Fort Benton: Montana's Birthplace (2 of 2)
Photo: Chris Groeling
In September 1887, the railroad arrived signaling the end of the era of river trade; it seemed Fort Benton would die. But a Canadian trade boom opened resulting in the establishment of the 240-mile-long Whoop Up Trail pointing north to Fort Macleod, Alberta. Although plenty of legitimate commerce was carried out, the trail became known for the illegal whiskey transported on this dangerous and adventure filled route.
Fort Benton is one of the most fascinating and prettiest towns in Montana to visit, especially when seen in the spring, summer, and fall months. The cottonwood-lined Missouri River flows peacefully along a well-maintained levee area of commercial buildings and old homes. It’s hard to imagine that this peaceful agricultural town was as boisterous and raucous as the stories tell. But the sights and sounds of history past are part of what makes Fort Benton so special today. The townsfolk have gone out of their way to preserve important reminders of a way of life that once was.
Remains of the adobe fort buildings, two museums - the Museum of the Northern Great Plains and the Museum of the Upper Missouri, restored homes, a levee with a keelboat and interpretive signs and a bridge that has spanned the Missouri since 1888, add to a pleasant walking tour under massive and stately cottonwoods. You can see the firehouse, built in 1883, and learn of the story of “Old Shep”, a legendary Fort Benton collie, and the Bureau of Land Management maintains a very good river visitor’s center. Here you can obtain information on floating the river as well as learning of outfitters who will guide you and of places that rent canoes.
Then there is Fort Benton’s pride and joy, the newly refurbished Grand Union, Montana’s oldest operating hotel. This historic landmark was originally opened on November 1, 1882, and as one of the levee signs says, “US Army officers, Canadian Mounties, trappers, miners, traders, river captains, stockman, missionaries, Indian agents and road agents rubbed shoulders in the Grand Union’s lobby, spacious dining room and adjourned to its well-stocked bar for the relaxation due the frontiersman at a weary journey’s end.”
Although the hotel did operate fairly consistently from 1882 to 1983, it was essentially just a shell when Jim and Cheryl Gagnon bought it and embarked on their dream to restore the building to its former glory and to preserve as much of the historic value as possible.
And what a magnificent job they’ve done. The lobby and the staircase are still the same, but the hotel rooms are a now comfortable and luxurious mixture of what’s new and old, so that everything works in this modern era.
This is a town and a place that every Montanan should visit at least once. If you were born here, it is part of your heritage. Many folks begin and end their float of the 150-mile-long stretch of the Wild and Scenic Missouri that commences at Fort Benton with a well-deserved stay at the Grand Union. Breakfast comes with the room, and the Union Grille provides riverside, gourmet dining at night. If interested, the website is http://www.grandunionhotel.com/ and has photos and more information of the hotel.
Rick and Susie Graetz