader and made Busby his home; his monument along the highway became a landmark.  Since my last visit to the grave, a new security fence had been installed around the monument and nearby too were numerous other Cheyenne warriors, followers of Dull

Rosebud Co Busby Too Moons Grave 1 - Version 3Knife, who died in 1879 trying to escape confinement at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.  Their remains were kept in a museum until they were interred here in 1993, a result of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Rosebud Battlefield 015South of Busby is the Rosebud Battlefield State Park, a place barely on anyone’s radar (except for the Northern Cheyenne) when I carried out the 1984 fieldwork.  A local rancher had preserved the battlefield and donated some of its land to the state, and a basic park,

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Interpretive markers in 2007 at Rosebud Battlefield.

with basic public interpretation, had been installed.  In the last ten years, however, due to threats from energy development in the area and the leadership of local ranchers, concerned Native Americans, tribal preservation officers, non-profit groups such as the Montana Preservation Alliance, land conservation groups, and the American Battlefield

Rosebud Battlefield 028Protection Program, and state parks, this important battlefield has been enhanced with new interpretation and a new commitment to protect the battlefield’s view sheds.  The battlefield commemorates the June 17, 1876 fight between U.S. Gen. George Crook and his Crow and Shoshoni Indian allies who were advancing up Rosebud Creek as part of a

Rosebud Battlefield 026pincher movement to find and defeat a combined Lakota-Cheyenne force led by Crazy Horse.  The Lakota and Cheyenne carried the day and would have surprised Crook’s troops if not for their Native American allies.  Crook claimed victory but returned to his base near Sheridan, Wyoming Territory, for weeks.  He was nowhere near when the Lakota and Cheyenne crushed the 7th cavalry of George A. Custer just days later.  The Battle of Rosebud Creek is the army’s name for the fight; the Cheyenne call it the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.  The last battle of the Great Sioux War in Montana took place in early 1877 at Wolf Mountains, in the Tongue River Valley, south of the village of Birney.  Like Rosebud, the battlefield is designated a National Historic Landmark but is largely on a private ranch.

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The Tongue River near Ashland, Montana.

Carter County’s Country Schools on U.S. Highway 212

IMG_5418U.S. Highway 212 enters Montana from South Dakota in Carter County at the state’s southeast corner.  U.S. 212 in this part of the state is a flat, fast ride.  You typically meet little other traffic except for trucks using the highway as a cut-off from Billings to the Black

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Hills.  Traveler accounts from today typically say nothing about this section of the state, save, perhaps, for the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, really the only serious watering hole for miles around, with its inviting false front–“cheap drinks”–capturing your attention.

IMG_5420But if you slow down a bit, you can find three country schools, with all three being good examples of the types of Montana rural schools that the National Trust for Historic Preservation called attention to in 2012.

IMG_5427Alzada’s school is the largest, with its bracketed hipped roof recalling the schoolhouse style so common in the United States from 1910 to 1940.  It is located a few hundred yards off of the highway, a place that is still the heart of the community.

IMG_5433The Hammond school is a later 20th century version of schoolhouse design–it looks much like a Ranch style house of the 1960s and 1970s.  It faces the highway–you can’t miss it.

IMG_5437Nor can you miss the Boyles school, now closed, like pretty much everything else in this hamlet at the western end of Carter County.  This school is a classic example of the one-room schools of the homesteading era.  Like the other two schools, it faces south, with its band of windows facing east, better to capture as much sunlight as possible since it was built in the era before electricity served this section of Montana.

Three small places–three small schools, important parts of Carter County history that you can still explore today.,

A last look at Carbon County, and a visit into the Crow Nation

In the northern reaches of Carbon County are two additional towns on U.S. 212 I would like to review before I turn into a far different landscape in neighboring Big Horn County.  I looked earlier at the Boyd store, and its changes over 30 years, briefly in passing on to other railroad towns in the Clark’s Fork Valley.

IMG_5916But Boyd is worth a second look if for nothing more than its rambling vernacular design post office since so many of those buildings have been replaced in the last 30 years by standardized USPS designs.  The same can be said of the Boyd School, a frame building now encased in vinyl that has layers of history in it as the community made additions as necessary over the decades.IMG_5917Continuing north on U.S. Highway 212 is the much larger, prosperous town of Joliet. Joliet is an anomaly–its population now is larger than it has ever been since census data has been recorded.  So many eastern Montana towns steadily lost population to where they are mere skeletons of themselves today.  Joliet has avoided that fate; in fact its population in 2010 was slightly more than when I first visited in 1984.

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The Joliet Community Center symbolizes the town’s stability and sense of itself.

The Rock Creek State Bank, now the Rebakah Lodge Building, anchors one of the town’s most prominent commercial corners.  It is one of several buildings in Joliet listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including a large historic residential district, in the last 30 years.  Joliet had nothing designated in the National Register when I visited in 1984.

IMG_5923While there is a bright new sheen to a good bit of Joliet, the downtown still has that classic mix of vernacular frame and brick one-story commercial buildings typical of the turn of the century railroad/homestead boom towns.  And like most, a tavern, in this case the Frontier Bar, is a permanent fixture in the town.

IMG_5920Outside of town is a wonderful array of roadside public sculpture, courtesy of long-time Joliet resident Charles Ringer.  Ringer moved to town, purchasing an old junk yard and part of a WPA granary, in 1971.  His works have become landmarks for travelers along U.S. Highway 212.  Ringer runs a studio shop out of an old ranch-style house.

IMG_5932Known to many winter travelers as “The Snow God” but named “The Creature” by its creator Charles Ringer, this huge metal sculpture is roadside art at its best in Montana.

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Ringer is also known for his various kinetic sculptures, and the entire property becomes a way for travelers to interact with, or just enjoy, the general wackiness of his creations.

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From Joliet you can strike out east on an improved gravel road, passing through the town of Edgar, and then climbing up out of the Clark’s Fork Valley and into the land of the Apsaalooke, or the Crow Indian Tribe.  Traveling west in the Crow reservation, you encounter two instant landmarks, one much more recent than the other but both are tightly intertwined.  A compelling metal sculpture of a warrior announces the entrance to the Plenty Coups High School, shrouded on the morning I went there in 2015 by an early morning fog.

BH Co Plenty Coups HS - Version 2

Across the road is the Plenty Coups State Park, a fascinating memorial to the former Crow chief Plenty Coups, who the Crow Indian Tribe has designated as its last traditional tribal

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chief.  Plenty Coups had been among the first Crow Indians to take up a homestead, 320 acres along Pryor Creek, in 1884.  His succession of dwellings, using locally available

IMG_5564materials to build a log house, help to tell his story as well as how some Crows became ranchers.  The park has erected a modern tipi to show earlier Crow dwelling types; the rambling nature of the log house, is both typical and spectacular.  Typical in that

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IMG_5551it is a three-bay house with a centered front door, but actually quite spectacular in its interior feel of open space, and that its very size would have spoken to the family’s prominence and achievements. The park also interprets a traditional sweat lodge, adding to the understanding of tradition and new ways that blended to create the homestead.

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IMG_5578When Plenty Coups died in 1932 he was 84.  He and his wife Strikes the Iron left 195 acres of their property to be a public park.  Later the National Park Service designated the site as a National Historic Landmark. Since my first visit in 1982 a new museum building had been added to the park, significantly enhancing the public interpretation of the site; you left with the feeling that this was just not a static installation and memorial (as it was in the 1980s) but a true museum and park which will continue to grow and adapt to the needs of the Crown Indian Tribe and the park’s visitors.

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To the east of Pryor, on Pryor Creek Road, was another historical place associated with the Apsaalooke–the Pryor Creek Battlefield.  Where in the low creek bluffs and the narrow

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valley created by the water, a major battle between the Apsaalooke and their enemies the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho took place c. 1861–just at the time the Civil War was beginning in the United States far to the east.

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The Crows had worked with federal officials to build a road turn-off and place interpretive markers about this key battle for the control of the Yellowstone Country c. 1861, just before the time that the first permanent white settlers entered what would become Montana Territory.  Thirty years ago, I knew from Crow historian Joe Medicine Crow that this famous battle, where the Apsaalooke secured control of the region in what Medicine Crow called a “glorious victory,” took place along Pryor Creek Road. But the markers now pinpoint the battlefield and interpret what happened plus the significance of the fight.

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Here was suddenly a place that I had truly never “seen” before–and an indication of how good interpretive markers can make a desolate place come alive with historical meaning.  Kudos to all for bringing forth this forgotten battlefield and a site of a famous Crow victory.

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Red Lodge: Coal Town on the Clark’s Fork River

Clark's Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

Clark’s Fork River, off U.S. 212, Carbon County, MT

When the Northern Pacific Railroad entered the Yellowstone Valley in the 1880s, officials and investors immediately began the search to find and acquire locally available deposits of coal.  First there came the Klein mines north of Billings and then by the end of the decade, the first move toward mines to the south, in the Clark’s Fork Valley, at what would become Carbon County with its major town of Red Lodge. Development began slowly, with the Depression of 1893 intervening, but as the era’s financial and railroad magnates combined the Great Northern, the Burlington Route, and the Northern Pacific into one huge co-operative venture, they selected a new place in the Yellowstone Valley, a town called Laurel at the confluence of the Clark’s Fork and Yellowstone rivers, to connect the three railroads. In short order, a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line was built down the Clark’s Fork to the place called Red Lodge–U.S. Highway 212 follows this route–and the boom was on.

IMG_5759Entering Red Lodge from the north via U.S. 212 you encounter immediately the town’s roots as a railroad town, as the historic Northern Pacific depot remains rooted at the head of the town.  Here is where my long-interest with the Red Lodge story began in 1984 when

IMG_5760I met with a small group of local historians, preservationists, and civic leaders determined to keep Red Lodge and its still intact historic environment together. The group’s vision for the depot was for it to be a visitor center, an arts center, but more than anything a community center, a visible sign of the turnaround that could happen.  Already, at the head of town artist Peter Toth had begun the new tradition with his mammoth wood sculpture, “In Honor of a Proud and Noble People,” installed in 1979, a theme of the region’s

IMG_5764Native American history and proximity to the Crow Indian Reservation that also was captured in a much more commercial way by the neon sign of the Red Lodge Cafe then, and still to my mind, the best place in town.  The neon, like Toth’s sculpture, was designed

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to attention of the one course of heritage tourism income that locals recognized:  that summer traffic coming out of Billings and off the interstate heading to Yellowstone National Park via U.S. 212 and the Beartooth Pass, one of the true highway wonders of the United States.  How to get people to stop, and how to restore pride and hope for the town itself: those motivated the group I met in 1984 moreso than any well meaning goal of merely preserving history and pretty buildings.

IMG_5758To say that the initial depot project was successful would be an understatement.  Thirty years later the depot is a public space that includes a gazebo, outdoor art, and a setting of history and culture rarely rivaled in the region.  As you move south from the depot, you also immediately encounter several of the dreams the groups discussed in 1984:  a National Register of Historic Places historic district (there are now more than one); restored and treasured public buildings such as the Carnegie Library and Carbon County Courthouse;

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and their biggest goal of all in 1984, the acquisition, preservation, and transformation of iconic Labor Temple into a history museum and heritage center for the Carbon County Historical Society.

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The group understood the power of the Labor Temple:  they could tell a story not just of railroad magnates and economic development but could look at this history from those who came and labored in the mines, and built the town.  The building dated to the decade of Red Lodge’s height, 1910-1920, when the town’s population reached 5,000 but especially once the Northern Pacfic opened new mines at Colstrip to the east in the 1920s,  the town had been in a decades long period of population decline, where less than 2,000 people lived in 1980.  Many had given up, obviously, but those who stayed saw the bones of a possible community renaissance–and preservation was a big part of that.  That more recent story comes next.