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Forsyth, Montana | Montana: The Magazine of Western History | Find ...

Glendive. Forsyth. Billings. Livingston. As the Northern Pacific Railroad laid tracks across the northern plains, it stopped every hundred miles or so to plat a town. With Billings as the successful exception, these Northern Pacific towns-and their sister communities along the Great Northern Railway-had common developmental trajectories. The communities, with their crew change points and repair shops, became division or subdivision headquarters. Bolstered by a steady payroll, they grew into booming mercantile centers and then, almost inevitably, into county seats. Railroads and the business of county government sustained the communities even as drought and low commodity prices made ghost towns of neighboring settlements. Today, their Main Streets still follow the tracks as county courthouses stand tall against the skyline.

Forsyth, Montana, typifies the western railroad town, and its history remains written on the city streets in brick and mortar. The National Park Service recognized how well Forsyth's buildings reflect the community's history when, in 1990, it listed two Forsyth historic districts and ten individual buildings in the National Register of Historic Places, "the Nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation." As its National Register listings attest, Forsyth's historic downtown and residential districts retain the architectural integrity to offer visitors a visual and emotional connection to Montana's past. Armed with a little knowledge, visitors can walk Forsyth's streets and recognize the broad patterns of development and the individual twists of fate that account for the way Forsyth looks today.

Preeminent among these patterns are the town's relationship to transportation corridors: the Yellowstone River, the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee railroads, and, finally, Highway 10 and Interstate 94. William Clark traveled down the Yellowstone in 1806 on his way back from the coast, and the army transported troops and supplies along the Yellowstone in the 18705. Homesteaders had already settled along the river's rich bottomlands when George Armstrong Custer passed through the area on his way to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. However, the birth of Forsyth awaited the arrival of the railroad in 1882, when local rancher Thomas Alexander traded a parcel of land to the Northern Pacific in exchange for other property nearby. The railroad platted a standard western railroad town with a portion reserved for repair shops and a Main Street aligned to the tracks. According to Mark Hufstetler's Forsyth: An Architectural History, merchants and saloonkeepers arrived even before crews finished laying the road, erecting some thirteen canvas tents along Main Street in 1882. Eleven of them housed saloons and gambling halls.

Simple frame, one-story buildings with steeply pitched gable roofs soon replaced the early tent saloons. Typical of Forsyth's first generation buildings is the unassuming Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Hall on 262 South Seventh Avenue. By spells, Forsyth was home to up to forty engineers, who operated their steam-powered locomotives along a hundred-mile stretch of track to a crew change point in Billings. These men donated the lahor and funds to construct the log union hall. Sided and painted later as money allowed, and eventually covered with stucco, the log building was dedicated in August 1886. At the union's request, the Northern Pacific held the trains so that all of the members could attend the ceremony.

Whereas members of the union still occasionally meet in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Hall, Forsyth's other first generation buildings-particularly those on Main Street-soon proved inadequate, and entrepreneurs steadily replaced the early wooden structures with more solid and ornate buildings. The streetscape as it looks today owes much to the rivalry between two of Forsyth's most prominent early businessmen: Minnesota-born Hiram Marcyes and Canadian-born Thomas Alexander. Marcyes was a Civil War veteran, a Mason, a Methodist, and a staunch Republican. Alexander was an ardent Democrat and an early Montana prospector and stockgrower. The two men reportedly tried to top each other at every turn. Both established tent stores during Forsyth's first summer. Both owned mercantiles, and both built hotels, one grander than the next. Both were involved in local politics. Marcyes worked to develop a residential neighborhood south of the tracks; Alexander more successfully developed the residential neighborhood north of the tracks, now the Forsyth Residential Historic District. In the business district, Marcyes and his allies dominated the 800 block of Main Street. Alexander and his allies dominated the 900 block.

Marcyes, who owned a brickyard, constructed the oldest extant brick business block in the district, the 1888 Marcyes Mercantile at 855 Main. It is typical of Forsyth's nineteenth-century brick business buildings, three of which still grace Main Street-845 Main (1895), 855 Main (1888), and 905/923 Main (1891/1912). Constructed of locally manufactured low-fire bricks, these relatively simple two-story structures had a great advantage over the wooden buildings they replaced: they provided some protection from fire.

Glendive. Forsyth. Billings. Livingston. As the Northern Pacific Railroad laid tracks across the northern plains, it stopped every hundred miles or so to plat a town. With Billings as the successful exception, these Northern Pacific towns-and their sister communities along the Great Northern Railway-had common developmental trajectories. The communities, with their crew change points and repair shops, became division or subdivision headquarters. Bolstered by a steady payroll, they grew into booming mercantile centers and then, almost inevitably, into county seats. Railroads and the business of county government sustained the communities even as drought and low commodity prices made ghost towns of neighboring settlements. Today, their Main Streets still follow the tracks as county courthouses stand tall against the skyline.

Forsyth, Montana, typifies the western railroad town, and its history remains written on the city streets in brick and mortar. The National Park Service recognized how well Forsyth's buildings reflect the community's history when, in 1990, it listed two Forsyth historic districts and ten individual buildings in the National Register of Historic Places, "the Nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation." As its National Register listings attest, Forsyth's historic downtown and residential districts retain the architectural integrity to offer visitors a visual and emotional connection to Montana's past. Armed with a little knowledge, visitors can walk Forsyth's streets and recognize the broad patterns of development and the individual twists of fate that account for the way Forsyth looks today.

Preeminent among these patterns are the town's relationship to transportation corridors: the Yellowstone River, the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee railroads, and, finally, Highway 10 and Interstate 94. William Clark traveled down the Yellowstone in 1806 on his way back from the coast, and the army transported troops and supplies along the Yellowstone in the 18705. Homesteaders had already settled along the river's rich bottomlands when George Armstrong Custer passed through the area on his way to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. However, the birth of Forsyth awaited the arrival of the railroad in 1882, when local rancher Thomas Alexander traded a parcel of land to the Northern Pacific in exchange for other property nearby. The railroad platted a standard western railroad town with a portion reserved for repair shops and a Main Street aligned to the tracks. According to Mark Hufstetler's Forsyth: An Architectural History, merchants and saloonkeepers arrived even before crews finished laying the road, erecting some thirteen canvas tents along Main Street in 1882. Eleven of them housed saloons and gambling halls.

Simple frame, one-story buildings with steeply pitched gable roofs soon replaced the early tent saloons. Typical of Forsyth's first generation buildings is the unassuming Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Hall on 262 South Seventh Avenue. By spells, Forsyth was home to up to forty engineers, who operated their steam-powered locomotives along a hundred-mile stretch of track to a crew change point in Billings. These men donated the lahor and funds to construct the log union hall. Sided and painted later as money allowed, and eventually covered with stucco, the log building was dedicated in August 1886. At the union's request, the Northern Pacific held the trains so that all of the members could attend the ceremony.

Whereas members of the union still occasionally meet in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Hall, Forsyth's other first generation buildings-particularly those on Main Street-soon proved inadequate, and entrepreneurs steadily replaced the early wooden structures with more solid and ornate buildings. The streetscape as it looks today owes much to the rivalry between two of Forsyth's most prominent early businessmen: Minnesota-born Hiram Marcyes and Canadian-born Thomas Alexander. Marcyes was a Civil War veteran, a Mason, a Methodist, and a staunch Republican. Alexander was an ardent Democrat and an early Montana prospector and stockgrower. The two men reportedly tried to top each other at every turn. Both established tent stores during Forsyth's first summer. Both owned mercantiles, and both built hotels, one grander than the next. Both were involved in local politics. Marcyes worked to develop a residential neighborhood south of the tracks; Alexander more successfully developed the residential neighborhood north of the tracks, now the Forsyth Residential Historic District. In the business district, Marcyes and his allies dominated the 800 block of Main Street. Alexander and his allies dominated the 900 block.

Marcyes, who owned a brickyard, constructed the oldest extant brick business block in the district, the 1888 Marcyes Mercantile at 855 Main. It is typical of Forsyth's nineteenth-century brick business buildings, three of which still grace Main Street-845 Main (1895), 855 Main (1888), and 905/923 Main (1891/1912). Constructed of locally manufactured low-fire bricks, these relatively simple two-story structures had a great advantage over the wooden buildings they replaced: they provided some protection from fire.

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