POLEBRIDGE, MONT. -- The 20th century has not made much of an imprint on this tiny town in the state's remote northwestern corner, and most people here want to keep it that way.

Residents still live in log homes lighted with gas lamps and, if they need to contact the outside world, can use the pay phone on the porch of the Polebridge general store.

Access consists of a dusty gravel road, local opposition having killed a federal offer to pave it several years ago.

But progress again is knocking at Polebridge's door.

Two years after forest fires consumed the creaky one-lane bridge spanning the Flathead River's North Fork between Polebridge and an empty quadrant of Glacier National Park, the federal government is planning to replace it with a concrete-and-steel version wide enough to allow two motor homes to pass. The plan has angered some Polebridge residents, who expressed concern that civilization will not be far behind.

"It's a beginning," said Karen Feather, who moved here from Oregon in 1964 and runs the Northern Lights Saloon out of a converted homestead. "Once they build the bridge, then the road follows. It's just another little step."

Glacier officials initially sided with local residents who favored reconstruction of the narrow, one-lane "pole bridge" that gave the town its name. But National Park Service regional supervisors in Denver, citing federal safety standards and possible lawsuits, overruled them.

"The 'Polebridge,' destroyed by fire in September 1988, defies any generalization and would be impossible to duplicate even if we wished to," Lorraine Mintzmyer, Park Service regional director, wrote Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.). Federal officials also cited the need to accommodate recreational vehicles, which they said account for 25 percent of traffic in national parks.

But people did not move to Polebridge to commune with Winnebagos. Once a haven for poachers and fugitives, the town remains a magnet for refugees of one sort or another. One is Chrys Landrigan, a former assistant vice president for Sotheby's auction house in New York. Now she runs the general store, dispensing candy bars and cold beer out of a turn-of-the-century, wood-frame building decorated with an elk head and a potbellied stove.

"You don't move to Polebridge to get rich quick, or even slowly, for that matter," said Landrigan, 42, who doubles as postmaster and town librarian ("We have a lot of Louis L'Amour").

Situated on the border of Glacier and the vast wilderness of the Flathead National Forest 22 miles from Canada, Polebridge seems to have been lifted from a sepia photograph of the Old West. "Downtown" consists of little more than the general store and a sprinkling of log cabins. A pair of rusty gas pumps are the only concession to modern times.

Although most park visitors opt for main entrances to the south, Polebridge attracts its share of tourists. During the summer months, between 100 and 200 vehicles a day pass through town and over the temporary steel bridge erected in the aftermath of the fire.

Otherwise, the town serves as post office address and social center for about 70 year-round residents, an independent-minded lot "all generally at odds with one another," as one put it.

Theirs is a simple life. Feather, the saloonkeeper, makes pies from huckleberries she picks in the forest. For entertainment, Feather said, "We all gossip," and in the winter there are sled-dog races and cross-country ski trips into the back country. Landrigan, the transplanted New Yorker, does not worry much about grizzly bears that roam the woods. "I look at them like muggers," she said. "You're cautious, but you don't change your life style."

But change is coming slowly to the North Fork valley. An oil company recently sank an exploratory well just down the road from Polebridge, and others have begun to explore nearby mountains. A coal company wants to dig an open-pit mine just over the Canadian border, raising fears of pollution in the Flathead River. Vacation cabins have begun to sprout.

To stave off those and other challenges, the local business community, such as it is, practices a kind of reverse boosterism. Feather and others have opposed plans to string power lines to the area and successfuly blocked the paving of 11 miles of gravel road that separates Polebridge from the rest of the world.

"All the creeps are turned around by the dust," explained Feather, a suntanned 48-year-old in hiking shorts and a sleeveless work shirt. "It's a deterrent."

But not everyone appreciates such efforts. To longtime residents such as Dick Walsh, 72, a retired county sheriff whose family settled near Polebridge in 1907, the dusty road is more of an annoyance. "I think they ought to oil the {SOB} all the way up to the Canadian line," said Walsh, who keeps a dust mask in his pickup to wear on trips to town.

As for the bridge, he said, "There's getting to be a hell of a lot of traffic and, if they're going to spend all that money, they might as well put a two-lane in there."

No one is suggesting that the old bridge would have won awards for architectural excellence. Erected in 1916 at a cost of $2,398.89, the bridge was demolished regularly by floods and ice, to the point that very little of the original structure remained. "It was just awful," Feather said.

The federal government declared the bridge unsafe in 1985. Three years later, the Park Service was spared the expense of having to tear it down when it went up in flames along with 35,000 acres of federal forest. The fire also destroyed Landrigan's barn, but her store was saved by an alert firefighter who broke in after midnight to put out a blaze that had started in the attic.

Park Service officials have promised that the new bridge, while built to modern engineering standards, would reflect the "rustic" nature of the original. But Polebridge residents are skeptical. "I heard they're going to paint the concrete green," one sniffed.