Just over 200 years ago
Captain Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, known as the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery, explored and mapped unknown places in the American Northwest. As the Expedition traveled up the Missouri River, Lewis, Clark, along with their guide and interpreter, Sacajawea, arrived at the headwaters of the Missouri on July 25, 1805. They were the first white men to enter the confluence region, and they named the three rivers (west to east) for President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. These three rivers flow together to form the Missouri just four miles from the present-day city. Their original campsite is estimated to be at the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison rivers, now depicted on informational boards in the Headwaters State Park.
Hunters, trappers and traders were the first to settle around the area including John Colter, Andrew Henry, Pierre Menard and George Droulliard. Fort Henry, or Fort Three Forks, was in full operation between roughly 1808 and 1810 for tradesmen to sell, buy, or barter their goods at one location. With abundant game in the area, this vast wilderness was the hunting and battleground for different Native American tribes such as Blackfeet, Crow, Nez Perce, Shoshone, and Flathead. As gold was being discovered throughout this region of Montana, traffic to and from mining towns increased and small towns sprung up all over to accommodate their needs. Gallatin City was one of the earliest settlements in Montana. A company from Bannock City laid out the city on the west bank of the combined Madison and Jefferson Rivers near the site of the historic campgrounds of Lewis & Clark. In 1863, several farmers arrived in the area. The first ferry was built for the Missouri River traffic, but the Missouri traffic did not materialize because of the great falls of the Missouri. Instead travelers were arriving by wagon trains and stagecoaches across the river on the east side. Due to stagecoach traffic travel, Gallatin City (#1) gradually moved two miles south and across the river to Gallatin City (#2). Montana became a Territory in 1864 with nine counties. Gallatin City was incorporated by the first Legislature of the Montana Territory. On March 11, 1865 Gallatin City actually became the original seat of Gallatin County. The seat was lost just two years later to Bozeman on January 25, 1867.
A Mr. James Shedd began erecting toll bridges across the Madison and Jefferson Rivers. The Shedd’s Madison Bridge House was built with stages arriving daily linking Virginia City, Helena and Bozeman. It is estimated that by 1888 there were 23 bridges within three-miles. Meanwhile, Gallatin City was prospering with travelers and freight wagons traveling between the rich gold fields of Fort Benton, Virginia City, Helena, Willow Creek, Norwegian Gulch and the Gallatin Valley. The city consisted of eleven dwellings along with a mill, two stores, hotel, a racetrack and even fairgrounds! In the late 1870s, with the toll bridges detouring much of the stagecoach and wagon train traffic, the town was pretty much a ghost town. The old Akins hotel, built in 1869, is still standing at the visitor station of the Headwaters State Park.
Asher Paul and Michael Hanley purchase 160-acres from Shedd and changed the name to “Bridgeville”, now the present-day “Old Town”. Northern Pacific Railroad tracks were installed a mile south of Bridgeville but the settlers did not leave this location just yet. Paul and Hanley sold their lands in Bridgeville in 1882, to a group of Englishmen who settled the area and platted the entire town, officially calling it Three Forks. According to historic records, there were 100 residents in 1890. By 1907, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway reached Three Forks’ (again one mile south of the townsite). John Q. Adams, proprietor of the Milwaukee Land Company, founded Three Forks. The Milwaukee Railroad offered an excursion train from Chicago to Three Forks for a public auction lot sale on September 17, 1908. Main Street was lined with lot stakes and just three tent businesses: Pioneer Mercantile, a restaurant, and the Three Forks Herald Newspaper office. Approximately 700-1,000 people attended the sale of 250 lots ranging from $100 to $1,000 each, one even selling for $1,250! Construction boomed at this new location, and a bank (now the Three Forks Historical Museum) and the Madison Bridge House (now the Sacajawea Hotel) were moved from the original location to our current location. (Fun historic fact: the Madison Bridge House was pulled by horse teams from its site in Old Town, but not without delay. The horse team owner who was hired to move the house lost his horses in a high stakes poker game! The new owner of the horse team was gracious enough to allow another game a few weeks later and the man won them back…then continued moving the house to the current location. The house was split into two parts, and new hotel was commissioned to be built by John Q. Adams, which was perpendicular in between the two halves. The final result is what still stands as the historic Sacajawea Hotel today.)
The community had 800 inhabitants, a newspaper, three general stores, two lumber yards, a hotel, eight restaurants, two barbershops, two transcontinental railroad, a cement factory, sheep shearing plant, telephone exchange, graveled streets, three real estate firms, two church buildings, a bank, two doctors, a dentist, an undertaker and eight saloons! A special election was held to dispose of the old school building in “Old Town” and look for a new site in the new City of Three Forks. Three Forks was officially incorporated on February 23, 1911, with their first mayor and four alderman elected.