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Fort Benton

Fort Benton, one of the oldest communities in Montana, is built at the head of navigation on the Missouri River. The town operated as a major trading post for the American Fur Co. between 1850 to the late 1880s, and was the world’s innermost port. Here supplies were unloaded and taken on freight wagons to gold camps in Helena, Virginia City and other western locations within Montana. River rapids near Fort Benton prevented steamboats from going any further.

From 1860 to 1887, the town was known as “the toughest town in the West.” Today it is the gateway for exploration of the Wild & Scenic Upper Missouri River.

The Grand Union Hotel, once the “finest hostelry between Seattle and the Twin Cities,” was erected in 1882. This landmark hosted an array of guests who were stopping at the head of the Missouri, including Army officers, trappers, river captains, stockmen, missionaries and Indian agents. The hotel has been restored to its original grandeur for guests to enjoy today.

The lucrative trading diminished seemingly overnight when the Great Northern Railroad reached Helena in 1887. Ruins of the 250-foot square trading post and blockhouse still remain in the present-day tourist park; it is said that one wall on the back of the buildings was originally 32 feet thick. Many original buildings are still in use in Fort Benton.

Reprinted from “The Ultimate Montana Atlas and Travel Encyclopedia”

Old Shep
City Park on the Missouri, Fort Benton.

The body of Shep’s master was placed on a train headed east for a burial. Old Shep was left behind. For over five years, Shep stayed at the depot on the northern edge of town waiting for his owner to return. He wore a mile-long trail to the Missouri River where he would go for water. Sympathetic railyard workers fed him. He slept beneath one of the wooden platforms at the station. A story was published about the faithful canine and he became famous. Travelers would route their trips through Fort Benton just to get a look at the famous dog. Shep got so much fan mail that the station master hired a secretary just to handle it. Each day he would faithfully meet every train that arrived hoping to greet his absent master.

He may have waited longer if he hadn’t slipped on an icy track one day and fallen under the wheels of a train in 1942. He was given a fitting funeral by hundreds of local citizens and buried on the hill above the depot. His casket was carried by the local boy scouts, a eulogy was read and “Taps” were played. A lot of tears fell that day. His grave and memorial can be seen from the old depot. A bronze statue of Shep was erected by the Great Northern Railroad on the levee on Front Street.

Reprinted from “The Ultimate Montana Atlas and Travel Encyclopedia”

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