In 1984, when John Lepley took me through Fort Benton and spoke of the community’s dreams for both preservation and heritage tourism, the vision was compelling but at the same time you had to wonder whether it was feasible. One morning was spent at the Grand Union Hotel, a marvelous Victorian-era building, right on the river front. It was then under restoration yet I had spent a night there and the future seemed bright. But managing heritage assets is challenging and the hotel has passed through several approaches until its most recent owners seem got it right. In the summer season and on weekend the hotel is a busy place.
Next Lepley took me to the ruins of Fort Benton and spoke of the pending reconstruction of the fort. The notion of reconstructing the nationally significant fur trade posts of the mid-19th century was an idea I had heard elsewhere, especially at Fort Union, at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers on the Montana-North Dakota border.
But Ft Union would be a National Park Service project, with all of that agency prestige and federal funding behind it. Fort Benton too was nationally significant but the property was not owned by the federal government–a complete reconstruction struck me as ambitious if not fantasy in 1984. Well, I was wrong: Fort Benton, mid-19th century, has been reconstructed, and serves as a centerpiece of the town’s public interpretation.
The fort is not only rebuilt in its exterior–a reconstruction that you can find elsewhere in the West–but it has a completed interior, divided into period rooms and modern exhibit spaces. Finally there is a property in central Montana that conveys visually and physically what a mid-1800s trading post was like, and just how crucial this mix of private enterprise and Native American relations was to the region’s history.
The reconstruction also preserves and interprets the few bits of original fort wall that exist–and that were slowly ebbing away back in 1984.
No doubt the reconstruction of Fort Benton, and the preservation of the remaining fort site, are major achievements for anyone, especially a town and county that are relatively isolated from large population areas like this one. In 1984, John Lepley shared with me one last set of resources–the riverfront buildings. There the story still needs to grow. The recent success of the hotel should spur even more investment into the adaptive reuse of these buildings. Splendid properties they are, and still a potential backbone for the revitalization of the local economy.
The 1984 story ends here–and I must admit that the progress in heritage development is impressive. But there is still the more recent history to digest, and that will be the next blog from Fort Benton.