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Historic Fort Benton, at river-mile zero of the 149-mile Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River holds pride of place as “Montana’s Birthplace.” From June to September the tiny town also serves as the staging area for many Missouri Breaks trips and as home base for a slew of outfitters. Most river travelers arrive directly from the Great Falls airport, an hour’s drive away. But if time allows, a stop at Great Falls’s Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, in a spectacular riverside setting, offers a worthwhile overview of the expedition (406-727-8733;
A list of approved river outfitters and shuttle operations is available from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which also provides detailed maps and other information about the river (
Fort Benton enjoys a lengthy history. From its founding in 1846 through the turn of the twentieth century, the town was the hub of trade and travel for the northern Great Plains and much of the American and Canadian West. “All trails lead out of Benton” was a nineteenth-century saying that spoke to the town’s importance for overland as well as river traffic, and until the railroad arrived in 1887, the town’s location at the Upper Missouri’s head of navigation made it “the Chicago of the Plains.”
Much diminished in all respects since those heady days, Fort Benton, population about 1,600, nevertheless retains a quiet charm. It entered the twenty-first century as Montana’s oldest continuously inhabited white settlement, with National Historic Landmark status. The town’s streets and buildings give shape and form to eras that once defined life on the Upper Missouri.
Along the parklike steamboat levee, most visitors stop for a look at the bronze state memorial to Lewis and Clark. But hardly anyone notices, just a stone’s throw down the bank, the palletlike planking resting in shallow water. It’s all that’s left here of the Baby Rose —or of any of the steamboats that disgorged freight and humanity onto rough-and-ready Front Street, for years among the West’s most violent blocks. (Nowadays a dog could nap peacefully by the BLM’s seasonal Visitor Center at 1718 Front Street (406-622-5185.) Meanwhile, across Front Street from the levee, Montana’s oldest building still stands. It Is the massive blockhouse of the fortified fur-trading post that gave Fort Benton its name. Built in 1847–50, the blockhouse is one of the last physical vestiges anywhere of the Western fur trade. It is open to the public, as are other, reconstructed parts of the fort and its small museum.
The town’s hidden gem is located several blocks away from the river and a short walk through an architecturally varied residential area. Just beyond, across from the high school football field, the 30,000-squarefoot Museum of the Northern Great Plains extends the context of life in the region, up to the present. The museum is also home to the Hornaday buffalo group, a tableau of stuffed wild animals, formerly owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Outdoors, a homestead village features old homes and businesses trucked in from outlying settlements to re-create a Great Plains Main Street (406-622-5316, for information on both the museum and the fort).
Before heading out of town and into the Breaks, boaters often stop at the riverside Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882 to be the finest establishment between St. Paul and the Pacific. More recently the three-story brick structure fell into a slow decline and was finally boarded up for 15 years. Now the Grand Union has reopened as the state’s oldest operating hotel after a complete restoration to its historically accurate 1880s grandeur (406-622-1882 or 888-838-1882;