FORT BENTON – It’s a beautiful thing, watching the rosy fingers of a winter dawn spread across the prairie of central Montana from a knoll with a dead dog named Shep.
In a glance, you get a sense of what Fort Benton’s about.
The wide Missouri is obscured by a blanket of jagged ice and snow.
Warehouse manager David Martin has just fired up the towering leg on the Columbia Grain elevator, almost at your feet.
Headlights poke through the just-light on the roads from five directions that lead into the river-bottom town as another work or school day gets ready to begin.
And there, surveying it all with you, is Shep – or a cutout figure of him at the site of his grave.
Fort Benton calls itself the “Birthplace of Montana” and its recorded history goes back to the 1840s, further than any other town in Montana except, depending on who's arguing, Stevensville.
It's a history fashioned by the river as the highest navigable point on the Missouri and furthered first by the fur trade, then the steamboats and gold boom that jump-started Montana. The homestead era followed, and Fort Benton established itself and remains a farming town in Montana’s most fertile wheat-producing area.
"We're smack dab in the heart of the Golden Triangle," Martin notes while manning the check station at the granary, a job he's held for a dozen years.
But railroads figure in Fort Benton's history, too, both for their role in ending the steamboat trade and what they did to Shep.
He was a mangy dog that started hanging around the train station below this same bluff in 1936. It took a few years for someone to figure out why – Shep's sheepherding master left the station in a casket.
The dog's vigil for the next 5 1/2 years made headlines and caught the attention of "Ripley's Believe It or Not." The story became downright heartbreaking when, on a cold January morning like this in 1942, an aging Shep didn’t hear old 235 roll into the station. The nation tuned in for, and old-timers still remember, the massive funeral. For the past 20 years, a Bob Scriver bronze has memorialized Shep on the bank of the river.
You can’t eat history any more than you can scenery, but if any town can sustain itself on the past it's Fort Benton.
There are as many buildings dedicated to the history of the area as there are bars, a startling fact for a town that boasted to have “the bloodiest block in the West” in the steamboat era.
Ken Robison, historian at the Overholser Historical Research Center on 21st Street, pulls from a shelf samplings of the center's untold treasures – a manifest, cabin register and portage register from the tremendous steamboats, most of them the length of a football field and longer, that plied their wares on the Upper Missouri in the 1870s and ‘80s.
They’re from the I.G. Baker Steamboat Line, records that were once stored in a former wool warehouse north of Old Fort Benton.
“Somebody had the great idea we’ll tear the warehouse down and we’ll take all the contents and dump them in the river,” Robison said. “Fortunately, a young woman, and I don’t know that I ever heard her name, went in and took about 20 of these just priceless journals out.”
Thanks largely to the efforts of the town's most noted historian, Jack Lepley, the log books ended up in safekeeping at the research center, which also includes tens of thousands of photos that volunteers have indexed over the years and are slowly working their way through the process of digitizing.
Robison chooses at random a portage register listing the 25-man crew on the Rose Bud, which made its way to Fort Benton in 1883. Written in pencil alongside their names are the crew members' job titles – from the captain, or master, R.F. Wolford to the clerk and pilot Charles Blount and on down to the “roosters.”
“In a lot of cases, the crews, not the officers but the crews, were totally African-American, or Irish in other cases,” Robison said. “After the Civil War, it became very common to have black crews.”
In the Rose Bud’s case some of the crewmen bore names like Frank Black Hawk, and near the bottom of the log page, Paul, Dog and Tom – with no last names listed.
“It looks like the majority of the roosters on this one were Indians,” Robison noted.
The Grand Union Hotel doesn’t have “Museum” in its name, but it might as well.
The brick 1882 hotel with a grand view of both the river and downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. But its demise in the late 20th century seemed all too much like a barometer of Fort Benton’s fortunes.
“When we first saw the hotel, it was an empty shell,” Cheryl Gagnon says. “There was nothing in here.”
Indeed it had sat vacant for at least 10 years after a previous group of investors went belly up. Gagnon and her husband Jim stumbled onto it in the mid-'90s when their car broke down one night.
They were en route to Chester, hometown to both of them, while on leave with their children from jobs in Hong Kong, where Jim was an executive for a private trading company and Cheryl worked in interior design.
While a mechanic looked over their vehicle, the family waited at the Banque Club across Front Street from the Grand Union. Cheryl went for a walk, noticed the “For Sale” sign on the Grand Union, peered into the windows and the wheels started turning. They stayed that way when they arrived in Chester.
“I worked for an architectural firm for over 20 years, so I love historic buildings,” she says. “Jim said why don’t we just come down and look at it?”
They were trying to find a way to return to the U.S., though not necessarily small-town Montana, Cheryl says.
But they were hooked by the possibilities of the grand old Grand Union, bought it in 1995 and moved to Fort Benton in 1997. Two years of extensive and expensive restoration work later, with Cheryl concentrating on reviving the hotel’s “Victorian Cowboy” past, the doors opened on Nov. 1, 1999, the same day it opened in 1882.
There were casualties. After two years of unemployment, Jim felt compelled to return to Hong Kong to work. He’s been there ever since. He returns, or his wife flies to Hong Kong, only a few times each year. The pressure of such separation has been tremendous, she says.
Earlier this month, the Grand Union was named Montana’s most iconic hotel by Lee Breslouer at thrillist.com. Breslouer made a similar selection for every state and D.C.
“If you want to find the oldest restaurant in a state, that’s easy,” he wrote. “If you want to determine the most iconic restaurant in a state, that's more difficult, mostly because it requires looking up what the hell iconic means in the dictionary.”
Such a grand and historic hotel in town is special, according to Randy Morger, executive director of the River and Plains Society.
“To have that quality of a place, especially on the Missouri River, well, it’s been a godsend,” he says.
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Morger remembers the hotel as being “pretty doughty” when he was growing up in Fort Benton in the 1950s and ‘60s. The owner, Harold Thomas, did his best to keep the walls from falling down, but there “wasn’t much extra to try to restore it to any kind of its former grandeur,” Morger says.
The hotel lobby was where you bought your bus tickets to Great Falls, where the Great Falls Tribune was dumped off in the morning, where the distinctive orange Great Falls Leaders were dumped in the afternoon.
“Then I went off to the military and it wasn’t long after I was gone that they boarded it up,” Morger says. “I’d call home from somewhere around the world and say, ‘How’s the Grand Union doing?' 'Well, it’s still boarded up.'
“So God bless Cheryl and Jim for coming in like angels and restoring the thing. It would have been a terrible shame to lose that.”
Part of Fort Benton’s “Birthplace of Montana” claim stands at the northeast corner of Old Fort Benton. A block house or bastion, which originally had a twin on the southwest corner, is the oldest structure in Montana.
Though rifle portals were built in, Morger said, “it’s important to note that there was never a shot fired in anger from Fort Benton that we know of.”
Through the efforts of folks like Morger, Lepley and a coterie of other volunteer researchers and workers, the River and Plains Society is reconstructing the 1846-47 fort to be as historically accurate as possible.
They’ve finished with a warehouse, blacksmith and carpenter’s shop and a trade store that stuns you with its feel of authenticity. A new bourgeois house – where the bigwigs of the American Fur Co. like Alexander Culbertson lived with their families – includes the Starr Gallery of Western Art, adorned by rare Karl Bodmer prints detailing the area scenery and Indian cultures from a visit in the 1830s.
They’re doing so while maintaining the likes of the Montana Agricultural Center, the official state museum for a barn full of vintage farm equipment, farmhouse furnishings and other displays of life in days of yore on the bluffs above town and throughout Chouteau County. One featured exhibit is the 5 millionth tractor produced by International Harvester, which came off the line Feb. 1, 1974.
Most of the museums are closed during the winter, but there's one gem that stays open year-round. That's the Bureau of Land Management-managed Upper Missouri River Breaks interpretive center a few blocks south of the Grand Union. There, the surrender rifle of Chief Joseph after the Bearpaw battle in 1877 is on display.
Director Connie Jacobs has worked hard to make the center a haven for old and young. Fort Benton may be the only place in the state that offers school float trips down a wild and scenic river through a BLM program.
Snow started falling just before New Year’s and didn’t stop seriously for more than a week. It was accompanied by subzero temperatures, forging ice jams on the river backed up behind an island downstream. Such jams against such a low levee created a floody mess here in February 1996 and a recurrence is always a fear.
The ice built to within a few feet of the historic walking bridge in early January as the locals kept a close watch, though warmer weather eventually dispelled immediate fears.
“How many times I have said that I love the four seasons. Perhaps I love three more than the other one,” Muncie Morger, Randy’s stepmother, wrote in her popular weekly column, “View from the Bridge,” in the River Press.
"It is great looking out the window as long as you do not have to go somewhere or be somewhere. Am I getting any projects updated? Not when I sit and stare out the window. Ah! I think it just stopped snowing again. Oh, it just started again.”
The river IS Fort Benton, Mike Gregston says.
An accomplished falconer (see related story, Page A1) Gregston and wife Meredith bought Missouri River Outfitters 10 years ago.
Just as the movie “A River Runs Through It” changed fly-fishing on the Blackfoot and other western Montana streams, Stephen Ambrose’s classic Lewis and Clark book “Undaunted Courage” had a resounding effect on recreation on the Upper Missouri.
In a Chapter 19 footnote, while expounding on the marvels of the White Cliffs area as Lewis and Clark passed through them in 1805, Ambrose noted: “Missouri River Outfitters at Fort Benton, Montana, rents canoes or provides a guided tour by pontoon boat. Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one. We have made the trip ten times.”
It hooked the Gregstons then and river adventurers for years after.
Annual river trips, most of them starting in Fort Benton with a drive downriver to Coal Banks Landing, leaped to more than 6,000 in the years after the book came out.
Ambrose, his daughter Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs of Helena and others in the family further spurred the local economy by teaming with outfitters to lead their own trips.
“We’d have big dinners in the dining room (of the Grand Union). Stephen Ambrose would sign the books, then they’d all go out on the river the next day and experience what they’d been reading,” Cheryl Gagnon recalls.
Ironically, by the time the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration arrived in Fort Benton in 2005, the number of river trips had peaked.
“We’re down to a much more manageable number of people on the river now,” Mike Gregston says.
Fewer outfitters, too, which he says is a good thing.
“I can say right now that those of us who are left on the river are all giving good trips,” he says. “That wasn’t always the case. The not-so-good floats are gone now.”
Declining numbers across town at Fort Benton High School are alarming. Every afternoon there’s a heretofore unimaginable scene. Basketball players from Geraldine, longtime rival of the Fort Benton Longhorns, climb off a bus after a 26-mile trip to join their teammates for practice in an “emergency co-op” forged just before the season.
That came after a football season devoid of Friday night lights. A decade after the Longhorns finished a string of three straight appearances in Class B championship games, winning in 2002, there weren’t enough players to field a Class C eight-man varsity team this fall.
After an attempt to forge a co-op with Great Falls Central was thwarted, the Longhorns played a junior varsity schedule with most of the games on Monday afternoons.
It was, says Superintendent Scott Chauvet, “a bitter pill for people to choke down.”
Chauvet grew up in and later coached football at Big Sandy. His Pioneers played in the state eight-man title game in 2003 at Drummond on the same day Fort Benton played for the B title.
When he arrived at Fort Benton seven years ago, there were 140 students in the high school, Chauvet says Today there are 68 – 35 of them boys. For various reasons, most of them didn’t go out for football, Chauvet says. But other small Montana schools share one of them.
“The game of high school football is going to change,” Chauvet predicts. “It’s easier these days to play Madden with a joystick than to put on the pads.”
Still, numbers in the elementary school are encouraging, and Fort Benton will petition the Montana High School Association to resume a varsity football schedule next year.