In Sep 2019 I was invited, along with 3 other travel writers, on a press trip to Central Montana. The following article was written as a result of one of the places I visited on that trip.
Fort Benton may not be on the radar for a lot of tourists but the small town in North Central Montana is full of history.
Known as the Birthplace of Montana, Fort Benton dates to 1846 when fur traders and explorers first came to the region and a fort was established for trading. Located on the banks of the Missouri River, Fort Benton quickly became a hub for traders and people headed west to the goldfields. Today Fort Benton is popular with history buffs and those seeking to enjoy canoeing, rafting, and fishing on the Missouri River.
Historic Fort Benton has been rebuilt and is still experiencing an ongoing effort to restore the fort to what it previously looked like. Inside the fort, the remaining structure has been preserved and it is the oldest building in Montana. Located on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Fort Benton is the gateway to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. So, as you can see this small town has a lot to offer.
At one point in history, Fort Benton had the distinction of the bloodiest block in the west. Situated on the banks of the river adjacent to the Fort, Front Street housed saloons, dance halls, gambling houses and brothels geared to attract the fur traders, and people headed west.
Today Fort Benton is a lot calmer. Instead of gunfights on Front street or barroom brawls you are more likely to see people visiting the historic sites or canoeing down the Missouri River or maybe just enjoying the riverfront.
Nicolle Fugere owns and operates Missouri River Outfitters based in Fort Benton. With over 19 years’ experience and a talented group of guides, Missouri River Outfitters offers day trips up to six hours where you can enjoy a leisurely trip down the river taking in all the beauty and history of the area.
If you really want a Montana river experience, they also offer guided trips lasting up to six days where all meals, camping gear, and even wine and beer are provided. There is no better way to experience the Missouri River, enjoy great food and local brews than a multi-day canoe trip.
Once you enjoy a trip down the river make sure you visit historic Fort Benton. The original fort was abandoned in 1881 and the building eroded over time leaving only the blockhouse. Reconstruction of the fort has been an ongoing effort and a lot has been accomplished. Today visitors can see what the fort looked like including the trading area where fur traders and Indians would come to trade furs and goods and part of the fort houses the Starr Gallery of Western Art.
The establishment of Fort Benton on the banks of the Missouri River allowed not only trading in the area but is what built the town and made it an important stop for westward travelers. The fort opens Memorial Day Weekend through September 30th from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Saturday and from noon till 4:00 pm on Sundays.
Fort Benton is a great place to spend a weekend or a couple of days and there is no better place to stay while in town than the Grand Union Hotel.
The Grand Union Hotel was built in 1882 at the height of activity in Fort Benton. Over the years the hotel welcomed guests, many of whom would stand on the balcony overlooking the bloodiest block in the West and the bawdy activities that ensued.
The hotel fell into disrepair over the years and changed hands several times. The current owners, James and Cheryl Gagnon bought the property in 1995 and have meticulously brought the property back to life showcasing the glamour of the old west and offering guests not only a great place to spend the night but fine dining in the Union Grille Restaurant.
Situated on the banks of the Missouri River the hotel greets those wanting to enjoy everything the city has to offer and also greets celebrities coming into the area to film movies and TV shows. The rooms are appointed with modern amenities but still hold the old west charm.
There is also a gift shop on the premises and the restaurant and bar are adorned with photos of what it looked like in the old days.
While you are there make sure you take a walk along the river bank. There is a park where a lot of signs will tell you the history of Fort Benton including the story about Shep, a dog who spent years greeting the trains each day hoping his owner would return. The walking bridge across the Missouri River and the statues depicting the history along with the information about the way things were, help bring the history of Fort Benton to life.
I really enjoyed my time in Fort Benton, the place is beautiful, full of history, has that small-town charm and great people. Located only about 40 minutes from Great Falls Montana, Fort Benton is well worth a visit. You won’t be disappointed.