The Missouri River headwaters, located just north of the town of Three Forks, is one of the most important places in all of the United States. Here, within the boundaries of a state park that has improved its public interpretation significantly in the last 30 years, was one of the primary goals that President Thomas Jefferson gave the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803–to find the headwaters of the Missouri River. When the expedition
traversed this land in 1805, they followed the footsteps of Bannock, Shoshoni, and Flathead Indians who had found this place and hunted the abundant game along the rivers long before the “explorers” arrived. Nevertheless, it was the Corps of Discovery that named the place. They found three sources–that they named the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin after the president and two of his cabinet officers–creating the Missouri River.
While fur trappers such as John Colter, who was an expedition member, soon returned to this site, and in the 1860s the settlement of Gallatin City was established, but only the
historic log Gallatin City Hotel of 1868 remains to mark a place where early Montana settlers thought an important town along the rivers would develop.
Recreational and interpretive features are now much more plentiful than 30 years ago but the park still exudes that feeling of openness and wildness that attracted that only the
Native Americans but later waves of 19th century trappers and settlers. It is a very special place within Montana and certainly earns its National Historic Landmark designation many times over.
As you leave the Missouri Headwaters State Park access road (Montana 286) and return south to old U.S. Highway 10, you encounter a plaintive sign hoping to attract the thousands of heritage tourists who come to the state park–go a bit farther south and west and find the town of Three Forks.
The story of Three Forks, on the western edge of Gallatin County, is not of rivers but of railroads, of how both the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road corridors shaped this part of the state at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.
The Milwaukee Road came first, with Milwaukee Land Company agent John Q. Adams establishing the townsite in 1908, and later contributing its first landmark building, the two-story Colonial Revival-styled Sacajawea Hotel in 1910. Adams began the hotel in true Montana vernacular fashion, having contractors tack together existing moved buildings
into some type of lodging for railroad workers. Bozeman architect Fred Willson finished the building with a new facade along with various additions, leaving housing for railroad employees along with providing services for travelers. Heritage tourists were part of that mix, especially once the Montana Daughters of the American Revolution in 1914 placed a large boulder with a bronze plaque in honor of Sacajawea across the street from the hotel. Here was one of the state’s early examples of public interpretation of the Sacajawea story. In 2005, as part of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Three Forks Area Historical Society commissioned artist Mary Michael to add a stylized statue of Sacajawea and her baby Pomp, turning the spot into a 21st century memorial to the Shoshoni woman.
Thirty years ago, the hotel was a renovation project we all at the Montana Historical Society wanted to happen. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, it was a proud relic of that railroad that had just closed but also of the early automobile age when travelers could stop here, spend the night, and then travel by car to Yellowstone National Park far to the south. I would stay here when working in the region, reveling in
the feel, the look, the sounds of a historic railroad hotel. Unfortunately the restart only lasted about 20 years. The hotel closed in 2001, and looked to have a bleak future in the new century. From 2009-2010 new owners, however, took this historic hulk and have
polished back into a jewel, better suited for more upscale travelers than in the past. It is the center point of a renewal of Three Forks, and part of a minor population boom that has seen the town, which basically had a flat population of 1100 to 1200 from 1950 to 1990 reach a population of almost 2000 in 2015. More on Three Forks in the next post