Fort Benton, Montana, began in 1846 as a fur and hide trading post located north of the Missouri River on a site favorable for trade with the Blackfoot Indians. As the oldest continually occupied non-Indian settlement in Montana, many call this small town (population about 1,600) the “Birthplace of Montana.”
When steamboats plied the Missouri River in the 1800s, Fort Benton was the world’s innermost port: waterfalls upstream prevented further navigation. During the 30 years that steamboats regularly docked at Fort Benton, the town bustled with the activity of merchants, traders, cowboys, American Indians, and miners. Fort Benton’s restored main street along the river honors the town’s rich and rowdy history.
A statue of Thomas Francis Meagher is shown above. Meager was an Irish patriot who had fought against the British for Irish freedom. He was caught and sentenced to death. Meagher’s sentence was commuted to exile in Tasmania, but he managed to escape. During the American Civil War he was a Brigadier General and became the hero of the Union Army at the Battle of Antietam. He later served as the acting governor of Montana Territory. On July 1, 1867 Meagher was in Fort Benton to collect guns and cannon to fight an Indian war. Following dinner with a prominent local family, he retired to his cabin on the steamboat G. A. Thompson. Sometime during the night he appears to have fallen overboard and drowned; his body was never recovered. His mysterious disappearance has incited a great deal of speculation about what really happened, but it should be remembered that he was a heavy drinker and his death may have been a drunken accident.
A statue of Captain John Mullan is shown above. Mullan constructed the 624-mile wagon road to the head of navigation on the Columbia River during 1855-1862. The road began at the sally port in Fort Benton and ended at Fort Walla Walla in present day Washington. While the Mullan Road was intended for military use, it was actually used only once to move troops to Washington Territory. It was the main route for immigrants to the Northwest and for miners headed for the Idaho gold fields. In 1878, the Mullan Road was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Shown above is the keelboat Mandan which is a replica of a Missouri River keelboat. It is 62 feet long and 12.5 feet wide and was built for the movie The Big Sky. Keelboats were the major form of river transport prior to steamboats and relied on human power for propulsion. The crew would set long ash poles on the river bottom and then walk and push hard from bow to stern. A keelboat speed record was set in 1811 when a keelboat travelled 110 miles in just 61 days.
The Lewis and Clark Memorial shown above was Fort Benton’s contribution to the Nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. The statue is heroic-sized: it is 21 feet tall and the bronze weighs 2.5 tons. It sits on an 85-ton granite base. Artist Bob Scriver spent an entire year in research before beginning the three-year effort. Historical accuracy is reflected in the equipment, clothing, body features, and faces. The artist considers this his best work.
Shown above is a bronze sculpture of Shep by artist Bob Scriver. In August 1936 a casket containing a sheepherder’s body was loaded on a baggage car and headed East for burial. A dog, of collie strain, watched. He would then be there to meet every train year after year. By 1939 conductor Ed Shields had pieced the dog’s story together, linking Shep with the body that had been shipped East. With the real story known, Shep became famous. Shep died on January 12, 1942 when he slipped on the tracks before an incoming train. He was buried on the bluff above the depot; his funeral was attended by hundreds.
By the late 1870s cattle was becoming king on Montana’s plains. The cattle grazed on the free grass of the open range. The cattlemen realized that bison also ate the grass and that Indians were sometimes a menace and so they advocated the extermination of both. The statue shown above is a tribute to the open range cattle era.