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Travel: In Montana, it’s about the past

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Nightfall over the Missouri River in Fort Benton, Montana. |

The mountains and wide-open spaces may have lured me to Montana, but the past captivated me.

My Montana road trip started after flying into Bozeman’s airport and retrieving a rental car from Hertz for the short drive to Three Forks.

The small town is, at its name suggests, situated at the forks of three rivers. Here, the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers form the headwaters of the Missouri River.

The Missouri — long-overshadowed by the Mississippi River, it’s actually the longest river in the United States — was a primary course of navigation for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s epic expedition between 1804 and 1806. With their Corps of Discovery, the dual not only charted a way across the continental United States but asserted American sovereignty in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase. In short, they opened the door to the westward expansion that dominated the rest of the 19th century.

In Three Forks, I stayed at the Sacajawea Hotel.

Named after Sacagawea, the Indian heroine of Lewis and Clark’s journey, the hotel was built in 1910 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. For me, staying here was a bucket list item as it’s one of the more authentic railroad-era hotels anywhere in the West. It’s also a short drive from the 535-acre Missouri Headwaters State Park, where swimming or wading in the Missouri is possible in warmer months.

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The headwaters of the Missouri River, near Three Forks, Montana. |

From Three Forks, I made the nearly three-hour drive to Great Falls.

Lewis and Clark knew the area for the falls that forced them and other early explorers to undertake an overland portage. Hence the name Great Falls. Just how great are the falls of Great Falls? At some 900 feet wide and 80 feet tall, Lewis called them “the grandest sight” he ever saw. Today, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which is run by the U.S. Forest Service, tells the complete story of the 8,000-mile expedition from its scenic location above the Missouri River a few minutes from downtown.

The Montana chapter of how the West was won continues about 45 minutes away in Fort Benton.

Located along an especially scenic stretch of the Missouri, what you see today is more or less unchanged since the Corps of Discovery came through these waters. While that connection — especially Lewis and Clark’s guess at the aptly named Decision Point about the true course of the river — is historically significant, the explorers, trappers, traders and pioneers who followed in the ensuing decades were the ones who actually put Fort Benton on the map.

In fact, the town is called the birthplace of Montana, as it was the first permanent settlement in what later became the 41st state. That settlement was largely a result of its location just below Great Falls, which kept steamboats from St. Louis from going farther west. In turn, this transformed Fort Benton from a sleepy trading fort to a major outpost for everywhere West of here, including colonial Britain’s domains in Canada, until the coming of the transcontinental railroad.

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The columnist at old Fort Benton, the partially reconstructed fort and namesake of Fort Benton, Montana. |

And that explains the existence of the Grand Union Hotel, a historic hotel that was restored to its Victorian elegance about 20 years ago.

Along the riverfront between the hotel and partially reconstructed Fort Benton, which houses three museums and includes an original blockhouse from 1848, are countless old buildings and monuments that educate visitors about what life here was like when this was a rough-and-tumble, boom-and-bust town on the distant frontier. Among the wonderful lore of the old days is the disappearance and death in 1867 of Thomas Francis Meagher, an Irish nationalist who escaped imprisonment by the British in Australia for a career in the Union Army during the Civil War and later a stint as Montana’s territorial governor. To this day what happened to him remains a mystery.

Of course, there is much more to do and see in Montana, but my road trip to Three Forks, Great Falls and Fort Benton offered up more than enough for a long weekend trip.

If you go

If staying at the Sacajawea Hotel or Grand Union Hotel aren’t your thing, consider booking a room at the Springhill Suites. The Marriott brand has properties in Bozeman and Great Falls, the latter of which is located along the banks of the Missouri.

While airports in Billings, Great Falls and Helena, the state capital, are served by the airlines, Yellowstone National Park and nearby skiing have given Bozeman the state’s busiest airport. For those arriving by car, Bozeman is about 6 hours from Salt Lake City and 10 hours from Denver and Seattle.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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