Fort Benton’s significance in the early settlement of Montana is immeasurable. No other town played such a prominent role in the opening of the Northwest. Fort Benton, located on the Missouri River, was once a bustling place to unload fur trappers and to load up with furs. As a trading post, military fort and head of steamboat navigation, Fort Benton was an important overland connection. Built in 1846, its primary purpose was as a fur-trading post. By 1859 Fort Benton was connected to Walla Walla, Washington, by the eastern most town navigable on the Columbia River system, the Mullan Road. The Whoop-Up trail led from Fort Benton to Alberta. This trail was used to supply western Canada with illegal “Indian Whiskey.” Fort Benton also became a supply depot for Canadian Mounties charged with bringing order to the wild, whiskey-sotted western provinces.
Fort Benton is the only trading post that was built in the 19th century to still serve as a town today. It is also known as the gateway to Lewis and Clark’s “scenes of visionary enchantment;” the “Wild and Scenic” Upper Missouri River (622-5494).
Visit the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, Montana’s Agricultural Museum, and the Museum of the Upper Missouri for area history, and walk along the steamboat levee to relive Fort Benton’s colorful river port history. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, built in 1880, is one of Montana’s oldest masonry buildings. View the keelboat Mandan, the remaining blockhouse from the old fort, and other unique attractions. Ferry crossings at nearby Carter and Virgelle operate March through October.
This historic town boasts Montana’s Lewis and Clark memorial a heroic-sized statue of the explorers, Sacagawea and her son.
The Old Fort Benton Bridge was completed in 1888 and remained open until 1963. The Benton Bridge Company constructed it as a toll bridge - no federal subsidy, county or state money was involved - to hold the city’s Judith Basin trade. Chouteau County eventually paid a token $9,999 for the structure in 1896.
For many years, a great 225-foot turnspan stood ready to swing open for the steamboats that never came; finally in 1908 the O.K. steamed through. Neither survived long afterwards. The big span went down in a flood on June 6, 1908 and the O.K. burned on June 30 of the same year.
When the span was built, the Corps of Engineers gave special permission for Fort Benton’s bridge to block steamboat navigation further up the Big Muddy. Oddly enough, the cost of its replacement upriver was financed by a special county levy that matched federal funds; again no state money was involved.
The Bureau of Land Management Visitor Center is within the Fort Benton Historic District, featuring Lewis and Clark information as well as a slide show. The center is operated by volunteers from June through September and is a major contact point for information about the river and its resources. Brochures, maps, interpretive programs and displays are provided.
The walking tour of the four-block levee includes museums, the ruins of the old fort and several other historical buildings. It is also the launch point for the 149-mile “Wild and Scenic” stretch of the Missouri River.