In February 1984 one of my first assignments on the grand field study of Montana known as the state historic preservation plan survey was to check on the progress of the restoration and reopening of the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton.
The work was still underway then, but the result after 30 years of local investment and engagement, assisted mightily by the state historic preservation office and other state groups, is impressive. The Grand Union is a riverfront anchor on one of the nation’s most important river towns in all of U.S. history.
The success of the Grand Union is mirrored in another property I visited in my 1984 day and a half in Fort Benton: the reconstructed Fort Benton. There were bits of the adobe blockhouse and walls still standing in 1984, as they had for decades as shown in the old postcard below.
What the locally administered Museum of the Upper Missouri managed to do was to protect a vitally important site of national significance, and then through its own museum exhibits, try to convey the significance of the place to those who happened to discover it.
In the past 30 years, the museum and its supporters managed to continue protecting the archaeological remnants of the fort but also to rebuild the fort to its mid-19th century appearance. This reconstruction is no small feat, and naturally requires staffing, commitment, and monies to keep the buildings and exhibits in good condition.
A few steps away is another preserved historic building, the I. G. Baker House, built for one of the town’s leading merchants and traders, in weatherboard-disguised abode, in the traditional central hall plan of the mid-19th century. For decades, it has been a passive historic site, opened to the public, with rooms and collections protected by plexiglass. You already have to know much to appreciate the jewel this early bit of domestic architecture represents in understanding the building traditions of the territorial era.
These successful heritage development of the hotel, the fort, and the preservation of the I.G. Baker House, however, has not spurred a greater recognition of the significance of Fort Benton to either national audiences or even residents of the Big Sky Country. When I mention Fort Benton here in the east I typically get blank stares or a quick change of topic. But the town was the westernmost port on the Missouri River, the first interstate exit if you will into the northern plains and northwest. From Fort Benton ran trails and roads into western Canada, Washington State, and into the mines of the Rocky Mountains. The building of the Manitoba Road in the late 1980s eventually meant the town’s importance as a river port was bypassed, but from the mid-19th century into the 1880s, Fort Benton was THE place for commercial expansion, riverboat travel, economic exchange, and the deeper cultural exchanges of the fur trade, with all of those events shaping the national economy and culture. How can such a legacy become diminished? Why? Is it the central Montana location? The lack of national folklore heroes?
Fort Benton is doubly valuable because it is a town with layers, as I have discussed in earlier postings. The town, unlike many of Montana’s early settlements, was no ghost town, instead it was a town with its frontier river port layer, its territorial layer, and its homestead boom layer all competing for attention. The past lives side to side with the present in Fort Benton and thus, it has the potential to shape the future of the town, and this region, in ways that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Now it is time to stress to our national representatives that it is time for America to cast its eyes, and its support, for the preservation and heritage enhancement of a place that tells so much of the nation’s story. Here at Fort Benton is a living historic town, a place where you can stay a bit and learn how the country has grown, changed, and together can better face our uncertain futures. The residents have made a lasting commitment–it is now time for Fort Benton to reach the national stage.
Carroll….a wonderful description of, as you describe a ‘layered’ community. The photographs are lovely. Well done!
Many thanks! Van West
I am so proud to tell people where I was born and raised. Each time I return, Iove seeing the the additional historical preservation that has been accomplished. I remember in the 1960’s there was a push to proclaim the Missouri wilderness and Fort Benton a national park. I hope I’m my lifetime I can see that happen.
It’s been many years since I lived in Ft. Benton. I knew it was an important town in years past but, I had no idea they were rebuilding it! I used to deliver newspapers and I had to pick them up from in front of the Grand Union where the Greyhound dropped them off.