The Montana State Parks Foundation recently announced that major improvements are coming to Fort Owen State Park, located near Stevensville, thanks to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks administration and the active involvement of the Friends of Fort Owen and, crucially, a grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
The $507,500 grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust will be used to preserve and restore the original trading post structures including repairs to the adobe walls, the roofs, and foundation. In addition, the interpretive, cultural, and historical displays held within the buildings and other locations within the park will be improved and expanded, with work taking place over the next two years.
Accessing Fort Owen State Park, which is currently limited, will also be addressed by improving road access, building additional visitor parking, and providing new access for school and tour busses. This will enhance the visitor experience and greatly improve accessibility.
Fort Owen is a significant attraction in the Bitterroot Valley and the improved visitor infrastructure and amenities will allow Montana State Parks and the local community to showcase the park as a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.
“Fort Owen holds significant historical value as an early American settlement,” said Walter Panzirer, a Trustee for the Helmsley Charitable Trust. “The Helmsley Charitable Trust is excited to fund the important work of restoring and preserving this historic site as well as improving education opportunities.”
The Fort Owen trading post, now the core of Fort Owen State Park, is extremely significant in the early history of Montana and the inland Northwest, as it became an important touchstone first for fur traders, Native American Tribes, Jesuits and US government officials, then prospectors traveling to gold fields in the 1860s, then homesteaders and early ranchers in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, Fort Owen was the only significant European-style settlement that was present through all of these extraordinary periods of the mid to late 1800s in Montana’s history.
“As Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks continues to look to enhance the Montana outdoor experience, these cultural treasures will remain critical,” said FWP director Martha Williams. “Fort Owen is part of our heritage and our story as Montanans. This funding and the generous support of the Helmsley Charitable Trust marks a significant step for the Bitterroot community and the key celebration of an important place in our history.”
Once this unique project is completed, Fort Owen State Park will be better equipped to handle its growing number of visitors and provide first class educational and interpretive resources for the surrounding area. The park itself will double in size, historic structures and incredibly rare historical archaeology will be preserved and interpreted. Visitors will benefit from improved access and wayfinding, enhanced interpretive information, improved amenities, and additional events at the park. The nearby communities of Stevensville, Hamilton, and Missoula will see increased traffic to local businesses, additional tax revenues, and other ancillary benefits as more visitors come to experience and enjoy Fort Owen State Park.
“It’s always been our mission to improve the visitor experience at our state parks,” said Coby Gierke, Executive Director of the Montana State Parks Foundation. “We’re delighted to help bring together the funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the passion of the local volunteers from the Friends of Fort Owen, and the technical expertise of the folks at Fish, Wildlife and Parks to transform Fort Owen State Park. When we first looked at options for the park years ago, the situation looked bleak. Now, with this robust group of partners and funding, the future of Fort Owen State Park is very bright.”
“We are really excited about this grant and want to thank everyone involved who have worked together to make this happen,” said Margaret Gorski, President of Friends of Fort Owen. “It’s going to fix issues at the park that have limited its use by the public and been a problem for the land owner for years. When completed, visitors will have a better experience and the park will be an improved asset to our community. A win-win for everyone!”
Planning for improvements at Fort Owen State Park will begin by conducting an inventory of cultural resources that will inform the design of a new parking area and other park improvements. When this work and planning is complete, the draft development proposal will be available for public review.