Transformations of Montana Avenue

3-billings1883

Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

billings-map-1904

Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

HPIM0183.JPG

HPIM0178.JPG

No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Yellowstone Gateways: Gardiner

HPIM0597.JPGThe most popular Montana gateway into Yellowstone National Park is at Gardiner, in the southern tip of Park County.  Here is where the Northern Pacific Railway stopped its trains, at a Rustic styled passenger station long ago demolished, and travelers passed through the gate above–designed by architect Robert Reamer–and started their journey into the park.

img_2966By the mid-20th century, Gardiner had become a highway town, the place in-between the beautiful drive through the Paradise Valley on U.S. Highway 89 (now a local paved road)

img_2973

to the northern edge of the national park boundary.  Here at Gardiner, there are two rather distinct zones of tourism development.  On the north side of the Yellowstone River along U.S. 89 is a mid to late 20th century roadside landscape, including such classic bits of roadside architecture as the Hillcrest Motel and Cabins, the Jim Bridger Motor Lodge, and the Absaroka Lodge as well as a plethora of other visitor services

img_2965

img_2970

img_2964

On the south side river, closest to the park entrance, is an earlier layer of commercial development, ranging from the turn of the 20th century to the early years of the 21st century.  A major change in the last 30 years is how this section of town has been remodeled and rebuilt (such as the modern Rustic style of the Yellowstone Association building below) with a wholly new streetscape and road plan installed c. 2015.

img_2954

img_2951

Yet, mixed in with all of tourism businesses, are community institutions that have served local residents for decades.  My favorite is the Gardiner Community Center, built in 1910 as an opera house but transformed into a community building by the Fraternal Order of Eagles when it took over the building’s management in 1928.  The building has served the community as a school, with basketball games in the large open hall, and then for many other community functions and as home to the local WFW chapter.  The Greater Gardiner Community Center acquired this landmark in 2015 and is developing plans for its restoration and revitalization, good news indeed.

img_2961

Another key community institution with Gardiner’s trademark stonework comes from the second half of the 20th century, St. Williams Catholic Church.

img_2967

Recent and on-going local efforts to re-energize the historic town should meet with success, for there are significant historic commercial buildings, dwellings, and public buildings on both sides of the Yellowstone River.

img_2957The plan to develop a new Gardiner library at the old Northern Pacific depot site at part of the Gardiner Gateway Project is particularly promising, giving the town a new community anchor but also reconnecting it to the railroad landscape it was once part of. Something indeed to look for when I next visit this Yellowstone Gateway.

 

 

Chico Hot Springs

chico-84-d-2

During my historic preservation plan travels across Montana in 1984-1985, the old hot springs hotel shown above–Chico Hot Springs near the Yellowstone River in the Paradise Valley of Park County–was a certain destination.  My colleague at the state historic preservation office, Lon Johnson, encouraged me to stop–not only did the place have the best food in the region it also was cheap lodging, for one of the old single rooms without bath upstairs. the first visit hooked me–and ever since Chico Hot Springs has always been my number one stop when planning any of my return visits to Big Sky Country.

img_4085

Chico Hot Springs in 1988.

Chico was among my top recommendations for a future listing in the National Register of Historic Places–and it was finally listed in the National Register in 1998–almost at the time of the 100th anniversary of the hotel.  Locals had taken advantage of the natural hot spring as soon as miners began to flood Emigrant Gulch in the 1860s.  But there was little development, largely because Hunter’s Hot Springs, near Springdale to the northeast in Park County, was already established as the region’s premier resort.  Not until 1900 was the springs’ commercial potential developed.  That was when Percy Matheson Knowles and William Knowles built the Colonial Revival-styled hotel–but a loose colonial feel to the exterior with a much more rustic style interior.  At the time of my first visits in the early 1980s, the place had gained some fame, not only for its scenes in the cult western movie Rancho Deluxe but as a genuine place of history and relaxation on the northern gateway into Yellowstone National Park.

With fame and increased visitation came changes–new wings with much more modern amenities, additional fancy cabins, even a spa. Once there had been the restaurant, the

pool, and the horse rides for entertainment.  Chico was a stop over, or a good night out.  Now it was a destination in its own right. But the changes, for me, have meant little–I still go there for the welcome and comfort of the lobby, the good food and drink, a chance

img_3479

img_0083

to sit in the pool or out on the porch, and to think about old hot springs hotels like this place–where travelers had stopped for over 100 years, to take in the waters, have a drink, and relish the wildness of the west.  Chico since the early 1980s is not quite so wild–except in the winter months when many tourists are gone, and the place reverts back to the locals for a few months.  But to my mind, anytime is a good time to stop and stay awhile.

 

Livingston: the river side of town

Park Co Livingston catholic school 1Livingston’s town plan from 1882 was all about the railroad, with the adjacent Yellowstone River an afterthought, at best an impediment since it defined the south end of town.  So far from the tracks to be of little worth to anyone, few paid it any attention.  100 years later when I am considering the town for the state historic preservation, I too was all about the railroad and the metropolitan corridor of which it was part.  I paid no attention to the river.  The town’s schools were on this end, but they were “modern” so did not capture my attention.

Park Co Livingston L&C at Yellowstone 3Consequently I missed a bit part of the town’s story, the effort to reform the landscape and create public space during the New Deal era.  The Works Progress Administration (WPA) transformed this part of town from 1935 to 1938 expanding an earlier public park into today’s Sacajawea Park.

The agency built a diversion dam on the river to create the lagoon for Sacajawea Lake, and added a lovely rustic-styled stone bridge.  Later improvements came in 1981.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal pool

As in many other communities across the nation, the agency also added a modern outdoor swimming pool, and bathhouse.  Plus it built a public amphitheater–several of these still exist in Montana.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 6The major addition, however, was the large combination Civic Center and National Guard Armory, an Art Deco-styled building that cost an estimated $100,000 in 1938.  It too survives and is in active use by the community.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 1Tourists now come to this area more often than in the past due to additions made during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in the early 21st century.  The park is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Park Co Livingston L&C at Yellowstone 2

Local sources funded the additional of an interpretive memorial and statue in honor of the July 1806 stop at this place by Sacajawea and her baby Pomp. Mary Michael is the sculptor. The result is a reinvigorated

public space, not only due to the history markers about Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, and Pomp, but also the obvious community pride in this connection between town, river, and mountains.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 9

 

South of the Yellowstone in Stillwater County

2011 MT Stillwater county 012

The Yellowstone River, along with the parallel tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad, divides Stillwater County, with the south side of the county more mountainous but with the rich Stillwater River Valley coming out of the mountains to meet the Yellowstone at Columbus, the county seat.  Let’s talk about two towns along the river valley that were once down but now more vibrant than 30 years ago due to the population growth in the southern end of the county.

IMG_5857Absorkee began in the mid-1890s after another taking of lands from the Crow Reservation.  The Oliver Hovda house, a Classical Revival-styled residence on the main artery of Woodard Street, dates to c. 1900 and was built by local carpenter Jacob Wagner.  Listed in the National Register, the big yellow house, as it is known locally, remains the town’s primary domestic architecture landmark.

IMG_5862

IMG_5858

IMG_5863Just steps away are an array of masonry commercial buildings, not finished to the degree that you find north in Columbus but still substantial buildings from c. 1910-1920 that reflect the determination of town boosters to show permanence and seriousness in this small country town. The 5 Spot is the town’s iconic bar, just as welcoming in 2014 as it had been in 1984.

IMG_5848

IMG_5854The town’s school is its pride and joy (I apologize for the distance images with fences but school was in session when I visited in May).  Among the historic school buildings is a 1903 two-room section, see below, and then what is known as the Cobblestone School, a more modern building constructed in 1921 with river cobblestones as the primary exterior wall treatment.  W. R. Plew, an engineer at Montana State University, promoted good rural school designed and is credited with this striking building.

IMG_5850Historic churches also define Absorkee’s built environment, no more so than the historic Emmanuel Lutheran Church, with its soaring Gothic steeple but also its modern c. 1970 concrete block screen, an unusual but effective combination of styles and materials.

IMG_5844Further south along the Stillwater River is Fishtail, a place that in 1984 I noticed more for its sleepy general store (c. 1900) but now a town that is much more alive with residents and visitors.  The re-energized store, who got new owners in 2000, is a large part of that as is the general boom in recreational opportunities and offerings in the Fishtail to Nye section of the Stillwater River Valley.

IMG_5845

IMG_5846The rustic-styled front to the Community Hall speaks to the permanent residents while the sprawling Cowboy Bar attracts visitors and locals.  The south side of Stillwater County may be cut off from the mainstream of Montana life since the railroad and interstate are north of the Yellowstone River, but in the last 30 years its sense of itself has grown and is embodied by the care shown many of its community landmarks.

Miles City’s first steps in preservation, 1984

When I next returned to Miles City in March 1984, I found a town much interested in the promise of historic preservation.  At that time, the town and Custer County as a whole only had three properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places:  Fort Keogh, a steam laundry building (since demolished), and the city waterworks along the Yellowstone river.

Miles City Water Treatment Plant, c. 1911

Miles City Water Treatment Plant, c. 1911

This local landmark, which had been converted into the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center, came out of Miles City’s golden decade of the 1910s when the town boomed following the arrival of the Milwaukee Road, the railroad’s decision to turn the town into a division point, and the potential of new business brought about by the arrival of thousands of homesteaders either on the Milwaukee line or the earlier Northern Pacific Railroad, which had done so much to establish and develop the town from 1882 forward.

IMG_7017

The Pumping Station park at the waterworks dates to 1939, another public project of the New Deal which did so much to transform the town and county.

The public meeting for the preservation plan took place at the waterworks, organized by the director of the Custer County Arts and Heritage Center (now known as Waterworks Art Museum).  It was a lively and interested crowd, like me concerned about the fate of Fort Keogh and its rapidly disappearing historic buildings and what still remained in town of its railroad era of 1882 to 1932.

IMG_7000

The fort property had been accidentally preserved for decades, ever since its conversion into an agricultural experiment station in the 1920s.  But preserving what had been left was not a priority of the agricultural reformers (who, to be fair, were never awash in funding).

IMG_7003

The tall metal flag pole marks the old parade grounds at Fort Keogh.

In 1984, one officer quarters still remained on the property, in poor repair.  It has been moved a few miles down the highway and restored at the Range Riders Museum.

Photo taken from Range Riders Museum website

Photo taken from Range Riders Museum website

One historic c. 1920 mess hall, from the fort’s remount era, also remains, and is the post’s most noticeable landmark.  But one brick water wagon shed from 1883 still exists (it was converted into a truck garage in the 1930s) as well as another New Deal building, a massive horse barn from 1934.

IMG_7001

The mess hall, c. 1920, at Fort Keogh

The group that night at the waterworks emphasized that they knew more needed to be done, and over the next generation, town residents have done impressive work, especially considering that the town’s population has been in decline, from about 9600 in 1980 to 8400 in 2010.  The arts center no doubt showed significant leadership:  how a historic building could be converted into new community uses.  But one ringleader also introduced himself to me that evening–Dave Rivenes.  Dave and Ella Rivenes were community institutions as owners/operators of the local television station, representing the smallest television market in the entire United States.

Miles City Dave and Ella Rivenes

As soon as the meeting was over, Dave convinced me to come to his house, and go on the air, discussing for the local audience what had happened that night.  He and Ella then put me on the morning show.  Not having any experience before with live television, I hope that I sounded somewhat with it–it was a surreal experience.  But the pride in the town and the appreciation for the past that I gained from Dave and Ella Rivenes left a lasting mark.  I came to understand that when residents embrace their past, and you help them in that quest, good things for history and preservation can happen.  That is apparent in what Miles City has accomplished in historic preservation over the last 30 years–the subject of my next several posts.

Crossroads of history: where the Yellowstone and Powder rivers meet

IMG_7120
The confluence of the Yellowstone and Powder rivers in Prairie County, Montana, is among the most important places of the American West. Thirty years ago, in my work for the Montana state historic preservation plan, I went to that spot, easily viewed from old U.S. Highway 10, and found only a couple of lonely graves–marked by the county historical society–of buffalo hunters who had ranged this land in the late 1870s. That night, at my public meeting at the Prairie County Museum in Terry, I brought up that place to the folks gathered there, chiding gently, I thought, that there should be some highway markers to direct visitors to that spot, that it was very important and quite a compelling view of the landscape itself. What happened next was a laconic comment that I have told on myself ever since: one community member just replied: “Son, we know where they are.” Of course–I have never forgotten that lesson–locals do know where their history took place; markers are necessary, not for them, but for us, the outsiders, the visitors.
IMG_7119
Fast forward 30 years, and the confluence is no longer neglected–now it is one of the best interpreted landscapes in eastern Montana. The Prairie County Grazing District worked with the Montana Department of Transportation and other partners to create a graveled pull-off from the old highway, and then installed not only an appropriate fence around the graves, but also several interpretive signs that tell the multi-layered history of the site.
IMG_7123
The story here is big, and the markers do a solid job of capturing it, from the early Native American history to the coming of Captain William Clark during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the later fur trading era of the mid-19th century, and then the marks you can still see on the landscape made first by the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s and from the federal highway era of the early 20th century. It gives particular focus to the Sioux War of the 1870s and how this spot served as a base–known as the Powder River Depot–for 1876-1877 military actions by Terry, Crook, Custer, and others. A good way to access the river is by the Powder River Depot Fishing Access site.
IMG_4223
Nearby, back on the highway, is a key transportation landmark, the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Powder River–it was the railroad that introduced a new era of settlement and development into this region. And I will return to the theme of the railroad and its significance as we continue westward to Miles City.
IMG_7125