Attracting 10,000 to Then-Empty Fields
By the 1920s, America’s longest-lived trade post, Fort Union, was little more than barely visible bumps and depressions on an otherwise level bench forming the Missouri River’s north bank a few hundred feet east of the Montana–North Dakota state line. Fort Union’s significance nonetheless persisted after its final fur company owners sold the post to the military, which dismantled it in 1867.
That legacy lived on in former traders’ memories and journals. It lived on in the oral traditions and stories passed down among the descendants of those who had traded here: the Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cree, Crow, Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa, Metis, and Sioux, known more accurately as the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. Would you believe that during the fur trade’s heyday in the 1830s and 1840s, as many as five thousand people are rumored to have gathered to trade at Fort Union? Look at the artist George Catlin’s 1832 painting to the right. It’s the first ever to show Fort Union and the people gathered there.
They and the fort were gone by the 1920s. Nearby, and served by the Great Northern Railway (GNR), the town of Mondak thrived. To capitalize on and promote tourism, including celebration of region’s recent Euro-American past, North Dakota residents and GNR executives such a president Ralph Budd desired to reconstruct the fort. This was the era after World War I when railroads promoters called on American vacationers to See America First. Our nation’s past rivaled and surpassed that of Europe’s, they claimed. Look at Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Look at Mesa Verde and the Southwest’s Puebloan ruins. Look at Glacier National Park, one of the GNR’s destination locations served by the rail line through Mondak.
To that end, in 1925 and 1926, GNR president Budd organized two historical expeditions to boost northern plains tourism: the Upper Missouri Historical Expedition and the Columbia River Historical Expedition, respectively. With stops at Fort Union, the recently rechristened town and the old fort site a few hundred yards south of the GNR line, Budd hoped to drum up support for historic fort’s reconstruction. It would be visible to tourists on passing trains.
In 1925 alone, an estimated 10,000 people from at least eight states gathered at the old fort site. Participants included members of the tribes who had traded there during the post’s 39 years in operation, 1828–1867. There were speeches and dances and baseball games. Journalists and writers from across the country reported on the events, including a flag-raising on a new GNR-built flag pole. Unfortunately, the Great Depression, Budd’s 1931 departure from the GNR, and the Second World War put a halt to reconstruction plans.
Although interest waned, direct threats to the Fort Union site accelerated. Built on a spot the Assiniboine suggested, a gravel base that resisted the river’s erosive force, the underlying gravel had increased value by the early twentieth century. It was choice construction material for the road beds needed by the region’s growing number of automobiles.
“There was a feeling that they [the women’s clubs of North Dakota and the State Historical Society of North Dakota] should try to buy the land before it was completely deteriorated by being dug out for gravel,” recalled Neva Hydle MacMaster, the daughter of Nellie Hydle. By the middle 1930s, gravel quarrying had exposed and begun to undermine the southwest bastion’s surviving foundation. Mrs. Hydle of Williston, then treasurer for the General Federation of Women’s Groups of North Dakota and at one time a member of the James Memorial Library board, partnered with the cash-strapped state historical society to raise $500 to purchase the 10.46 acres of land encompassing the Fort Union site. I think it was “a case of now-or-never” for preserving that land, Mrs. MacMaster told historian John Matzko in 1997. If they [the gravel miners] had kept on digging, there wouldn’t have been the river bank. Or, as many feared, surviving fort remains. Once acquired in the 1930s, the Fort Union site became a state park.
Last updated: January 6, 2018