Three small communities in Central Montana have some interesting jail history that you can view today.
Square Butte, Montana , once a stop along the Milwaukee Railroad as it traveled from Great Falls to Lewistown, has a granite jail built from locally quarried ashlar granite. As you drive in to this little community there is even a sign that says “Historic Jail 3 Blocks”. There really aren’t “blocks” in this community but it probably is about the distance of three city blocks.
Square Butte, established in 1913, was named for the ever-present butte looming over the community. The nearest town is Geraldine, just a little over 6 miles away. The railroad used the stop for mineral-free water and coal for the locomotives. By 1915 the community residents felt they were seeing an “abundant supply of tramps, beggars and vagabonds” and they petitioned the Chouteau County Commissioners to build a jail in Square Butte. Historians say it was really meant to be a holding cell for anyone who needed to be taken off the streets of Square Butte.
The jail is on the National Register of Historic Places. There was no heat or plumbing, basically a no-frills facility, and a local rumor was that an inmate actually froze to death in it one winter night.
Square Butte jail has also been used to house road crews, it served as a bachelor’s residence and as a granary.
As you drive along MT Hwy 80 heading east you’ll see the little Square Butte jail not too far off the highway on the south side of the road. Stop by for a glimpse of local history.
Belt, Montana is proud to say that it is still using their jail. Well, not as a jail, but it has been revamped as a small museum.
When you turn off US Hwy 87 and drive the winding road downhill to the community, the jail sits proudly on Castner Street (Belt’s Main Street). Belt Creek borders the other side of the jail.
This was coal mining country and the town of Belt had several monikers, all relating to coal mining. Little Pittsburgh, Coal Banks and Black Diamond City all were local names for Belt.
The town of Belt was established in 1895 and then the coal boom began. Local entrepreneur John Castner created a fortune by mining the “black diamond”. I like the architecture in Belt and many of the buildings along Castner Street have been restored. My favorite is an old theater appropriately called The Belt Theatre, across the street from the little museum.
The jail turned museum evidently had three cells and each has been repurposed. One has a replica of a coal mine, another retains the jail cell decor, and the other houses records and photos. Work of local artists is also displayed.
Today, the town is know for it’s brewery, Harvest Moon Brewing, the first brewery in Central Montana. You can quench your thirst at their tasting room or walk to the next block and have a cold brew at a couple local pubs.
Our third jail is located in Big Sandy, Montana, also off US Hwy 87 but further north.
Big Sandy was founded in 1887, again as the result of a railroad coming through town. The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railroad (later the Great Northern Railway) traveled northeast and the town sits right alongside the rails. The town was named after the nearby Big Sandy Creek.
As you drive the highway through town you’ll see a rest area and near that is the former railroad depot which now houses the Big Sandy Historical Society. During summer months the historical society volunteers will open the old jail door so you can step inside. Stop by the Historical Society museum first and you’ll get some good background on the community.
The Big Sandy historic jail, complete with a hitching post for your horse, was built in 1912 and sits a block off Johannes Avenue (Main Street). The jail is small but it looks mighty sturdy.
Today this town is well-known for agriculture and it’s always been that way. It was settled mostly by homesteaders seeking free land and present-day Big Sandy is surrounded by grain fields.
If you’re looking for more history, stop by Pep’s Bar right on Big Sandy’s Main Street and admire the beautiful old historic back bar. Tip a cold one but don’t get too raucous – there is a jail not too far away!