Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 99 – Fort Benton: The ‘birthplace of Montana’

Tuesday August 26, 2014, 5 miles (8 km) – Total so far: 4,345 miles (6,993 km)

Fort Benton is the most important place in Montana that you’ve never heard about. Everyone knows Missoula and Bozeman, and that the state capital is Helena. But how many people have ever heard of Fort Benton? If the name rings a bell, do you know why the town is so important in Montana’s history?

Fort Benton bills itself as ‘the birthplace of Montana’. It was Montana’s first commercial hub and was a boomtown that was considered ‘the world’s innermost port’. It started as a fur trading post in 1850 after Ft Lewis upstream was relocated here. In 1859, the first riverboats made the trip upstream to Fort Benton, the furthest navigable port on the Missouri River (not far upstream you start running into the waterfalls that make up Great Falls). Then gold was discovered at Bannack and elsewhere. The river became the most efficient way to get goldseekers west and gold back east. Additionally, Mullan completed his military road from Fort Benton to Walla Walla, Washington in the 1860s. Fort Benton became a trade center. Steamboat and freighting operators became very profitable and the city thrived. It was called the ‘Chicago of the Plains’. But as the gold played out, the town declined.

A second boom started in 1875 as three families of merchants took advantage of supplying Canadian Mounties who arrived in Western Canada to suppress the whiskey trade. Of course, the merchants both supplied the Mounties AND took part in the whiskey trade. The Power, Baker and Conrad families had their hands in many pots and made Fort Benton again a trade center with business interests from the Arctic to New Orleans. (We met one of the Conrad brothers back in Kalispell – he founded that town.) In one year, the Conrad brothers handled 20 million pounds of freight for the U.S. Government alone.

However, transcontinental railroads put an end to Fort Benton as a trade center. The river could not compete with the railroads. A railroad eventually did come to Ft Benton. The merchants built the three-story Grand Union Hotel and a bridge over the Missouri in anticipation of it becoming a major railroad hub. But that was not to be. It did become a shipping point for cattle and wheat, but never regained its prominence. The railroad is gone now.

Downtown Ft Benton. The three buildings over there were built by the merchant families that built a bit of a trade empire out of those buildings.
Many of the buildings along the street fronting the river date from the late 1800s, but most have been heavily modified over the years.
More old buildings in downtown Ft Benton.
The Grand Union Hotel was built in anticipation of the town becoming a railroad hub. That did not come to be, so it eventually fell into disrepair. The old hotel has had a revamp in recent years.

The town has done a tremendous job of documenting and preserving many parts of its history. So today, we are going to get our nerd on and explore town. For $10 you can get a pass to get you into all of the town’s museums and attractions.

I start off at the BLM Interpretive Center. Here you can watch an introductory film on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Canoeing this section of the river is very popular. The centre has exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the river. There are replicas of steamboats and freighting wagons, and plenty of information about the species found in and out of the river. I also have a good chat with the head river ranger about river conditions and the challenges of managing the Monument with reduced staff and funding.

Bike path along the river underneath the massive old trees.

From here we follow the bike path toward town, stopping to read all of the interpretive sign boards along the way. We visit the Museum of the Upper Missouri – a local history museum full of interesting exhibits that have absolutely no flow. I very much enjoyed the museum; however, you’ve got to put the timeline together in your head, because it is not done for you!

After this we head over to the old fort. The public have been raising funds for many years to reconstruct the fort. The only original part left standing is one of the old bastions – one of the oldest remaining buildings in the state. Inside the reconstructed supply store, the volunteer gives you a history of the fort. The guy there when I visit is a descendant of fur trappers and sets many traplines himself. All of the animal skins on display in the supply store are ones he has caught or shot. He is dressed as a fur trapper. His long hair and full beard complete the picture. His talk is extremely informative, and when he detects that I’m a bit of a nerd, he goes into even more detail and keeps encouraging me to ask more questions. He even takes me over to see some of the original adobe in the bastion and explains the crumbling adobe walls nearby. The fort also has an outstanding collection of Western Art, including a sculpture collection by Scriver. I spend way too long in there!

One of the bastions at the old fort. This is one of the oldest buildings in Montana.

Even though I started the day at 8 am, it is already 2 pm by the time I finish with the fort, so I stop at the supermarket to get fixings for lunch that I can eat in the park that runs along the river. The supermarket is a Western Family brand – and I’ve been impressed with how well this chain has been stocked and what good sale prices they feature in all of the associated stores I’ve been into on this trip. This one is no exception – and the deli has a bunch of freshly made pasta salads to choose from.

After lunch and a little more exploration of the river front, I head over to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains. This is the state of Montana Museum of Agriculture, and it depicts the last 100 years on the Montana prairie. It is a thorough and interesting explanation of the hardships of homesteading and the technological developments in agriculture. But really, it is hard for me to get interested in all that machinery! I keep my Dad and Grandpa close to my heart through all of it, but a chick like me can only look at so many seeders, headers, threshers, tractors and engines before my eyes glaze over. Do that on top of six hours of local history already consumed today, and by the time I make it the 1980s tractors, I’m pretty much done. My nerdiness does not extend to machinery no matter how hard I try. At least the air conditioning is welcome since it is quite warm outside. I also give the Homestead Village a miss because I’ve visited ‘frontier villages’ quite a few times previously in life.

Obligatory Lewis and Clark statue. You cannot be a town sitting on the Missouri River without one.

After this, I ride around town and check out the historic buildings, trying to put myself back into the time period and imagine the noise and bustle of the riverfront and all the dealings at the merchants. I try to trace the progression of town development through the buildings and neighbourhoods. And I also just sit in the shade of a cottonwood by the river and imagine what it would have looked like back in the day (no trees, lots of dust, mud and commerce, I think). It has been a fantastic day!

All along the river, there are lots of busts and full body statues of important people (men) in the town’s history. There are also many interpretive signs detailing the town’s history. This is the bust of Thomas Meagher. He was sent to Australia as a convict after being sentenced for sedition for leading a rebellion in Ireland. He escaped Australia, moved to the US and rose through the ranks in the Civil War. He was appointed the Acting Governor of Montana Territory in 1865. But he put a lot of people off-side. When he was visiting Ft Benton in 1867 to pick up a supply of guns and ammunition for his controversial volunteer militia, he fell off a steamboat at night and drowned. His body was never found. Because he was so outspoken and controversial, there have been suggestions his death was suspicious. But he had so many enemies, no one can pinpoint who it might have been that pushed him off the boat. Or he might have been drunk, overbalanced and went for a deadly dip. We’ll never know.

Back at the campground, I see an older gentleman roll in on a touring bike. He rolls up to me and asks if I’m touring (my panniers are all in the tent). We converse for a bit before he heads off to take a shower and then have dinner in town. Later on he returns and we chat til long after my bedtime. He did portions of the Great Divide Trail with some friends, then turned east at Lincoln, made his way to Great Falls, and is heading up to the Highline (hwy 2) to start heading back home to Michigan.

Mark is an extremely experienced tourer with a bazillion touring miles under his belt. He’s been just about everywhere. He’s very into gear (nerdy Em is not – it’s that machinery thing!) and has a custom bike. He says he doesn’t have much luck talking or being with women, but I think (hope) he didn’t find it too hard to talk to me. We did talk for a long time and he didn’t seem uncomfortable. I try to convince him he should have a look around town tomorrow, but, unless I want to stick around another day and go with him, he’s going to move on. It’s a nice conversation, but unfortunately, I lose his touring business card, so haven’t been able to get in contact with him to see how the rest of his ride went. His first name was Mark. His last name might have been Lawson, and he was from Michigan. Sorry I never emailed, Mark!

The fairgrounds in Ft Benton have a really nice camping area . There is even a nice shower house (which unfortunately smells so much like puke that I can’t stand to stay in there long enough to even get wet).

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