Missouri Headwaters Three Forks Montana

Gallatin City

In the 1860s, gold was discovered in Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, and a flood of emigrants poured into the Northern Rockies. Mining camps with names like Bannack, Virginia City, and Last Chance Gulch sprang up in western Montana.

Fortunes were not only made with pick and shovel; often larger ones were made by those who could supply and feed the hungry miners. One group of enterprising Missourians realized that existing freight routes into Bannack and Virginia City from Utah were long, arduous, and uncertain. An easier route lay to the northwest-the Missouri River. By 1860, steamboats were beginning regular service to Fort Benton; if their service could be extended up to the Three Forks of the Missouri, it would then take only two or three days of easy overland travel to reach the gold camps.

City at the Headwaters

In 1862, the Missourians organized the Gallatin Town Company and received permission to navigate to the Three Forks. By January 1863, a town named Gallatin City had been laid out on the north bank of the combined Madison-Jefferson rivers, opposite the mouth of the Gallatin. The town was a speculative venture; the founders hoped it would become the commercial capital of the region. Their expectations never materialized, however, and the town was gradually deserted. Some of the cabins were moved to established farms on the south bank of the river, where a small community-also called Gallatin City was incorporated on February 2, 1865.

This second Gallatin City experienced brief prosperity. Its ferry became a busy link from the booming gold towns of Virginia City and Bannack to Last Chance Gulch (Helena). Food and wheat from Gallatin City farmers were much less expensive and more readily available for the gold camps than the supplies which had to be shipped in from the States. At its height in the early 1870s, Gallatin City would boast of a grist mill, several stores, a hotel, a fairground, and even a racetrack.

But the good days were fleeting ones. The ferry provided unreliable passage across the river; by 1871 several bridges had been constructed at more convenient points up the river. The neighboring town of Bozeman attracted more and more settlers and by the late 1879s perceptive Gallatin City merchants were disposing of their properties. The final blow was dealt by the railroad which came in 1883, bypassing Gallatin City by two miles.

Excerpted from the Headwaters Herald, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.