Montana’s Three Forks: Crossroads of Rivers and Rails

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_6668As 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.

IMG_6711The 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.

Gallatin Co Three Forks Sacajawea Hotel

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

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Sacajawea Hotel, 1990

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

Logan: A forgotten railroad junction in Gallatin County

Gallatin Co Logan Gallatin RiverLocated between the Gallatin River and Interstate I-90, Logan is a forgotten yet still historically significant railroad junction on the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Established c.

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1890 the place was first known as Canyon House, for early settlers, and then named Logan in honor of a family who owned land there.

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The original Canyon House name has reappeared in Logan since my last visit in 1985 with the name given to this conversion of an old store/hotel to apartments

Logan became the place where Northern Pacific trains went one of two ways:  crossing the river and heading to the recently established state capitol of Helena or staying south of the river and heading to the copper mines at Butte.

In time the railroad company developed Logan as a mini-division point with a roundhouse, other railroad support buildings, and offices.  Today none of that remains–the roundhouse burned during the depression and was not replaced–but the tracks still dominate all views of the town.

One key community building that documents the early 20th century prominence of Logan is the two-story brick school.  It has been closed since my last visit in the 1980s but was converted into private use, and was for sale when I stopped in 1985.  Its size, brick construction, and classic progressive school architecture design speaks to the

 

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The school (far left) dominates the town’s built environment as you approach on old U.S. 10 from the west

promise that residents held for the town c. 1920. A historic church building also exists from the founding decades of Logan.  It too is now closed and faces an uncertain future.

As the various images of the railroad corridor indicates, Logan is still a busy place for train traffic but its population never rebounded after the depression decade.  Train traffic during World War II boosted local fortunes a bit–and the town’s large depot served hundreds of customers a day into the late 1940s. But once the Northern Pacific switched to diesel, coal stops like Logan was no longer necessary.  When I visited in 2015 I expected to find little to nothing but the tracks–or much more than I ever expected if the boom that had overwhelmed Belgrade and was consuming Manhattan had reached Logan.  A bit of whimsy instead has come into Logan, along with one of the best bar/steakhouses in this region:  the aptly named Land of Magic Dinner Club–the type of Montana oasis you cannot get enough of.