Three Forks, Montana, is unique in how competing railroads shaped this one small town between the 2008 and 2010. The last post discussed how the Milwaukee Road came first, and its landmark Sacajawea Inn stands at the north end of the town’s main street. On the east side–see the Google Map below–became the domain of the Northern Pacific Railroad and its spur line to the copper kingdom of Butte
Between the two railroads, Three Forks grew rapidly in the second decade of the 20th century during the homesteading boom. Two places that help you decode the town’s history and built environment. At the south end of Main Street is the Headwaters Heritage Museum, which is located in the National Register-listed Three Valleys Bank, a Romanesque Revival-styled two-story brick building from 1910, when John Q. Adams started the town. The museum opened in 1982–I can recall its beginnings as place of pride and energy, now it maintains a fine local history collection.
Other National Register properties from the 1910s help to tell the town’s story as they remain in use creating new futures in the 21st century. These include the classical styled Ruby Theater of 1916, listed in 1982, and the 1913 United Methodist Church, later damaged during a 1925 earthquake but restored by the congregation to its Gothic Revival style in 1993. All of these buildings speak to town hopes and dreams during the homesteading boom as much as the slowly deteriorating grain elevators at the north end, not listed in the National Register, speak to what happened to those dreams in the 1920s and 1930s.
You can also explore the story of transportation and Three Forks at a new visitor center facility–at least new to this traveler in 2015–at you enter the town from the north.
It is just north of the Sacajawea Hotel and the town’s historic Milwaukee Road depot, which is now a restaurant and casino. The visitor center emphasizes the Milwaukee story, especially how the railroad viewed the town as its first gateway to Yellowstone.
The planned centerpiece of the visitor center is the moved railroad depot from Trident, a planned company town from 1908 that produced cement from the abundant resources along the river. The community is raising money for its restoration and adaptive reuse as a heritage center. The original company name was the Three Forks Portland Cement
Company. In 1914 Charles Botcher bought the plant, renamed it the Ideal Cement Company and kept it in business under that name until the 1980s.
Little remains of Trident today, except for its concrete roads that help to mark the blocks of the town, although no houses remain today. They were still there into the 1990s but later company owners, who still produce cement from the plant, and ship it by railroad across the region, tore them down early in this century. Trident is now a fascinating remnant, a historical archaeology site, and its depot in Three Forks will probably become the place to tell that story into the future.