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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
The Duncan Samson Block
Photo by Jaix Chaix
The city of Whitefish owes much of its history to one particular day: Oct. 4, 1904, when the first Great Northern Railway train pulled into this “commodious and important” division point (formerly at Kalispell).
In many ways, Whitefish was a railroad boomtown. For example, so many trees were felled in such a short time that the moniker “Stumptown” was quite fitting. And the Whitefish Townsite Company handled many negotiations for plats within the city. And within a year, Whitefish was incorporated.

Whitefish was planned to be the biggest town along the Great Northern in Montana. Although today, the connection between the railroad and some buildings may be difficult to see. Sure, the Cadillac Hotel just a block away is obviously connected to the railroad, but the Duncan Samson Block – about six blocks away, at East Second Street and Lupfer Avenue – may seem less obvious.

The block bears the name of its founders Ms. Jemima Ann Duncan, and business partner Mr. Joseph Adelbert Samson.

Jemima moved from Kalispell to Whitefish to likely make a new start with her three children, as she had recently been widowed. And once settled in Whitefish, she must have saw opportunity in building a rooming house for railroad workers.

Joseph had lived and worked in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Kentucky before settling in Whitefish in 1907. He quickly pursued business and began procuring railroad ties for the Great Northern Railway.

After hearing of Jemima’s plans, Joseph joined her in business. Together they financed the construction of this $33,000 building with rooms above, and shop spaces below. Despite its distance from railroad operations, the Duncan Samson Block was serving the Great Northern by providing housing for railroad workers.

Yet if construction had been delayed a few months, the block might have been named “The Samson Block” as Duncan and Samson married later that year.

The upper story of the building, in some form or another, was always living spaces – spaces that housed the hardiest of railroad men and the most sophisticated “urban” transplants, who are all part of the building’s legacy.

The professional spaces below also have some unique legacies. For example, a chiropractor has been in one of the units since the 1930s (and still is). And while names and tastes have changed, showing up at the doorstep of 307 E. Second Ave. would have procured food of some kind, from the Grist Mill Bakery to the Breadline Deli – or the Swift Creek Cafe, as it is known today.

And despite the original brick exterior, the coal hatch and many original doors and finishing, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the building is the “possum trot” or “breezeway” as it is more commonly known.

As you step through the front door, you step back in time, into a breezeway with windows of the shops and apartments on either side, a feature hardly seen since the early 19th century.

Speaking of windows, the building features an early architectural style perhaps best described as: “put ‘em wherever ya need ‘em.” And since most of the basement windows and other upper-story windows have been filled in with brick, it makes the semblance of the structure even harder to ascertain – but that very quirkiness makes it all the more interesting.

So if you’d like to appreciate a unique breezeway building with many of its original traits, built in the boomtown era by two Whitefish pioneers, with many connections to commerce and the railroad, then look no further than the Duncan Samson Block.

Jaix Chaix is a writer who appreciates history, art, and architecture. You can share ideas and historical facts with him at landmarks@flatheadbeacon.com
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