Whatever I'm Thinking

Fort Benton, Montana: Head of Navigation on the Missouri

July 31, 2022
(Photos and memories from August 1999 and July 2013)

The Missouri River at Fort Benton, Montana, looking downstream.

The population of the ancient town of Fort Benton, Montana, may have shrunk to 1,449 people in 2020, but its history and landmarks are more than enough to make it interesting.

Fort Benton 150th Anniversary quilt, as displayed inside the Chouteau County Courthouse at Fort Benton.

Fort Benton was founded as a fur trading outpost in 1846 on the upper Missouri River.

Historical sign describing old Fort Benton.

While the mountain fur trade was declining in the 1850s and 1860s, the age of steamboat travel was growing. Fort Benton occupied the head of navigation on the Missouri River, making it a vital trading station for all points between St. Louis and the Far West.

In 1860, the U.S. Army completed the Mullan Wagon Road, a 624-mile military road from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla, present-day Washington state, effectively linking the Missouri River to the waters of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.

Proving Fort Benton’s importance, in 1892 the Grand Union Hotel was constructed along the riverbank.

Entrance to the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana

I stayed a night at the Grand Union Hotel in 2013; the hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel is a classy old place and includes the Union Grille Restaurant, which boasts serving “Montana Regional Cuisine.” I’ll stay again the next time I’m in the area; it’s always nice to have a drink or two in an old historical setting. They’re also nice enough to send me e-mails every year advertising their big Christmas celebrations.

Fort Benton was a wild place in the late 1800s, dubbed the “Bloodiest Block in the West.” The sign below details its reputation; the other photo below shows the same stretch of buildings today.

Here are some more photos of Fort Benton’s downtown district today, including some old watering holes.

More recently, Fort Benton has become known for the story of Shep, an ever-faithful shepherding dog who lost his master but showed up at the Fort Benton train station to meet every train for the next four years, awaiting his return. After Shep’s death, the town built a statue to honor the dog. Man’s Best Friend — proven by his actions. The historical sign below provides the details of Shep’s life and death.

Fort Benton is the seat of Chouteau County. The Chouteau County Courthouse was built in 1884 and is still in use today. Chouteau County was named for Pierre Chouteau, Jr., a St. Louis-based merchant who established a trading post that would eventually become the city of Fort Benton.

The Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana. Built in 1884 and still in use.
Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, Montana
Chouteau County within the state of Montana

Today, although bridges for highways and railways have replaced slower riverboat traffic on the Missouri River, the river’s charm remains.

Picnic tables along the banks of the Missouri River, near the Grand Union Hotel. Fort Benton, Montana.

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

All photos were taken by the author on July 15, 2013.

My lifetime hobby is traveling to all of America’s county courthouses, and each month I post about a visit to a scenic or interesting county seat. It’s a hobby, and donations are greatly appreciated to help cover my costs.


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