Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was the first American undertaking to cross westward through the continental divide to the Pacific coast. The group consisted of U.S. Army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark. Starting at Camp Dubois in May 1804 and ending in St. Louis in September 1806, the purpose was to survey and map the land, and learn and establish relations with the varied Native American tribes.
The expedition hired French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, and his Lemhi Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, as guides and interpreters. Sacajawea’s contribution to the expedition proved invaluable in negotiating with the Shoshone for horses. And even more so, her presence demonstrated peaceful intent of the expedition to other native tribes, as a woman never accompanied war parties. In July 1805, the expedition traveled to what is now known as Three Forks, the confluence where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers converge to the start of the Missouri River. Lewis named the three rivers after President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin.
The city of Three Forks was founded on September 17, 1908 by John Q. Adams, a land agent for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, often referred to as the Milwaukee Road. Adams built the Sacajawea Hotel to serve as a rest stop and lodging facility for passengers and train crews on the Milwaukee Road. Three Forks had previously served as a campground for the Shoshone tribe, Sacajawea's people. As a young girl, Sacajawea was captured by the Hidatsa tribe and married to one of their men, who later lost her in a bet to Charbonneau. Sacajawea's capture took place within a mile or so of the front door of the Three Forks hotel that bears her name, according to local historians.
The core of the Sacajawea Hotel was the Madison House, built in 1882 in “Old Town Three Forks,” a mile northeast and closer to the headwaters. Adams hired a contractor to move the building to Three Forks by a horse team. Local legend has it that the construction of the hotel was held up when the contractor lost his horse team in a poker game. The Madison House eventually made it and was split in two, and Bozeman architect Fred Wilson designed the rest of the Colonial Revival hotel around those two halves.
Anchoring the north end of Three Forks’ Main Street, the Sacajawea Hotel changed hands several times, with Pauline Makoff and her brother, Bill Actor, the longest-running owners from 1948 to 1975. The hotel was completely restored in 1991 after being purchased by Smith and Jane Roedel. They performed extensive renovations drawn up by Three Forks architect Clark Llewellyn. In October 1998, the Roedels sold the hotel to Paul Tripp, who performed additional renovations. In 2002, a Missoula-based company offered to purchase the hotel and planned to convert it into a private assisted-living facility. Heated public meetings on the proposal piqued the interest of Four Mountain Ranch, LLC, a Nevada-based group of investors that included former pro-footballer Pete Lazetich. They purchased the hotel in June 2002 and reopened it for business after being closed for two years.
Dean Folkvord, founder and president of Three Forks-based Wheat Montana Farms and Bakery, purchased the century-old Sacajawea Hotel in 2009. The Folkvord family, which has called Three Forks home for three decades, wanted to restore the hotel to its original grandeur while simultaneously upgrading it with luxurious, modern amenities. The renovations, including Montana’s finest steakhouse, “Pompey’s Grill,” were completed in time to celebrate the hotel’s 100-year anniversary. Most of the original trim woodwork was refinished, and new sections painstakingly sawed and stained to match the originals. The light fixtures in the lobby are all original, as are the steam heat registers, and the dark spruce beams in the 14-foot ceilings. The lobby, dining room, and board room have more than 600 pieces of period, inlaid wallpaper. The lobby's plush, new furniture remains true to the classic theme, and a portrait of the hotel's namesake, Sacajawea, hangs in the lobby. During the renovation, the bar was built, replacing an outdoor patio between the kitchen and the lobby, utilizing reclaimed, 100-year old trestle wood that was once part of a bridge spanning the Great Salt Lake.
The Sacajawea Hotel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and a member of the Historic Hotels of America. The Folkvords received the Commercial Preservation Award from the Montana Preservation Alliance in 2011 for restoring the 100-year-old hotel, which is an important commercial anchor for the town of Three Forks. The Sacajawea Hotel has been the gem of this small Montana community and continues to be an important symbol of Montana history.