Resurrecting the Flame of History

Bringing to Life the "Largest and Best"

With the end of World War II, returning servicemen and -women found jobs, settled down, and started families. The middle class exploded. By the millions, Baby Boom-generation families in the 1960s started to tour America by automobile. Their numbers surpassed by far the dwindling annual sums of railroad passengers. National parks nonetheless remained tourists’ prime destinations. For the North Dakota confluence area, however, America’s automobile clubs ceased to list Fort Union as a historic site in their travel literature and maps.

North bank of the Missouri River. Young cottonwood trees in foreground. grassy expanse behind trees.
In June 1966, the Fort Union site as seen from the Missouri River's south bank lacked distinguishing features. Because little existed for tourists to see, automobile clubs in the 1950s ceased to mark Fort Union on their travel maps. This provoked resolute action by boosters.

NPS photo

Automobiles, the technology that decades earlier had threatened Fort Union’s remains with obliteration, became once again the fort’s source of salvation. Worried that North Dakota and the confluence area especially stood to lose out on the sure and growing economic benefits of tourism, James B. Connolly, a passionate Fargo-based history enthusiast and head of the North Dakota Automobile Association, championed Fort Union and the region as a travel destination. Joined by Willistonites that included chamber of commerce president and attorney LaVern C. Neff and the banker and state senator Frank Wenstrom, Connolly, the Williston Herald reported, “fanned a dying ember of history into a flame.”

That flame reached as far as Washington, D.C., where the Secretary of the Interior in 1961 designated Fort Union as North Dakota’s first National Historic Landmark (NHL) While not yet a national park, Connolly, then-secretary of North Dakota’s Yellowstone-Missouri Confluence Commission, told Senator Milton R. Young that “we still are hopeful of having archaeological work done at the Fort Union site and feel its designation as a Landmark is an important step toward that goal.”

Why archaeology? Because, as the 1961 NHL form described, “other than a few cellar pits, there is little surface evidence of the fort.” Archaeological investigations would provide the information necessary for an accurate fort restoration, which is what regional boosters wanted to attract tourists. “Fort Union archeological research is most desirable to hasten recognition of Fort Union’s role in the Nation’s history and development,” the Yellowstone-Missouri-Fort Union Commission resolved at a March 24, 1962 meeting; “and most necessary to prevent the loss of irreplaceable historic objects.” The adopted resolution continued: “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that through duly elected Senators and Representatives, the Commission”—of which Connolly was secretary—“respectfully petition the Congress of the United States to allocate funds for such archeological work.”
Park Ranger holding pen in display box, three people looking on.
At the 1989 Grand Dedication, park superintendent Paul Hedren displays a pen that President Johnson used to sign the Fort Union authorization bill into law.

NPS photo

Continued promotion and pressure from Connolly and Mondak-area residents such as Ben Innis, who in 1962 organized the Fort Buford Sixth Infantry Regiment Association, brought the desired Fort Union reconstruction one step closer in 1966. That summer, North Dakota’s Senator Quentin Burdick and Representative Rolland Redlin successfully steered the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site legislation through Congress. On June 20, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fort Union Trading Post bill into law. The bill established the historic site “to commemorate the significant role played by Fort Union as a fur trading post on the Upper Missouri River.”

Years Earlier, the Military Saved Fort Union

Fort Union was no military post, not like the fort of the same name in northern New Mexico. Nonetheless, the U.S. military in the 1800s unintentionally preserved the ruins of this American Fur Company post it initially destroyed. Yes, destroyed. In 1867, the military acquired and razed Fort Union to salvage construction materials for building Fort Buford, the first and only permanent military command headquartered where in 1805 a passing Meriwether Lewis had thought it a “most eligible site for an establishment.”

Located three miles east of Fort Union, at the present-day confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, Fort Buford operated from 1866 to 1895. During those years, the military reservation encompassed the confluence area in its entirety. And because no civilians could establish settlements within the reservation’s boundaries, not even adjacent to the Great Northern Railway’s track passing through military installation, the remains of old Fort Union survived into the Twentieth Century. It was then, when its ruins were threatened by gravel mining in the 1930s, that the State Historical Society of North Dakota first preserved the fort site as a state park. People hoping to capitalize on the fort’s tourism potential had to wait another three decades before their desire for a reconstruction seemed even remotely possible to realize.

Last updated: December 9, 2017

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