Fort Benton – Birthplace of Montana

Old Fort Benton, Montana by John Ford Clymer, 1967.

Old Fort Benton, Montana by John Ford Clymer, 1967.

By this time, the town of Fort Benton had become prosperous and new buildings lined the levee. However, it had also developed a rowdy reputation. On Front Street, between the cross streets of 15th and 16th Streets, was what was known as the “bloodiest block in the West.” Containing more than a dozen saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors and brothels, violence was often the order of the day. In the midst of this wicked block, the infamous Eleanor Dumont, better known as “Madame Mustache,” had set up her blackjack table in a gambling den called “The Jungle.”

In June 1867, as she sat at her table dealing cards, she spied an incoming steamboat called the Walter B. Dance coming into the dock. Having heard a report that the boat was carrying smallpox aboard, she jumped up from her table, ran down the stairs and across the street to the levee, where she brandished two pistols, warning the captain not to stop. Though the infamous madame is far better known for her other capers across the west, she may very well have saved the flourishing town from suffering a number of deaths.

Just a month later, another event would occur, which would become the talk of the town. In the summer of 1867, General Thomas Francis Meagher, then acting governor of Montana Territory, traveled to Fort Benton to receive a shipment of guns and ammunition sent by General William T. Sherman for use by the Montana Militia. On the evening of July 1st, Meagher, who had been ill, fell overboard from the steamboat G. A. Thompson, into the rushing waters of the Missouri River. His body was never recovered. Many believed his death was suspicious and he may have been murdered, but, this was never determined.

In the meantime, the old trading post of Fort Benton, though owned by the U.S. Army, had sat abandoned for four years. When troops finally occupied it in 1869, to utilize the post as a supply base for Forts Shaw and Ellis, it had already begun to deteriorate. Though the fort would be occupied for the next six years, little was done to improve it. One soldier, Lieutenant James H. Bradley, who served at the post during this time, wrote in his journal: “Gradually the wild country became to tame for the great fur traders. The forts passed into the hands of the federal troops and the heroic role of the trapper and trader had been played. He had found the trails which the settler followed. He had explored and named the lakes and the streams. He had learned how to deal with the tribes so that their full fury was never unleashed upon the settlers. He released a primitive source of wealth that built nations.”  In 1875 the military abandoned the fort and for the next few years, private families occupied its buildings. However, it was completely empty by 1881 and left to deteriorate.

Fort Benton Hey days

Fort Benton Heydays

The peak of the riverboat trade to the town of  Fort Benton was in 1879, when 47 boats carried, 9,444 tons of cargo up the river. The next decade would see Fort Benton taking on an air of respectability. Numerous brick buildings replaced more shoddily built saloons and brothels, and the levee was finally more peaceful, having outlived its rowdy reputation. In 1882, the Grand Union Hotel opened. Said to have the finest accommodations between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington, it hosted the rich and the famous, but, its grand reputation would be short-lived. Just a year later, the Northern Pacific Railroad to Helena was completed in June 1883, which would end the long supremacy of the Benton Road as the Territory’s most important highway. Two months later, in August, the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached Calgary, abruptly ending the importance of the Northern roads into Alberta and Saskatchewan. Dealing a mortal blow to Fort Benton, the Grand Union Hotel failed in early 1884. Over the next century, the once luxurious hotel would go through a series of owners, declining all along the way. However, today, it has been restored to its former luxury and continues to stand in Fort Benton operating as a Bed and Breakfast Inn. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The last silver spike of the railroad to Fort Benton came in 1887, signaling the end of the great steamboat era. The last commercial boat unloaded its cargo at Fort Benton in 1890. From 1860 to 1890, 600 steamboats had reached the head of navigation of the. Though much declined from its previous heydays, Fort Benton continued on and fared well during an agricultural boom created by the Homestead Act.

Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana's Historic District, courtesy Wikipedia.

Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana’s Historic District, courtesy Wikipedia.

In the meantime, the old Fort Benton post had completely fallen into ruins by 1900. Only the crumbling northeast blockhouse and part of the adobe wall remained of the fort. However, in 1908, the Daughters of the American Revolution rescued the remnants with the assistance of donated funds, including $1,500 from the Montana legislature. The oldest building in Montana is still standing today because of their efforts. Over the years, a number of the other old buildings have been reconstructed including the Trade Store,  the Warehouse, the Blacksmith and Carpenter’s Shop, and the main “Sally Port” Gate.

Today, Fort Benton is known as the “Birthplace of Montana” and called home to just about 1,600 people. It proudly features a number of sites that exhibit its rich heritage, including several museums and a walking tour of the historic district which features numerous historic buildings. Fort Benton’s waterfront area was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.

The town is a haven for history buffs as well as recreation enthusiasts seeking solitude and the unique beauty found along the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. It is located along several trails including the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Mullen Road, Whoop-up Trail into Alberta, Canada and the Fort Walsh Trail into Saskatchewan.

More Information:

DVD Available at Legends’ General Store

Fort Benton, Montana
P.O. Box 262
Fort Benton, Montana  59442

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Also See: 

Forts & Presidios Across America

The Great Fur Trade Companies

Montana Forts of the Old west

Montana – Big Sky Country

Upper Missouri River Breaks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *