Location: 45 miles northeast of Great Falls
Fort Benton, the nearest town to the great Lewis & Clark Decision Point site, is well worth a morning or afternoon in itself. This is truly a town of the Great Plains, nestled along the Missouri River amidst low rolling hills covered in dry yellow grass. Outside of the town, there’s nary a tree in sight.
We arrived about lunchtime and found a great spot for a picnic along the banks of the Missouri. Fort Benton has landscaped their riverfront with picnic tables and several statues and historical displays. The most adorable is a statue of a dog named Old Shep. Shep was a border collie who belonged to an old sheepherder. In 1936, his master became gravely ill and was brought to the hospital at Fort Benton, where he died. Old Shep waited outside the hospital and the funeral home, then followed the coffin to the train station and watched sadly while his beloved friend was shipped back east to be returned to his family for burial.
Old Shep was adopted by the station master and became a fixture of the town, sleeping under the platform, greeting every arriving visitor, and giving a wagging sendoff to every train departing the town. His was the kind of sentimental story tailor-made for Depression-era journalists, and the dog’s supposed vigil for his departed master became the subject of articles in the national press. When the aging dog slipped on the tracks in 1942 and was dispatched to the next world by an incoming train, Fort Benton held a funeral for him and buried him on a bluff overlooking the train station.
After lunch we had a great relaxing stroll along the river. The view of the Missouri River here is beautiful — straight out of Ken Burns. There are a number of fun and amusing things to see and photograph along the riverfront, from the wonderful Lewis and Clark statue by Bob Scriver to a replica keelboat that was used in the movie The Big Sky. Many historical markers tell the story of Fort Benton’s heyday in the 1870s and 1880s, a truly roaring era in which this now-sleepy town was one of the nation’s major inland ports.
Fort Benton got its start in 1846 as an outpost of the American Fur Trading Company and was named for Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Though no one knew it at the time, it would actually be the last fur-trading fort built on the Upper Missouri River. A few years later, the army mounted the first major explorations of the region since Lewis & Clark, focused on finding good routes for future railroads. As part of these explorations, a 24-year-old West Point engineer, Lieutenant John Mullan, was tasked with surveying and building the first wagon road through the Rocky Mountains. Commanding a work crew of over 200 civilians and soldiers, Mullan managed to carve out a 25-foot-wide road from Fort Benton in the east to Walla Walla, Washington in the west. The Mullan Road was completed in 1860.
The gold rush of the 1860s would be the making of Fort Benton. The location happened to be the further point on the Missouri which was navigable by steamboats. The gold strikes at Grasshopper Creek, Alder Creek, and Last Chance Gulch fired the imaginations of Americans just recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, and the word went out: “All trails lead out of Fort Benton.” Prospectors hoping to strike it rich poured into the town by the thousands, each stopping long enough to partake of the saloons, dance halls, and brothels that sprang up to fleece them out of a little of their stake. Tiny Fort Benton became known as the “wildest block in the west.” As many as ten steamboats a day were unloading cargo and wagons and taking gold back to St. Louis.
At one point, more than half the cargo arriving at Fort Benton was whiskey. Until 1869, the Alberta territory in Canada had been controlled by the Hudson’s Bay fur company. With the fur trade at an end, the company had turned it over to the Canadian government, leaving it a lawless no-man’s land. Traders from Fort Benton hacked out a road known as the “Whoop Up Trail” that led well into Alberta and Saskatchewan, and set up more than 40 whiskey outposts to trade firewater to the Blackfoot Indians in exchange for buffalo hides. In 1873, the Canadian government created a special police force (which became the legendary Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or “mounties”) to shut down the Whoop-Up Trail.
The amazing boom times at Fort Benton came to a sudden, shattering end in 1883. That year, the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed to Helena, and the Canadian Pacific was completed to Calgary. There was no more reason for anyone to come to Fort Benton anymore. The beautiful Grand Union hotel went belly-up, and most of the people left. But Fort Benton survives, a small town serving the surrounding ranches and providing a fun place to spend time for the history-minded traveler, too. The people we met were very nice and friendly, eager to share their town’s history, and curious to learn about visitors and what brings them to their neck of the woods.
We were lucky enough to spend one night at the historic Grand Union hotel. This hotel is like a museum in itself, full of fascinating historic photographs of past times in Fort Benton. The beautiful restoration makes a stay here like going back in time. This hotel, and Fort Benton itself, has a checkered past and a warm, welcoming present. Montana is famous for its integrity and pride of place; look no further than Fort Benton for a good example.