Railroad and Trident Heritage Center

The Railroad and Trident Heritage Center will open later this summer.

Many of Gene Townsend’s boyhood memories revolve around the Northern Pacific Railroad depot, a central hub to many important doings in his hometown of Trident.

The railroad was the artery that carried lifeblood to and from the heart of the town – the cement plant that employed many of the town’s citizens – so the depot was a central and vital hub of activity.

His was a childhood completely unrelatable to today’s youngsters, Townsend acknowledges. He remembers waiting at the depot for delivery of the Butte newspaper, which carried the latest baseball scores. He remembers that the train brought incoming mail, and picked up the outgoing post. He remembers his parents putting him and his siblings on board so they could go visit their cousins in Avon, about 100 miles to the west.

“I was born and raised around that kind of stuff,” Townsend says of the rail-centered lifestyle that no longer exists in a town that is also but a memory.

Thanks to the efforts of the Three Forks Area Historical Society, memories like Townsend’s are going to be preserved in the old depot. Eight years after embarking on an ambitious plan to save the building from the wrecking ball and restore it to its original glory, the Society hopes to open the Railroad and Trident Heritage Center in the historic structure later this summer, according to Pat Townsend, Gene’s wife and Historical Society president.

Trident was once a bustling company town that sprung up around the Portland Cement Plant that began operating there in 1909. Trident’s Northern Pacific depot was built around 1910, but 100 years later, the building was considered by then-owner Montana Rail Link to be an attractive nuisance and liability. MRL was moving its local operations to nearby Logan, 

so plans were made to raze the Trident depot, just as the rest of the town’s buildings already had been.

When preservationists got wind of the plan and inquired about options, MRL agreed to donate the building to anyone willing to haul it away. The Three Forks Area Historical Society got busy identifying an appropriate site for the building, and obtained a lease from the city of Three Forks for a slice of the Main Street park. Funds were raised to move the structure and for a new foundation. In July 2011, the depot was moved 7½ miles to its new forever home, and restoration efforts began.

From the moment the historic building was moved into place, Larry Wilcox has acted as the restoration project manager and kept his eye on every detail. The first summer, he remembers, footings were put into place. Block work began the first winter, and the building was finally set in the summer of 2012. The depot’s original floor and foundation stayed in Townsend, so Wilcox’s cousin, Ed Wilcox, helped engineer and lay the new floor.

Armed with the original plans and a passion for research, Larry Wilcox – a mechanic by trade – has spent countless hours volunteering his time ever since to restore the building to its original glory.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it so far,” Wilcox said, while taking a break from his work on a recent rainy day to talk about the project and what it has entailed.

Wilcox says that while Northern Pacific followed standard plans for construction of its depots, the Trident building is the only one of its kind in the country. The rock and cornellations on the exterior are unique to the Trident depot, as are the lattice windows.

He says has worked to preserve the original elements wherever possible. When it hasn’t been possible, he has gone to tremendous effort to replicate them.

An example of the latter was matching the look of the original concrete exterior that ran from the bottom of the windows to the floor. That was accomplished through a donation of blocks by Kanta Products of Three Forks, Wilcox says.

An example of the former is restoration of the original lattice windows, the complete accomplishment of which didn’t seem possible at first. Pat Townsend recalls that after Montana Rail Link took ownership of the depot, one of the windows was removed and replaced with a garage door. The Historical Society wanted to restore it to the way it had been originally, but had no idea where the window had gone. A Three Forks resident who had formerly worked for MRL heard about the dilemma, and called a former co-worker in Whitehall to ask if he knew where the window was. By pure luck, the Whitehall man happened to be person who had it.

While attention to historical accuracy has been a top priority for the team, a few nods to function over form have been incorporated. Those include an ADA-compliant bathroom, staircase to attic storage, and a utility sink to facilitate future community functions that will be centered in the building.

While the project is still two to three months from completion, enough finishing touches are in place to see how the final space will look. Wilcox currently is working on the decorative wainscoting, painstakingly staining and sanding each piece of wood three times to achieve exactly the right effect. New interior paint, in a color chosen after Wilcox researched those used by Northern Pacific back in the day, is on the walls. Some of the lattice windows are in place, but Wilcox has yet to finish a few of them. Pat Townsend points out that it’s a time-consuming process, because each pane is individually set in the lattice, unlike modern replicas.

“Larry took out every single pane and refinished all the wood,” she said. “This has really been a labor of love – who else would do that?”

Wilcox brushes aside the compliments, stating emphatically that the project couldn’t have happened without a tremendous community effort. All the contractors who have contributed to the project – and there have been many – have discounted their services, Wilcox said. Businesses and craftsmen from all over the Gallatin Valley have helped supply or donated items, and the community also has been incredibly generous and supportive.

Back in 2011, the Historical Society kicked off the project with a $40,000 fund-raising goal, but the cost of the project to date has been about $280,000, Pat Townsend said.

Funds have been raised locally through the sale of personalized bricks, which are being installed on the depot’s exterior walls. Ice cream socials, private donations, and other events have bought in more money. Larger sums have been granted by the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association, the Montana Department of Transportation, and the Gallatin County Historical Preservation Board.

When the doors open later this summer, the depot’s former ticket office will be used as a visitor center, and the freight room will be outfitted as a museum.

Original walls, which are covered by writing done by railroad employees in years gone by, have been implemented in the museum space. Some of those are from the Trident depot building, and some are from the Milwaukee Depot in Three Forks.

Those touches, along with the artifacts destined for the museum space and the authentic rail track that has been laid outside the depot where children love to play, have assured Gene Townsend that the restored depot will be a place for today’s young people to learn about the town where he was raised and about the rail-centered lifestyle he once enjoyed.