Basin: a Jefferson County Mining Town

brick stores, Basin St., Basin, Jefferson Co.I’m taking a break from the Pintler Scenic Route to take a look at Basin, a turn of the 20th century mining town, in Jefferson County.  A perceptive reader contacted me and wondered if this once very important town in Jefferson County would be discussed.  Since its time-frame reminded me of Phillipsburg, I thought why not now.

BasinWhen I carried out the Montana State Historic Preservation Plan field work in 1984-1985 I passed through Basin Street in the heart of “downtown” Basin quite frequently, not because of the Silver Saddle Bar–fine place it is–but because I had no choice if headed

Basin bar

Photo from the winter of 2007

south from Helena.  Interstate I-90 was not finished then and all traffic used the old U.S. Highway 91 route (Basin Street) passing through the town.

IMG_0533The glory days of Basin had long since passed, although some locals and visitors would go to the Merry Widow Mine for a dose of radon, thinking it could cure their ills (of course radon exposure is actually dangerous). Led by the Butte capitalist Augustus Heinze, the town from the mid-1890s to mid-1920s had been a quite thriving place, served as both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads with its Basin Street becoming the route for U.S. Highway 91.  The numerous two-story brick commercial buildings reflected that era of prominence while a decaying c. 1930 garage on the town’s outskirts documents the impact of the federal highway.

Basin Valley Service, Basin, Jefferson CoSeveral key community landmarks remain.  The most impressive is the two-story frame Basin School, built in 1895 and still in use as a school today. Here is another great Montana rural school building–the state is so rich in this type of public architecture.

Basin School, Jefferson CoNearby is the Community Church, another late Victorian-era styled building, with its tall bell tower and distinctive corner entrance.

The third building is Basin Creek Pottery and Gallery, located on Basin Street, which is a

Basin Creek Pottery, Basin, Jefferson Co

poignant reminder that from 1993 to 2011–in the aftermath of the interstate’s completion and the sudden end of traffic through town–Basin was home to the Montana Artists Refuge.  For 18 years a wide range of nationally significant artists made Basin their home and their studios.  Board chair Sean Sheehan told the Helena Independent Record on August 10, 2011:  “We’ve had internationally published authors, Guggenheim fellows — all of these people have been extraordinarily kind and open to the community. We’ve had

Stone and frame stores, Basin St., Basin, Jefferson Co

wonderful artists and you could just stop in their studio — artists from all over the world and country. Many national artists have done workshops at local schools. I’m really going to miss the stimulation of having such talented and gifted artists right in our community.” Few small towns in Montana have ever been blessed with such exposure to the arts.

 

 

Country Towns of Beaverhead County, Part One

Monida from MT 508, 2

Monida, at the Idaho-Montana border, on Interstate I-15.

Country towns of Beaverhead County–wait,  you cry out: isn’t every town in Beaverhead County a country town?  Well yes, since Dillon, the county seat, has a single stop light, you can say that.  But Dillon is very much an urban oasis compared to the county’s tiny villages and towns scattered all about Beaverhead’s 5,572 square miles, making it the largest county in Montana.

IMG_3387Let’s start this theme with the railroad/ federal highway towns.  Monida, at the state border with Idaho, is a good place to start, first established as a place on the Utah and Northern Railroad line as it moved north toward the mines at Butte in 1881.  Monica had a second life as a highway stop on the old U.S. Highway 91 that paralleled the tracks, as evident in the old garages left behind.

The next town north on the corridor created by the railroad/highway/interstate is Lima, IMG_3369which possesses a Montana welcome center and rest stop.  That’s important because at this stop you also can find one of the state’s mid-20th century examples of a tourist welcome center, which has been moved to this stop and then interpreted as part of the state’s evolving roadside architecture.

Lima is a classic symmetrical-plan railroad town, the plan favored by the engineers of the Utah and Northern as the railroad moved into Montana.  The west side of the tracks, where the two-lane U.S. Highway 91 passed, was the primary commercial district, with several brick and frame two-story buildings ranging from the 1880s to the 1910s.

Lima west of tracks Peat Hotel and bar

Lima west of tracks 2 Peat Hotel and bar

The east side, opposite old U.S. Highway 91, was a secondary area; the Lima Historical Society is trying to keep an old 1880s building intact for the 21st century.

The town’s comparative vitality is shown by its metal Butler Building-like municipal building, and historic churches, ranging from a early 20th century shingle style to a 1960s contemporary style Gothic church of the Latter Day Saints.

The town’s pride naturally is its school, which developed from the early 20th century two-story brick schoolhouse to become the town’s center of community.

Lima school

Eight miles to the north is a very different historic schoolhouse, the one-story brick Dell school (1903), which had been converted into a wonderful cafe when I stopped in 1984.  It is still a great place–if you don’t stop here for pie or a caramel roll (or both), you goofed.

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The Calf-A is not the only place worth a look at Dell, a tiny railroad town along the historic Utah and Northern line, with the Tendroy Mountains in the background.  Dell still has its UPRR line at Dell

post office, within its one store, its community hall, and a good steakhouse dive, the false-front Stockyard Inn.  But most importantly, for an understanding of the impact of World

War II on Montana, Dell has an air-strip, which still contains its 1940s B-17 Radar base, complete with storehouse–marked by the orange band around the building–and radar tower.  Kate Hampton of the Montana State Historic Preservation Office in 2012 told me to be of the lookout for these properties.  Once found throughout Montana, and part of the guidance system sending planes northward, many have disappeared over the years.  Let’s hope the installation at Dell remains for sometime to come.

B-17 base landscape, Dell

There are no more towns between Dell and Dillon but about halfway there is the Clark Canyon Reservoir, part of the reshaping of the northwest landscape by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1960s.  The bureau in 1961-1964 built the earthen dam and created the

reservoir, which inundated the small railroad town of Armstead, and led to the re-routing of U.S. Highway 91 (now incorporated into the interstate at this point).

Clark Canyon Reservoir, reclamationThe reclamation project, which stored water for irrigation, also covered the site of Camp Fortunate, a very important place within the larger narrative of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its relationships and negotiations with the Shoshone Indians.  An early

 

effort to mark and interpret the site came from the Daughters of the American Revolution, who not surprisingly focused on the Sacajawea story.  Reclamation officials added other markers after the construction of the dam and reservoir.

In this century the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail has added yet another layer of public interpretation in its attempt to tell the whole story of the expedition and its complicated relations with the Native Americans of the region.

North of Dillon along the old route of U.S. Highway 91 and overlooking the corridor of the Utah and Northern Railroad is another significant Lewis and Clark site, known as Clark’s Lookout, which was opened to the public during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial of the early 21st century.

The lookout is one of the exciting historic sites that have been established in Montana in the 30 years since my initial survey for the state historic preservation plan.  Not only does the property interpret an important moment in the expedition’s history–from this vantage point William Clark tried to understand the countryside before him and the best direction to take–it also allows visitors to literally walk in his footsteps and imagine the same perspective.

Of course what Clark viewed, and what you might see, are vastly different–the tracks of the Utah and Northern, then route of old U.S. 91 are right up front, while the town of Dillon creeps northward toward the lookout.

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Our last stop for part one of Beaverhead’s country towns is Glen, a village best accessed by old U. S. Highway 91.  A tiny post office marks the old town. Not far away are two historic IMG_3164

North of Glen you cross the river along old U.S. Highway 91 and encounter a great steel tress bridge, a reminder of the nature of travel along the federal highways of the mid-20th century.

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