When railroads ruled the West in the early 1900s, hotels sprang up along their routes to lure Eastern tourists.
In Montana, off Interstate 90 northwest of Yellowstone National Park, the Sacajawea Inn in Three Forks and the Gallatin Gateway Inn both have been restored to combine the flavor of their Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway heyday with up-to-date comforts and outstanding dining.
The original part of “The Sac” was built in 1882 as Madison House in Old Town Three Forks, which, alas, proved to be the flood plain where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers converge.
In 1910, owner John Adams, a railroad purchasing agent, contracted to have the hotel moved, and it was put up on logs to roll it to its present location by mule power. Before the mules got hitched, it began to rain. So, naturally, the contractor and his workers waited in a saloon. Naturally, they joined a poker game. The boss wagered and lost the mules, and the hotel sat on the logs for a month.
After the move, Adams added what is now the main Craftsman-style building. The restored dark-beamed lobby, with 14-foot ceilings, displays mounted heads of elk and mule deer. Persian rugs cover the oak floor, and a grand piano beckons musicians from the corner by the staircase.
“Notice there’s no fireplace,” says current owner Smith Roedel. “In 1910, this was the most modern hotel - it had steam heat.”
Now forced-air heat is regulated with in-room thermostats. And, says Roedel, “History stops at the bathroom door. People want good plumbing and private baths.”
Roedel and his wife, Jane, veterans of the hotel-restaurant business in Florida, bought the inn in 1991. At the time, a real estate ad euphemistically called it “a little bed and breakfast.”
In truth, it hadn’t been much of a hotel in 20 years. The plumbing was shot, and the third floor was a warren of 13 tiny rooms for railroad workers, all sharing one bath.
For six months, Roedel’s renovation crew knocked out walls, installed bathrooms, ripped three layers of shingles from the roof and searched for historically correct replacement woodwork and furnishings.
“The architect spoon-fed me the process,” Roedel recalls. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. I never want to deal with plumbers again.”
Now The Sac offers 33 spacious guest rooms individually decorated in shades of forest green, burgundy and mauve.
In the dining room, the original oak sideboard displays Montana wines and microbrews. The menu features veal piccata, pesto chicken and vegetarian entrees, as well as Montana prime rim and steak.
The cuisine is not a piece of history, and neither are the two dozen enormous slat-bottom rockers Roedel commissioned for the 100-foot-wide front porch.
But the chairs fit The Sac, and from them you get a perfect view across the street of the defunct railway depot, reincarnated as “Ye Olde Depot Shoppe” featuring ceramics of Montana clay.
The tracks themselves are gone, torn up in 1980, a decade after the last train pulled out of Three Forks.
The railroad had dealt the hotel its first setback in 1927, when it built a spurline from the main track to the head of the Gallatin River 30 miles south and that much closer to Yellowstone. Then it constructed the elegant Gallatin Gateway Inn.
Where The Sac is warm and homey, the Gallatin Gateway Inn aimed at overt luxury.
Built for about $260,000 by a construction crew of 500 in a scant four months, the Spanish Colonial-style hotel boasted state-of-the-art amenities, including a telephone in every room. The kitchen was equipped with so many electric gadgets, the staff gave tours to ladies.
The Gallatin Gateway scale is grand. Eight-foot-long chunks of lodgepole pine crackle in the great hall’s massive fireplace. Sunlight slants through arched leaded windows nearly as tall as the 20-foot carved beam ceiling, shadows dancing across the mahogany floor.
But the original glory days lasted barely 20 years. The automobile - and later, air transport - eclipsed passenger rail service, and the railroad sold the hotel in 1951.
In the mid-‘70s, the great hall became an arena for mud-wrestling. Sometime before, the hall had pulsed with rock concerts.
One of the rockers became a building contractor with an eye for architectural style and grace. Bill Kishishian bought the hotel in 1984 and shelled out another $1.5 million for a remodel job that took more than two years.
Today, the 35 rooms have their original light, airy, spacious feel. None of the original furnishings survived the mud-wrestling days, and now the rooms and suites have a clean, spare, contemporary look, decorated with a few judicious pastel prints and potted plants.
Where bygone guests once practiced archery on the lawn wearing suits and hats, today’s jeaned travelers avail themselves of tennis courts, swimming pool and spa, with fisherman heading directly for the fly-casting pond or the Gallatin River out the back door.
Best of all is the elegant dining room, its long wall punctuated with nine sets of French doors. It seats 90, half as many as in its crowded trestle-table days, when diners included travelers sleeping in their Pullman cars as well as hotel guests.
If electric devices were the original pride of the kitchen, the best feature today is chef Erik Carr, an artist whose palette is food.
The finished canvas is your plate, arranged with one of 10 entrees that change daily. Perhaps it’s braised bison shank with sweet onion, sage, and house-dried tomatoes served with polenta flavored with bison broth. Or roasted lemon and basil chicken served with Tuscan white beans, shaved parmesan, aged prosciutto, curly chard and rapini.
The food recalls the glory days, when travelers walked 50 yards from the railroad tracks to the lobby.
Now you walk across the parking lot in front of the Gallatin Gateway Inn or behind The Sac. And it doesn’t matter a bit that the trains don’t whistle anymore.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO For reservations and information: Sacajawea Inn, P.O. Box 648, 5 North Main St., Three Forks MT 59752; (800) 821-7326 or (406) 285-6515. Double occupancy: $49-99. Gallatin Gateway Inn, P.O. Box 376, Gallatin Gateway MT 59730; (800) 676-3522 or (406) 763-4672. Bed-and-continental breakfast: $70-135, double occupancy.