Harlem, Savoy Schoolhouse, and Dodson, on Montana’s Hi-Line

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There aren’t many scenic detours off of the Hi-Line as you’re driving across northern Montana.  But I noticed one spot where US 2 swings to the south, away from the railroad tracks, bypassing the tiny community of Savoy, Montana.  I figured I wouldn’t be missing much if I skipped that part of US 2, so I diverted onto a dirt road that runs parallel to the railroad tracks and found something pretty interesting: the old Savoy Schoolhouse.

Location

Harlem and Dodson, Montana are located on US 2, between Havre and Malta. Savoy is located on Montana Route 396, a dirt road that runs along the railroad tracks between Harlem and Dodson.   When in Harlem, drive straight through town and continue east on Central Avenue.  It will turn to dirt, then continue along the railroad tracks.

My Visit

If you’re traveling eastbound, the Hi-Line Detour begins in Harlem.  Central Avenue breaks off of US 2, and takes you straight into town.  Here, you’ll find the familiar sight of grain silos and farm equipment between the railroad tracks and Central.  Turn down Main Street…

… and you’ll find a few businesses that are hanging on.

The old bank at the corner of Main and Central made me think that the town might be struggling with a drug problem.  It’s an interesting way to convey a message about meth, but it doesn’t help the town image.

Harlem is at the edge of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which has struggled with opioid addiction. An article in The Missoulian points out that unemployment is significant, there are gaps in law enforcement, and the reservation is located along major trafficking routes.

These are not-so-grand times for the town’s Grand Theater.  It’s been closed at least since 2008, according to Cinematreasures.org.

Once you’ve seen the sites in Harlem, head back to Central Avenue, and keep driving.  The pavement will turn to dirt, and you’ll end up on Montana Route 396.  This is not a well-traveled route, and I worried about getting a flat tire from the jagged gravel as I zipped along, hoping to find something interesting.

Savoy Schoolhouse

These days, savoy isn’t much more than a sign along the railroad tracks.  I’ve read that there used to be a bank, two churches, and even a couple of grain elevators here.  But now, there are just a handful of residents, and one very interesting building to photograph.

From Route 396, take the side road and cross the railroad tracks, then turn on “Pennyless Lane”.  At least, that’s what Google Maps calls it.  There are no street signs, but it’s an excellent name for such a remote place.  About halfway between the turn-off and a farmhouse (where it appears people still live), you’ll see the beautiful old Savoy Schoolhouse at the side of the road…

… complete with some playground equipment, that’s probably at least half-a-century old.  The schoolhouse itself, I have read, was abandoned in 1974.

Because of that nearby farmhouse, I didn’t do a lot of investigating around the property, but I did take a few pictures.  It appears the schoolhouse is padlocked, which is probably a good thing.  Hopefully whatever is left inside will survive for a few more decades.

I haven’t been able to find out much about the old Savoy schoolhouse, except for one source.  A photographer named Steve Hirsch discovered the Savoy schoolhouse, just as I did, back in 2013.  After taking some pictures outside, he ran into a local resident, who gave him permission to go inside.  He took some fantastic photos of old desks, cobweb-covered doorknobs, aging textbooks, and even an antifreeze can with a date of 1929.  If all of that stuff is still in there, the owners should consider charging admission to photographers like me, who would gladly pay a few dollars to walk around inside a stationary time machine.

On down the road…

… you’ll find another farm on the opposite side of the tracks from the road.  I believe this is Coburg, Montana — but all that’s left is an abandoned farmhouse and a few outbuildings.  I’ve read that Coburg was big enough to have its own post office from 1902 until 1936.

Looking east from Coburg, there’s a whole bunch of nothing on the horizon.   I continued to follow the railroad tracks for a while, but eventually found a road that cut back over to the pavement of US 2, for the rest of the drive on into Dodson.

Dodson, Montana

Aside from the elevators, Dodson only has two other prominent features – and they’re both bars.  That’s the Hi-Way bar, pictured above…

… and next door you’ll find the Cowboy Bar.  Just imagine how that neon sign lights up the plains in the middle of a dark Montana night — assuming it still works.

While US 2 continues for many more miles across Montana, my drive was about to come to an end.  I couldn’t go much further before turning south, towards Billings, where I would spend the night.  But, I had one more great northern Montana city to visit first: Malta.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a look at the drive eastbound on the Hi-Line, from East Glacier Park Village to Malta, Montana:

… and here’s a closer look at just the cities on the Hi-Line:

The Bottom Line

If you don’t mind detouring from the pavement onto a jagged gravel road, in the middle of nowhere, just to see an abandoned schoolhouse, I highly recommend the scenic detour out to Savoy, Montana.  Otherwise, explore Harlem and check out the neon sign in Dodson, then continue on towards Malta.

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