Sunday, January 31, 2010

Forsyth in '83 ...

Since I recently posted a description here of a fictional frontier town on the Yellowstone, I thought today I'd give you a non-fictional one as a counterpoint. This is another excerpt from E.C. Abbott's engaging reminiscence, We Pointed Them North ... here, he recalls a trip to the new town of Forsyth back in 1883:
I paid a visit to Forsyth about a year ago, and the people there were talking to me about "old-timers" who came into the country in the late nineties, or even as late as 1910. When our outfit got up there in the fall of '83, Forsyth had a store, two saloons, a barber shop, a livery stable, and a hotel that was closed up -- the buffalo hunters having quit. The only women in the town were the storekeeper's wife, and a fat old haybag who had been scalped by the Indians at the mouth of the Musselshell a few years before, and was laying up with the barber. She had another one of those nicknames you can't repeat, much less print it. What there was of the town was strung out along one side of the railroad track the way it is today, only they have a nice park there now. The Northern Pacific was completed through Montana that year, and President Arthur took a trip over the line to celebrate it. I remember when I went to Forsyth to shoe a horse that fall, somebody said, "The President's coming through here on the train." So I waited to see it, and it came through all decorated with flags.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hotel Deer Lodge ...

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of old signs ... they're very intriguing visually, and they have the ability to evoke an earlier time in a way that few other things can. Here's a shot of another one that I've always liked.

The Hotel Deer Lodge was a classic downtown hostelry in its namesake city, a hub of activity there for the better part of a century. By the time I got to know it in the 1980s, though, it was down on its luck ... by then, it was a faded, mostly residential property, and most of the travelers stayed at the Super 8 out by the freeway. The hotel closed not long after that, and it's been sitting there empty ever since.

Up till the end, though, it was still the local Greyhound bus terminal, and I remember another big old sign in the lobby, next to what once might have been a transportation desk. All the bus schedules were listed there, but there were train schedules, too ... even though no passenger trains stopped in Deer Lodge anymore. A couple of the trains on the sign, in fact, had been gone since the 1950s. For some reason, I really liked that.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lone Tree Bench ...

Just a quick, random photo for today ... I took this shot a couple of years ago at the old Lone Tree Bench school, out in far southern Blaine county. It's a little one-room building, and it closed (probably for good) a few years ago ... perhaps the most remote little schoolhouse in a state that's known for remote little schoolhouses.

And yep, this is a self-portrait.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The best bookstore ...

As in the rest of America, the days of the independent bookstore in Montana appear to be numbered ... doomed to extinction by the likes of Barnes & Noble and There are still a couple of fairly-good local places to buy books here in Bozeman, but that's not the case for most of Montana's cities and towns.

There's only one bookstore in all of Montana that I consider a destination in its own right, and its in a fairly unlikely spot: the little town of Alberton. There, the Montana Valley Bookstore has packed an old storefront with well over 100,000 used books, stuffing a maze of narrow, floor-to-ceiling shelves that extend even into the cellar. It's dim and musty and there's a resident cat -- a browser's dream, and one of the greatest ways to spend an hour or two that I can think of.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Frenchman's Ford ...

Nowadays, the mention of a novel about a western cattle drive usually refers to Lonesome Dove, but a century ago the book to read was The Log of a Cowboy, by a Colorado author named Andy Adams. Published in 1903, the book recalls a cattle drive from Texas to northern Montana ... it's fiction, but loosely based on some of Adams' own experiences.

The last few chapters of the book describe a northward trek across the middle of Montana, and include some of the volume's most evocative passages. Here's a frequently-excerpted section recounting a visit to a mythical town called Frenchman's Ford, which would have been on the Yellowstone River somewhere near present-day Custer:
We had left word with Honeyman what horses we wanted to ride that afternoon, and lost little time in changing mounts; then we all set out to pay our respects to the mushroom village on the Yellowstone. Most of us had money; and those of the outfit who had returned were clean shaven and brought the report that a shave was two-bits and a drink the same price. The town struck me as something new and novel, two thirds of the habitations being of canvas. Immense quantities of buffalo hides were drying or already baled, and waiting transportation as we afterward learned to navigable points on the Missouri. Large bull trains were encamped on the outskirts of the village, while many such outfits were in town, receiving cargoes or discharging freight. The drivers of these ox trains lounged in the streets and thronged the saloons and gambling resorts. The population was extremely mixed, and almost every language could be heard spoken on the streets. The men were fine types of the pioneer, -- buffalo hunters, freighters, and other plainsmen, though hardly as picturesque in figure and costume as a modern artist would paint them. For native coloring, there were typical specimens of northern Indians, grunting their jargon amid the babel of other tongues; and groups of squaws wandered through the irregular streets in gaudy blankets and red calico. The only civilizing element to be seen was the camp of engineers, running the survey of the Northern Pacific railroad.

Tying our horses in a group to a hitch-rack in the rear of a saloon called The Buffalo Bull, we entered by a rear door and lined up at the bar for our first drink since leaving Ogalalla. Games of chance were running in the rear for those who felt inclined to try their luck, while in front of the bar, against the farther wall, were a number of small tables, around which were seated the patrons of the place, playing for the drinks. One couldn't help being impressed with the unrestrained freedom of the village, whose sole product seemed to be buffalo hides. Every man in the place wore the regulation six-shooter in his belt, and quite a number wore two. The primitive law of nature known as self-preservation, was very evident in August of '82 at Frenchman's Ford. It reminded me of the early days at home in Texas, where, on arising in the morning, one buckled on his six-shooter as though it were part of his dress.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Landmark ...

Highway 89 is my favorite north-south drive across Montana, and here's a photo of my favorite landmark among the way. This is the old St. John's Catholic Church in Ringling, resting atop a little hill overlooking the dying town.

It's been decades since the church saw regular use, and when I took this shot 15 years ago the place was looking pretty rough. But people have been taking more of an interest in the building since then, and today it's looking sharp with fresh paint and a new roof. I'm very glad the church is being taken care of, of course ... but still, I have to say it looked way more atmospheric back then.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fifth Avenue ...

Here's another in the series of photos of the Fort Peck Dam area taken by Harold Booth back in 1934. This is a shot of the construction-workers town of New Deal -- a street that, according to Booth, was called "Fifth Avenue." Not a bad collection of outhouses, at all ...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

By George, I'm free ....

A few weeks ago, I mentioned A. B. Guthrie's famous novel, The Big Sky, and told how the book's name reportedly came from a declaration made by Guthrie's father on his first morning in Montana. Here's how Guthrie himself recalled that story, as told in his 1965 autobiography, The Blue Hen's Chick:
If my father did indeed feel alien in these physical surroundings, it wasn't for long. He used to tell me abut his first morning in Choteau.

He had arisen early and gone outside. The air he inhaled cheered him as no air had before. Five miles southward rose two lonely buttes, which in that atmosphere he estimated to be about a mile away. All up and down the western skyline stood the great blue lift of the Rocky Mountains. Benches climbed from he valley of the Teton River and to the east leveled into flatlands that ran out of sight. Overhead -- you could almost say on all sides, too -- was the sky -- deeper, bluer, bigger than he had ever known.

The breathed the air. He looked. He heard the ring of silence. He felt somehow afloat in space. A shudder shook him, the shudder of delight. He stretched his arms wide and said aloud, "By George, I'm free!"

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Grain elevators ...

There's no doubt at all that the grain elevator is the manmade feature most associated with Montana's agricultural landscape. They're extraordinarily evocative things, standing tall and brave and often alone against a mostly-horizontal horizon. Mostly, the elevators were tied to the railroads and the small towns that grew up along their lines ... and as the towns faded away, sometimes the elevator was all that was left.

This is a photo I took last fall of the elevator in Ross Fork, a town that -- like many -- probably never amounted to much. The post office there closed 40 years ago, and today it's basically just a farmyard, with the old railway depot turned into a storage shed. But the elevator is still there, easily the grandest site for a good long ways.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Prairie winter ...

This is a photo I took last November while wandering along a dirt road in far northeastern Yellowstone County. The view, inadequately captured here, was another reminder to me of the beauty of our prairies, and the vastness of our sky.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Louis Hill ...

Sometimes an old photograph is interesting for its subject matter ... and other times an image is appealing for its beauty. The best ones, of course, have both those traits, and I think today's photo is one of those.

This is a shot taken roughly a century ago, almost certainly somewhere in Glacier National Park. The composition is interesting, with its emphasis on the reflection in the water, but the shot becomes more intriguing when you learn the identity of the man on horseback. That's Louis HIll, one of the sons of James J. Hill, the builder of the Great Northern Railway.

Louis Hill succeeded his father as president of the Great Northern, but here in Montana he was known primarily as an advocate for Glacier National Park -- both for its establishment, and for the network of railway-built hotels and chalets that existed there. As much as anyone, this is the man responsible for Glacier's status as the state's best-known tourist attraction.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Maps and computers ...

I've confessed to my fondness for maps more than once before here, I think ... both old ones and new ones. As a group, there's no doubt that they're the greatest form of recreational reading ever.

Montana maps are especially important to me, both because they're lots of fun to mentally wander through, and because they're practical guides to my ongoing roadtrips. They come in all sorts of forms -- I've got a small collection of old state highway maps; a set of big old maps of the National Forests; a few old railroad maps; some of Glacier topos; a whole bunch of odds and ends, and a couple of big paperbound atlases that I take with me on drives. (For that, I strongly recommend the volume that Benchmark Maps issued a year or so ago.)

The best close-up maps of the state, of course, are the 1:25,000 quads produced by the USGS, and a full collection of those would be a thing to have ... but both the money and the storage space would be a little much for me. You've been able to view them on the internet for a few years now, but they were hard to find and awkward to navigate. Recently, though, the Montana Historical Society made available a new website that has by far the best online map of Montana I've ever seen.

The site is at, and it's just made for browsing. When you start out, the data you see is that found on the official state highway map, but as you zoom in you begin to see more and more topographic data, and at the maximum zoom you're looking at scans of the USGS topo maps. The whole state is there, and it's a great resource ... and if you're like me you'll be able to spend endless hours wandering around.

(The site has another feature, too ... all of the text from the Historical Society's recent Montana Place Names book, each entry linked to the appropriate spot on the map. That's definitely fun, too ... but I have to confess the place names book was disappointing to me, and here the map itself is definitely the great attraction.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Vintage ...

There's something really special about a photograph that was taken a long time ago, and has the scars to prove it ... fading and scratches and stains and flawed processing. It's the very definition of character, and its something that today's digital images and Photoshopping will never be able to match.

Today's photo is a fine and evocative example. It's a shot of the Clark Fork River just outside of Thompson Falls, taken by a Missoulian named Chauncey Woodworth about 1908. I'm not sure of the exact spot where this image was taken, but much of the river near Thompson Falls is now entombed beneath a reservoir ... so tattered views like this may be all we have left of a very lovely spot.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Up the Clark Fork ...

Though I love taking photographs of Montana roads, not many of my shots include modern highways. Fewer still include the Interstates ... the slash-and-burn construction philosophy behind the things can be devastating to the landscape.

Montana being what it is, though, there are still plenty of settings so lovely they can't be destroyed by even the most malevolent of highway engineers. Here's one of them: this is I-90 a few miles east of Clinton, on a rainy morning in June 2007.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The siphon ...

As with most of the west, irrigation has played an important role in Montana agriculture since nearly the beginning. The earliest irrigation systems in the state were small and straightforward affairs built by local farmers ... but that all changed in the early 20th Century, when a new federal agency called the United States Reclamation Service began developing irrigation projects all over the West. Many of the new federal projects were large and technically complex, and they transformed the business of farming in the areas they served.

The Reclamation Service built a number of irrigation systems in Montana over the years. One of the first was the Huntley Project, just east of Billings along the Yellowstone River. Work on the project started in 1906 and the first water flowed two years later ... and the system is still going strong today, irrigating some 30,000 acres of farmland.

There are lots of pictures of the Huntley Project being built, and technically this isn't a very good one ... but I thought the subject matter was pretty cool. The shot dates from 1907, and shows a newly-finished water flume a few miles northeast of Billings. The thing was built with a siphon in the middle, to allow a farm road to pass above.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lothrop, Montana ...

Only those with a particular interest in American political history are probably familiar with the name Whitaker Chambers these days, but 60 years ago he was a fairly big deal ... a darling of the far right and one of the instigators of the anti-Communist hysteria that characterized the McCarthy era. His best-known writings were very political, of the sort that politically inspired Ronald Reagan.

In his younger days, though, Chambers was definitely a Bohemian ... and an aspiring poet, to boot. His first published work wasn't a political polemic, but rather a subtext-laden stanza of free verse titled "Lothrop, Montana." (Lothrop was a tiny settlement in eastern Mineral County, across the Clark Fork River from Alberton.)

The poem was first printed in the June 30, 1926 issue of The Nation. Here it is:
The cottonwoods, the boy-trees,
Imberbe -- the clean, green, central bodies
Standing apart, freely, freely, but trammeled;
With the branches inter-resting -- for support,
Never for caressing, except the wind blow.
And yet, leaning so fearfully into one another,
The leaves so pensile, so tremulously hung, as they lean toward one another;
Unable to strain further into one another
And be apart;
Held back where in the earth their secret roots
Wrap one about another, interstruggle and knot; the vital filaments
Writhing in struggle; heavy, fibrous, underearthen life,
From which the sap mounts filling those trembling leaves
Of the boy-trees, the cottonwoods.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rocky Mountain front ...

In case anyone is wondering, I thought today I'd show you the original image that's used as the header photograph for this site. It's a shot of the Rocky Mountain front, taken last spring from the highway near Choteau.

I know I've said this before, but in many ways the drive from Wolf Creek to Browning is my very favorite in the whole state ... the mountains on one side, and the prairies on the other. It's quintessential Montana, for sure.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cooke City ...

I've always liked the little town of Cooke City, up in the mountains near the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone Park. It's a quirky old place, and probably has been ever since it was founded as a mining camp back in 1882. Today, it exists mostly on the tourist trade -- Yellowstone visitors, hunters, and snowmobilers -- and has a year-round population of maybe 100 or so. In some ways it's probably the most remote town in the state, especially in the winter, when the only road access involves a long drive through Yellowstone Park. The place is isolated from the Montana road network year-round ... you have to drive through Wyoming in order to get there.

Here's an old photograph of Cooke City from the Haynes photo collection ... probably taken in the 1920s or so, before the Beartooth Pass road was built and the tourists started showing up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Meet Me in Montana ...

Listening to popular music recorded about Montana, one quickly comes to the conclusion that a surprising proportion of the lyrics are pretty cheesy and ... well, bad. This may be a product of the fact that -- at least until recently -- nearly all of the music about our state was firmly in the country-western genre. (Not that I'm editorializing, or anything ...)

One of the best-known of those songs is "Meet Me in Montana," a duet recorded in 1985 by Dan Seals and Marie Osmond. The song hit #1 on the country charts, and was a much-needed boost for both performers' careers. Like much of the popular music about the state, it played up the idea of Montana as a refuge, a beautiful setting to enjoy a straightforward and honest life ... a place to escape the stress and broken dreams of the big city.

I remember hearing to "Meet Me in Montana" on the radio quite a bit back in the 80s, and having mixed emotions -- happy that a song about my state had made it big, while simultaneously cringing at how awful I thought the music was. But maybe that was just me.

Here's the song's chorus:
Won't you meet me in Montana.
I wanna see the mountains in your eyes.
Woah, woah, I had all of this life I can handle.
Meet me underneath that big Montana sky.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Aliens ...

Today's photo is a frame from from one of the more notorious bits of twentieth-century Montana film ... at least in the eyes of some people.

It's part of a few seconds of 16mm motion-picture film shot on August 15, 1950 by a man named Nicolas Mariana, who at the time was general manager of the Great Falls "Selectrics," a minor-league baseball franchise. Out at the ball field that morning, Mariana looked up into the sky and saw ... flying saucers! Two of them, supposedly, flying around like crazy.

He was able to shoot about 20 seconds of film, which he eventually sent off to the Air Force along with a report. The government decided that the footage just showed reflected light from a couple of planes from the local Air Force Base, and eventually they returned the film -- but by then, several of the most detailed frames were supposedly missing. This, of course, became prime fodder for conspiracy theorists, and among the UFO faithful the controversy continues to this day. (And there have been a number of other UFO sightings in Great Falls in the years since ... the place isn't quite Roswell, but it's close!)

Here's one of the exposures from the film. The metal thing at the bottom of the image is ventilation equipment atop a nearby roof, and the two bright white dots are -- well, who knows?

Monday, January 11, 2010

The moon ...

Just a quick, random shot this morning ... a photo of gorgeous moon I saw about five years ago while driving out near Milligan Canyon. As usual, I didn't have my tripod with me, and so I just sat my camera on the roof of the car and hoped for the best.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

St. Mary Chalets ...

We'll continue on with the luggage-sticker theme for one more day. This one is also from the 1920s, and advertises the old St. Mary Chalets complex in Glacier Park.

The chalet complex was one of several built by the Great Northern Railway in the 1910s, as it worked to develop Glacier tourism. Located on the south shore of St. Mary Lake, a couple miles west of the current town of St. Mary, the chalet was an important landmark for park travelers in the early years. It was a stopping place on the first road up towards Many Glacier, the terminus of the famed "Inside Trail" horseback route, and the place to catch a boat for the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Chalets. But changing travel patterns and the construction of new highways that bypassed the chalet sealed its fate. The place closed down for good in the 1930s, and it was demolished in 1943. If you hike out to the site today with a sharp eye, you'll be able to spot just a few bricks and bits of debris in the grass.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

See America First ...

Many American travelers in the first part of the Twentieth Century were familiar with the advertising phrase, "See America First." The point behind the slogan was that America's scenic wonders were every bit the equal of those in Europe or elsewhere ... so it made sense to vacation in the U.S.

Credit for inventing the phrase goes to a man named Fred Kiser, who's best remembered for his early photographs of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. "See America First," though, dates from Kiser's earlier photography work for the Great Northern Railway, in particular the images he captured of northwestern Montana. The Great Northern began using "See America First" as an advertising slogan in 1906, and the phrase spread. Kiser's photos were used in the railroad's lobbying campaign for the creation of Glacier Park, and his catchphrase was tied to the park for decades thereafter.

Today's image is a luggage sticker from the 1920s or so, created by the railroad as a promotional item for its travelers.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Winter in Browning ...

I'm still in a winter frame of mind this morning, so I thought I'd share this photo, which is from the noted author James Willard Schultz. This is Browning in the winter of 1937 ... a good reminder that, no matter how cold it is now, at least we don't have to tunnel out of our houses!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cold ...

Well, Montana's in the middle of another week of frigid weather. Not an awful lot of snow -- just a few inches of powder here -- but the temps last night were down to 20 below or worse. I hate being out in it, but I have to admit that it can be rally lovely. When it gets like this, the sun seems unusually bright, the sky especially clear and sharp, the colors especially evocative ... an icy, pale-blue tint to everything.

This is a winter shot I took in the Gallatin Valley a couple years ago. Admittedly, I enhanced the blue tones when I post-processed this image, but still ...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Traveling companion ...

Since most of you haven't met me in person, I thought I'd introduce my traveling companion to you -- the good friend who's been with me when I've taken the vast majority of these Montana photos. Everyone, say hello to Miles the Dog.

Miles is a Border Collie, rescued from the animal shelter by a friend and then given to me when things didn't work out. He's been my partner in crime since 2003, and we've shared lots of great adventures together.

I took this shot of Miles about five years ago, as we explored the winter streets of Virginia City. Today, Miles is an old dog and his health is failing ... but he's still happy, and still a great companion, and still always up for a hike or a roadtrip.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Patsy ...

I always keep an eye out for interesting music with a Montana theme ... either local subject matter or the work of a Montana artist. It's a little more challenging to find that sort of stuff on the web nowadays, though, because you have to wade through a zillion links for "Hannah Montana" -- and for now, at least, I don't think that she counts.

But of course, Hannah isn't breaking new ground, here ... lots of other people have created stage names and fictional characters attached to our state. Until recent years, at least, the best-known was probably a country singer named Patsy Montana. She was big back in the 30s, and really didn't have much to do with Montana at all -- her real name was Ruby Blevins, and she was born in Arkansas, and mostly lived in California. But she needed a stage name that was evocative and Western, and "Montana" was an obvious choice.

(Patsy reportedly chose her new last name in honor of the famous movie stuntman Monte Montana, who of course wasn't really named Montana, either! But Monte, at least, was born in Wolf Point.)

Patsy Montana is best remembered for her song, "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," but she also had at least one hit with Montana lyrics. One of her first songs was called "Back On Montana Plains," which was actually just a reworking of an earlier song about the plains down in Texas. Here's a sample stanza ... the yodeling that Patsy interjected between the song's verses was impossible to transcribe, so you'll just have to visualize that.
Each night in my dreams, somehow it seems
I'm back where I belong
Just a country hick, way back in the sticks
Back where I belong
These city lights, and these city ways
They're driving me insane
Oh I want to go back, oh please take me back
Back to Montana plains

Monday, January 4, 2010

Small-town winter ...

Though the days are slowly starting to get longer as we enter the new year ... we're definitely not out of the winter woods yet, and Montana's small towns have a few more months of looking like this. A little depressing, perhaps, but still better than anyplace else.

(This is downtown Martinsdale, by the way ... a shot I took back in February 2007.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The forgotten future ...

Yesterday's mention of the Nixon photo collection made me think of another image that Nixon took, one of the most incongruous of the collection ... so I thought I'd post it here before moving on.

Back in 1971, America's passenger rail network was dying. Amtrak had just been created, an event that saw the discontinuance of most of Montana's passenger trains, and many thought that the rest of the trains would soon disappear, as well. The country had just a handful of modern trains back then, operating in the east, and in an effort to generate enthusiasm Amtrak sent one of those on a cross-country tour. This is the "turbotrain" -- it passed through southern Montana in late August 1971, and apparently garnered all sorts of attention. This is a photo Nixon took of the train passing over Evaro Hill.

Of course, passenger trains in America didn't end up (quite) dying ... but the turbotrain didn't up being the future of American travel, either. Nowadays, there are people lobbying for restoration of passenger trains across southern Montana. I doubt that it will happen for a while, and if it does I doubt that our train will look this cool ... but we could do a lot worse.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Photo archives ...

There's nothing more evocative than browsing through a stack of historic photographs ... and nowadays a number of museums and archives are making their photo collections available on the Internet, which is a truly wonderful thing. There are a number of online repositories of Montana-related images, and while a couple of them are really badly done (I'm looking at you, Livingston), most of them are great, good for hours of nostalgic browsing.

One of my favorite such sites is maintained by the Museum of the Rockies, which holds the photo collection of the late Ron Nixon, one of the state's greatest railroad photographers. There are over 20,000 images in the Nixon collection, and the Museum has put nearly 12,000 of them online ... mostly from Montana, and mostly quite intriguing.

Here's a photo from the Nixon collection that's one of my favorites -- it's a shot of a Northern Pacific coal train heading out of Forsyth on February 20, 1939.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Year ...

I was sitting here this morning, trying to think of a photo that would be good to post on the first day of the year ... and this is the one that came to mind. I took it back in 2007, on an old dirt road that headed down from the Bangtails into Bridger Canyon.