Heading North on Montana’s U.S. 89

Teton Co Fairfield ditch south of town 1We just finished an exploration of U.S. Highway south from Great Falls to Livingston, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  Now let’s head in the opposite direction, north of Great Falls to Glacier National Park.  In the first half of this trek, one great man-made landscape dominates either side of the road–the Sun River Irrigation Project, established by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1906 but not completed until the late 1920s.

 

The project has two divisions:  the smaller is the Fort Shaw division centered at the town of Simms (discussed in an earlier post) and the much larger is the Greenfields Irrigation District, over 80,000 acres, headquartered at Fairfield, which is located on U.S. 89.  On either side of Fairfield, you can see the expanse of irrigation land, framed by the Rocky Mountains.  One wonder how many travelers pass by this early 20th century engineered landscape and never give it a look.

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Teton Co Fairfield Greenfields irrigation 1Feeding in and out of Fairfield are multiple canals and ditches, with the great bulk of land devoted to the production of malting barley, under

contract to Anheuser-Busch for years now.  Dominating the highway along the Great Northern spur line are huge metal granaries for all of the barley to make millions of bottles of beer.

Teton Co Fairfield Busch barleyFairfield itself is a classic T-plan railroad town.  The barley granaries dominate the trackside, where also is located the headquarters for the Greenfields Irrigation District, so designated in 1926.

Teton Co Fairfield irrigation dist officeAlong the stem of the “T” plan are all of the primary commercial buildings of the town, from an unassuming log visitor center to various one-story commercial buildings, and, naturally, a classic bar, the Silver Dollar.

Teton Co Fairfield 6 Silver Dollar BarPublic spaces and institutions are located at the bottom of the “T,” including a community park and swimming pool, a c. 1960 community hall, and an Art-Deco styled Fairfield High School.  The park, pool, and high school were all part of the second period of federal improvement at Fairfield during the New Deal era.

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The high school and the adjacent elementary school are clearly the heart of the community, even if situated at the bottom of the town plan.  In designing Fairfield 100 years ago, the railroad, the highway, and the grain elevators were the economic focus with the vision of irrigated fields creating an agricultural paradise out of the semi-arid lands of Teton County.  But those who came and built Fairfield as a community

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understood that schools represented their hopes and identity for that future.  Today Fairfield is a few families larger in population than 1970, bucking the trend that the old reclamation towns were fated to fade into obscurity as time moved on in the northern plains.

Eastern Park County and the Yellowstone River

Park Co US 89 Horse Thief Trail bridgeTraveling south of Clyde Park on U.S. 89, you pass by the turn-off for Horse Thief Trail, where a historic steel bridge still allows for one-lane traffic over the Shields River; this bridge and snippet of road is part of the original route of U.S 89.  That means you are nearing the confluence of the Yellowstone and Shields rivers, and where U.S. Highway 89 crosses the Yellowstone River and takes you into the heart of Park County. Paralleling the modern concrete bridge is a c. 1897 steel Pratt through truss bridge, to serve the Northern Pacific Railroad spur that runs north to Clyde Park then Wilsall.  The Northern Pacific called this the Third Crossing of the Yellowstone bridge; the Phoenix Bridge Company constructed it.

Park Co US 89 Yellowstone River NPRR bridge  Before jogging slightly to the west to head to Livingston, the county seat, two places east of the Shields River confluence are worth a look.  First is the site of Fort Parker, established as the first Crow Agency in 1869 or the first federal facility in the valley.  It operated from this location until 1875.

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Interstate I-90 traffic passes directly by the fort site, which was on a low bluff overlooking the Yellowstone

In conducting the 1983-1984 survey for the state historic preservation plan, the location of Fort Parker was understood, but not explored and certainly not interpreted.  Here was a very important story of how the Crow Indians initially interacted with federal agents within 4 years of the end of the Civil War and 7 years before the battle of Little Big Horn. Nothing was marked; it was in danger of becoming a forgotten place.

MT 2007 Park County Ft ParkerGladly all of that changed in the 21st century.  As a result of another innovative state partnership with land owners, there is an interpretive center for the Fort Parker story, easily accessible from the interstate, which also does not intrude into the potentially rich archaeological remains of the fort.  The story told by the historical markers is accurate and comprehensive, from the agency’s beginnings to the land today.

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I really like how the metal tipi poles not only make the site easy to locate but it gives it a Native American centeredness, a presence, that otherwise is missing when all that the visitor finds is an interpretive marker. After all the story of Fort Parker is very much the story of the Crow Indians, and how they resisted, accommodated, and came to terms with the increasing white presence in the Yellowstone Valley in the 1870s.

MT 2007 Park County Ft Parker 1Few remnants of that early white settlement remain today; you can find some just north of Springdale, at Park County’s eastern border, on the north side of the Yellowstone River.  Hunter’s Hot Springs was the first attraction, established by Andrew Jackson Hunter in the 1870s, and receiving its last update in the early years of automobile tourism in the 1920s, as shown below in this postcard from my collection.  Today, as the Google image below also shows, there are just scattered stones and fences from what had been a showplace for the valley.

The disappearance of Hunter’s Hot Springs from the valley landscape is also reflected in marked decline at Springdale, the railroad town south of the river that provided access to the resort, over the last 30 years.  One of the Yellowstone’s famous early 20th century highway bridges once crossed here; remnants are all that remain now.

Park Co Springdale Yellowstone River bridgeCommercial businesses once lined the town side of the Northern Pacific tracks.  Nothing is open today although trains rumbled down this historic main line every day.  What does survive is impressive and worthy of

 

landmark status in my opinion:  the Springdale school.  Once nestled on the edge of town (what was then the least valuable land since everything was focused on the tracks) but now easily found from the interstate exit, this school may be the most accessible rural school in the state.  Built in 1918, it is still the town’s focus almost 100 years later.

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Park Co Springdale school

 

U. S. Highway 89 heading south

After taking a long look at the depth of nationally significant heritage stories and historic places in and around Great Falls, I want to change regions, to the Upper Yellowstone valley and get there by one of my favorite western highways, U. S. Highway 89.

Cascade Co Neihart US 89 NAs the highway leaves the central plains east of Great Falls, it heads east through coal country (see the earlier post on Belt) and south into the Little Belt Mountains and the old mining towns of Monarch and Neihart (above).  Both Cascade County towns are proud of their heritage, a story embodied in the Monarch-Neihart School, a wonderful bit of log craftsmanship from the New Deal era, a WPA project finished in 1940 that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Another point of pride is the ongoing renovation of Neihart’s Great Northern Railroad depot, a mark of the town’s beginnings, which also serves the greater Monarch-Neihart area as the local museum and heritage center. While on the other side of the road, another turn of the century historic building has been converted into a self-described junk shop where you can acquire bits and pieces of the past.

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After traversing through the mountains, by a sky resort, you suddenly drop back into the central Montana plains, a landscape shaped by the Smith River, one of the state’s most compelling natural and historic landscapes.  You are now in Meagher County, discussed in an earlier post, where the town of White Sulphur Springs is the county seat. It too has its New Deal landmark, the Classical Moderne styled county courthouse.

IMG_7160When I last visited there in 2015 the combined route of U.S. 89 and 12, which passes in front of the courthouse and the center of town, was being rebuilt, giving the historic business district the look of a ghost town.

The Fort Logan Road, on the east side of town, was not under construction, allowing for easy access to the other significant transportation link, the railroad, and the still surviving White Sulphur Springs depot, a place certainly worth of listing in the National Register.

Meagher Co White Sulpjur Springs depot 3U.S. Highway 89 continues south, crossing the historic corridor of the Milwaukee Road at Ringling, another Meagher County town discussed in an earlier post, marked by the landmark St. John’s Catholic Church.

IMG_9498Travelers continuing south soon find themselves in Park County, entering the Shields River Valley just north of Wilsall, where highway markers and monuments, like that for “Thunder Jack” (2006) by sculptor Gary Kerby, convey the significance of the place.

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IMG_1158Wilsall was not much a place 30 years ago, a small trade town on the edge of a Northern Pacific Railroad spur line, a past still recalled by the tall elevator and old railroad corridor.

Park Co US 89 wilsall elevator 1But the growing popularity of the Shields River Valley has led to a new boom in Walsall, with old banks converted into bars and old general stores

being revived and expanded. The town has its own museum now, in a converted gas station from the 1920s that served travelers and locals. The stories preserved there, along with the mural of Walsall over 100 years ago, show the residents’ sense of place and the past.

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Park Co US 89 wilsall mural

The next town down the old Northern Pacific line, Clyde Park, has a similar story of revival from 30 years ago. Glenn’s Shopping Center is still going strong, as is the town community hall across the street, and the town park is neatly kept and in regular use.

Park Co US 89 Clyde Park stores 1Clyde Park Tavern is still the place to go for an adult beverage, or two.  Historic grain elevators still serve local ranchers, marking the railroad line that defined the town’s landscape until the impact of the highway in the early 20th century.

The sojourn to the Yellowstone Valley will stop here, on the edge before we cross bridges, backtrack to Springdale and Fort Parker, before we explore in some depth Livingston, Montana’s gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

 

A second look at Ringling

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Ringling, a stop along the Milwaukee Road in northern Meagher County just off U.S. Highway 89, served as the eastern gateway for the railroad’s move west into the Rocky Mountains along its electric line.  From Ringling the Milwaukee passed through the famous Sixteenmile Canyon then crossed the Missouri at Toston and began its ascent in the copper kingdom of Butte.

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I had last passed quickly through the village in 2011 and its iconic Milwaukee Road combination depot was weathered but appeared as if it would yet survive for sometime.  Within four years, however, its fate was much more uncertain.  Roof decking is missing–will this now rare survival of the railroad’s corporate stamp on the northern plains survive till the end of the decade?

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Brumfield’s Garage is more an example of roadside architecture from the first half of the twentieth century than a building that dates back to the Milwaukee’s heyday.  Its vernacular interpretation of Art Deco styling by means of the four brick pilasters catches the eye–this adaptable property has been many things, and in my past visits has served as a store and as a bar.

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Ringling also retains its school–now a residence–another of the remarkable rural frame standardized designed schoolhouses found throughout central Montana. It sits south of the depot, as if the corporate and the public defined the north-south boundaries of the village.

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Still overlooking the town, and serving as an important landmark on U.S. Highway 89, is the historic Arts and Crafts-styled St. John’s Catholic Church, to which I have already devoted one post in this blog.  What I was pleased to find in 2015 is that some preservation work was underway–with weatherboards being repaired and replaced.  With a decent roof and a recent paint job, the church is in much better shape than many of its brethren across the region. The continued use of this Montana plains church as a “community church” is the best way to keep it alive in the 21st century even as the rest of Ringling shrinks and disappears from the Meagher County landscape.

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