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.

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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

Livingston: the river side of town

Park Co Livingston catholic school 1Livingston’s town plan from 1882 was all about the railroad, with the adjacent Yellowstone River an afterthought, at best an impediment since it defined the south end of town.  So far from the tracks to be of little worth to anyone, few paid it any attention.  100 years later when I am considering the town for the state historic preservation, I too was all about the railroad and the metropolitan corridor of which it was part.  I paid no attention to the river.  The town’s schools were on this end, but they were “modern” so did not capture my attention.

Park Co Livingston L&C at Yellowstone 3Consequently I missed a bit part of the town’s story, the effort to reform the landscape and create public space during the New Deal era.  The Works Progress Administration (WPA) transformed this part of town from 1935 to 1938 expanding an earlier public park into today’s Sacajawea Park.

The agency built a diversion dam on the river to create the lagoon for Sacajawea Lake, and added a lovely rustic-styled stone bridge.  Later improvements came in 1981.

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As in many other communities across the nation, the agency also added a modern outdoor swimming pool, and bathhouse.  Plus it built a public amphitheater–several of these still exist in Montana.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 6The major addition, however, was the large combination Civic Center and National Guard Armory, an Art Deco-styled building that cost an estimated $100,000 in 1938.  It too survives and is in active use by the community.

Park Co Livingston Sacajawea Park New Deal 1Tourists now come to this area more often than in the past due to additions made during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in the early 21st century.  The park is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

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Local sources funded the additional of an interpretive memorial and statue in honor of the July 1806 stop at this place by Sacajawea and her baby Pomp. Mary Michael is the sculptor. The result is a reinvigorated

public space, not only due to the history markers about Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, and Pomp, but also the obvious community pride in this connection between town, river, and mountains.

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