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Left Behind: Montana’s Forgotten Military Past

 

“Many Montanans had joined the military during the Great Depression, when there were few other jobs. Now thousands more signed up—40,000 Montana men and women in the first year alone. By the war’s end 57,000 Montanans had served—almost 10 percent of the population. Just like in World War I, Montana sent a greater percentage of its people than almost any other state. More than 1,500 Montanans died in the war.”

– Montana: Stories of the Land, Chapter 19

As the text above suggests, Montana has contributed to the United States military for over a century. From violent conflicts like both World Wars to the political tension of the Cold War, Montana has been a fixture in the war effort.

Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls, is the largest U.S. military site in Montana and represents the current impact of the military in Montana.

But abandoned sites throughout the state provide an opportunity to see the significance the military used to have.

 

St. Marie, Montana

Before it closed in the late 1960s, the Glasgow Air Force Base was home to roughly 7,200 airmen and their families. Ever since, it has resembled a modern-day ghost town. Nearly a thousand crumbling houses and condos sit empty, and the meandering, suburb-style streets and yards are overgrown. A town hall, school, church, bowling alley, general store and hospital all lay in ruin. Why?

The base was activated in 1957 in response to the Cold War. It was part of the Air Defense Command, which was set up to stop air attacks from the Soviet Union. As concern over the Soviets died down, so did the military’s con base closed in 1968, decimating the population of the Glasgow area.

Various attempts to revitalize the area have failed, and now just a few hundred people call the town now known as St. Marie home.

 

Aerial view of St. Marie, Montana. The former Glasgow Air Force Base lies nearly abandoned since its closure in 1968.
Aerial view of St. Marie, Montana. The former Glasgow Air Force Base lies nearly abandoned since its closure in 1968.

 

Blue Mountain Munitions

Blue Mountain is a popular 4,900-acre location for hikers and mountain bikers near Missoula, MT, but from 1942 to 1992, the area served various training uses for the military in Fort Missoula.

Between 1942 and 1952, small live arms firing and practice artillery training took place. Some of those explosives remain in the area, and one person was injured by one in the 1970s.

Cleanup of the area started in 2011, and crews have found anything from .22 caliber bullet casings to entire unexploded grenades.

Looking west over Missoula from Mount Sentinel, with Blue Mountain in the distance
Looking west over Missoula from Mount Sentinel, with Blue Mountain in the distance

 

Safeguard Sites 

Far west of Interstate-15 between Conrad and Shelby, the remnants another facility from the Cold War era sit abandoned. The Perimeter Acquisition Radar (PAR) started as part of President Richard Nixon’s “Safeguard System,” a project designed to build perimeter defenses for the Air Force bases in Great Falls, MT and Grand Forks, ND.

The site broke ground in 1970, but a treaty signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972 allowed only one of the Safeguard sites to be built. The North Dakota facility was much further along than the Montana site, which was subsequently suspended. Most of what was started was bulldozed and covered with prairie grass.

Today, only the enormous concrete first level of the unfinished PAR building rises above the plains, resembling Montana’s version of Stonehenge.

 

Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls. The PAR building is located 60 miles north.
Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls. The PAR building is located 60 miles north.

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