Montana – Havre Beneath the Streets

Some days there are a lot of miles between stops, so when a town presents itself we take a little time to cruise its main streets and business district to see what we might discover.  Chinook, Montana, has a population of about 1,200 and is the county seat.  It also won our award for having the Best Neon Bar Sign.  The Elk Bar sign hosts a cocktail-drinking cowgirl sitting in a martini glass, pistol on hip, booted foot kicked up and hat in hand.  She is clearly enjoying her time off the trail.  Our girl’s colors may have faded a bit, but not her enthusiasm for martinis.  The bar closed years ago, but Don found a little souvenir in the antique shop that occupies the storefront today. 

About twenty miles south of here is the site of the Battle of Bear Paw where the U.S. Army finally cornered Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his people.  After their 1,200-mile trek from Idaho, all the way holding off the U.S. forces in pursuit, they were stopped only about forty miles short of the Canadian border.  Their heroic quest for amnesty ended in bitter defeat here in the Bear Paw Mountains.

 We arrived in Havre, Montana, (pronounced Hav-er) just in time to make reservations for the first Havre Beneath the Streets Tour the next morning.  Then we checked into the AmericInn and quickly headed out to find a restaurant for dinner.  Pickings were slim to dismal, so we bought a salad and a bottle of wine at the local grocery store and drove into McDonald’s for a chicken sandwich.  Who knew that this McDonald’s would be the spiffiest fast food drive thru we have ever encountered with its lush green lawn, flowers, trees and a  splashing three-pillar black stone fountain in the area surrounded by the drive thru…Harve’s version of an oasis.

In the morning while we waited for our Underground Tour to begin, we spent our time in the adjacent Frank DeRosa Railroad Museum and learned that Harve’s existence came from the dream of railroad tycoon, James J. Hill.  In 1887, Hill received permission to build his railroad.  Harve began as a railroad siding and grew to accommodate local homesteaders.  Hill quickly added to this population with the armies of strong men he recruited back in the eastern states and from as far away as Europe and the Orient.

In the museum’s resource library, I found a copy of Dinner in the Diner by Will C. Hollister (published 1967).  The volume is filled with dining car “recipes from America’s era of great trains.”  A recipe for “Corn Bread Pie” caught my eye, especially when the description read that passengers on the B&O Railroad would order seconds of this tasty dish.  I have since served “Corn Bread Pie” to our guests at home, and Hollister was right about people asking for second helpings.

In early western towns, with their quickly built wooden stores and homes, fires were not unusual, but the story before and after Harve’s fire on January 4, 1904, is worth the telling.  First, it starts with two cowboys who were known to be tough characters drinking in a bar.  When their antics got out of hand, they were thrown out of the bar.  Rather than sober up, they commenced to cook up a plan to burn the place down, so they crept back in the middle of the night, splashed gasoline on the establishment and lit a match. 

About the time the flames rose, a full-scale Montana chinook roared into town and spread the fire so quickly that by morning the entire downtown business district (five to seven blocks) was destroyed.  No one was killed and not a single home was burned. 

An interesting note about the fire was that the wind moved it so quickly that the upper portion of the structures burned…leaving behind their hardwood floors.  Hardwood burns slowly, and the speed of the fire and the water that had been used to fight the fire helped keep these floors intact.  So, many of these resilient businessmen and merchants swept off the ashes and quickly reopened for business in their basements. 

The railroad had also built passageways and rooms underground for their Chinese workers who faced terrible hostility and beatings if they were seen on the streets, especially at night.  Suddenly, all of this underground real estate became the lifeblood of Harve, allowing businesses like Pioneer Meat Market, Casady Blacksmith Shop, Sporting Eagle Saloon, Wah Sing Laundry, a bordello and even an opium den to flourish.  Eventually, the merchants rebuilt and business was moved upstairs again. 

Harve recovered and flourished during that era with its population growth even being celebrated in song.  The town has continued to grow with a population today just under 10,000.   We enjoyed this unusual tour and the stories of these plucky, strong-willed survivors.

Back on Route 2 we were traveling along the Hi-Line, originally the Great Northern Railway now the Burlington Northern / Santa Fe that runs from Minneapolis all the way to Seattle.  Parallel to the road was a sixteen- to eighteen-mile line of empty railcars sitting on a single railroad track.  They were being stored until needed again in the spring when they would carry containers and trailers across vast stretches of track.  

Another brief stop along the route brought us to Malta, Montana, and the Phillips County Museum and the Great Plaines Dinosaur Museum.  While Don went in to inquire about a long gun owned by George Frances, a famed Harve area rodeo rider and cattle rustler, I spent time looking at the restored sheepherders’ wagons they had on display.  The wagons brought to mind Ivan Doig’s Dancing at Rascal Fair and Whistling Season, books that reflect the spirit of the author who lived in and loved this big open land. 

I was amused by the broom hanging by the door on one of the wagons, knowing how little floor space there was inside to sweep.  We had seen several of these wagons in museums, but most had been in disrepair with their canvas tops torn and hanging in tatters down from the wooden ribs.  These two had undergone complete restoration and were outfitted as though still in use by herders up in the mountains as they and their dogs moved with the sheep during the summer grazing season.  Many of the sheepherders were Basques who had settled in this region, in part because it felt similar to their homes in the Pyrenees Mountains, and these wagons were styled after the ones they used back home.

The wagon itself is built on a narrow frame then mushrooms out above the wheels.  Storage boxes run the length of the sides and wooden ribs covered with canvas form the roof.  Within this tiny space a man would live from spring through fall, traveling from one remote mountain pasture to another through all kinds of Montana weather. 

In my broom-enhanced wagon, a small cook stove sits to the right of the door, complete with four lids on the surface for cooking and a small oven for baking biscuits, bread, and even pastries.  The vent was wrapped with a heat shield where it rose through the canvas roof.  Above the stove, a small shelf and cabinet held supplies, and a clothes line ran the length of the wagon with a dish towel and washed garments hung within handy reach.  Beyond the stove there was a short bench with storage underneath.  Across the back of the cabin was the bed, a wooden platform with a mattress on top and a small window above.  Under the bed were drawers and cabinets for clothing and other supplies.  A bench with more storage ran the length of the third wall and a tabletop slid out from under the bed platform.  The two-part door was practical in that it allowed for air circulation in good weather, and this was where the sheepherder stood when he drove his horse or mule as it pulled the wagon across the mountain trails. 

In all, there wasn’t much more room than we have in our little Honda FIT, and that was where the shepherd would live and store what would be needed over the summer months, including necessities like a veterinary kit for treating his animals.  From time to time, the rancher would send someone up to check on him and the flock, and they would bring bacon, beans, flour and other essentials.  It was a lonely and isolated life…but some men preferred it that way.

This was our last stop in Montana for this trip, so we were about to cross the state’s eastern border and start across the oil fields of North Dakota on our way to Bismarck.  Once again Montana had impressed us with its beauty, history and a tremendous respect for its resilient and resourceful population.

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: This is Part 10 of 12 in our drive from Maine to and from Glacier National Park.  If you would like to follow along with us, the first installment was Des Moines, Iowa, and the next stop is in Bismarck, North Dakota.

One thought on “Montana – Havre Beneath the Streets

  1. I enjoyed Montana. Frank had a Sister and her Family living in Montana for afew years, He enjoyed his visits there.
    The way he liked adventure, he spoke about his time there often. Also a number of our Finnish friends traveled there and came back with interesting tales.


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