Riverside Park in Laurel, Montana has a dark little secret.

When the Billings Sugar Beet Company (now Western Sugar) opened a processing plant in 1906, farmers throughout the Yellowstone Valley began growing the crop. According to historians, the company recruited German-Russian farmers to work the Montana beet fields, where many of the immigrants eventually earned enough money to purchase small farms.

Riverside Park sign on the highway
Credit Michael Foth, TSM

A park becomes a prison.

In the early 1900s, Laurel had a growing German-Russian population. So much so, that a portion of the community was nicknamed German Town (source: Images of America Laurel). Four decades later, hundreds more Germans arrived. This time, it was not by their own choice.

Credit Michael Foth, TSM
Credit Michael Foth, TSM

Riverside Park is the second oldest park in Laurel.

After the Great Depression, the US government was desperate to kickstart the economy. One tool was the Works Progress Administration, a program that put Americans back to work, largely on infrastructure projects. HistoricMontana.org notes,

From 1935 to 1937, the WPA spent $24.6 million in Montana alone, which was matched by $3.4 million in local contributions.

One of those projects was Riverside Park, constructed primarily from stone sourced directly from the Yellowstone River bordering the park.

old windows
Credit Michael Foth, TSM

Initially, the park was a federal work camp.

The book Laurel's Story, A Montana Heritage devotes a page to the interesting history of Riverside Park. It originally housed WPA workers, and then it became a Federal Transient Camp. Four of these transient camps existed in Montana: Laurel, Havre, Helena, and Whitefish. Laurel was the largest, with an enrollment of 235 men.

An old water fountain sits at the corner of the stone building
Did a German POW once drink from this old fountain? Credit Michael Foth, TSM

Riverside Park becomes a prison.

With the US embroiled in World War II, Riverside Park was repurposed once again. This time, it became a camp for German POWs. From 1942 to 1945, hundreds of German soldiers were held at the park. The prisoners, captured in the war zones of Sicily, France, Italy, and other locales, were used as forced farm labor.

Credit Michael Foth, TSM
Perhaps this little building was a guard shack. Credit Michael Foth, TSM

Electric fences and armed guards.

Historians note armed guards watched over 30 POWs each while they were at work for the day. If a farmer requested more than one group of 30 workers/prisoners, he was required to provide additional guard(s) or hire it out at his own expense.

The park property was enclosed by an electric fence and prisoners were required to return all of their eating utensils after meal time for safety reasons. Laurel's Story, A Montana Heritage wrote this about the German POWs,

Most of them were friendly, lonely, and deeply concerned about their hometowns, their homes, and family, and expressed a dislike for Hitler, but were helpless in their situation. 

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Credit Michael Foth, TSM
Credit Michael Foth, TSM

Today, Riverside Park is a popular boat ramp for recreation on the Yellowstone River.

The campground, with tent and RV sites, is now open again. Picnic tables and a few BBQ grills are scattered about the property. Next time you're in Laurel, take a moment to wander around the beautiful park with its towering cottonwoods and quiet rush of the Yellowstone River in the background, and perhaps you'll feel the leftover ghosts of this interesting piece of Montana's WWII history.

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