Friday, July 4, 2008

Postcard from Fort Benton, MT

June 15, 2008

Fort Benton is the oldest town in Montana. It began as Fort Clay in 1847, and was renamed Fort Benton in honor of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in 1850. Senator Benton of Missouri was an ardent supporter of the fur trade that played such an important part in Fort Benton’s early history.

Today, Fort Benton is a designated National Historic Landmark for its role in the development of the Western U.S. and Canada. The town was important as a transportation transfer point from the uppermost navigable stretch of the Missouri River to the 642-mile Mullan Wagon Trail that continued westward to Walla Walla, WA. Here, steamboat crews would unload their cargo onto wagon trains that continued to destinations both north and west.

Everything changed in the mid-1880s when the Great Northern Railroad was extended into the region. The shift to rail freight transport quickly scuttled the once thriving steamboat business and the town’s economy with it.

The centerpiece of today’s Fort Benton is the delightful Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882. The Grand Union miraculously survived many years of neglect and economic booms and busts. Here are links to an excellent blog about the Grand Union by Ken Robison, Historian at the Overholtser Historical Research Center, Fort Benton:, followed by clicking "Jewel in Fort Benton's Crown: The Grand Union" under Archived Posts. The 26-room hotel was restored in 1999 to its Victorian splendor and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As of June 15, 2008, rates for a double were $100 to $110 November 1-April 30; and $120 to $130 May 1-October 30. Discounts are available. The room rate includes a full European-style breakfast buffet. Our room overlooked the rushing Missouri River, running high from snowmelt and recent rains. Other rooms overlook the shaded main square and the picturesque waterfront.

The saloon and dining room now house the Union Grille Restaurant and Pub, featuring Montana regional cuisine. The executive chef, Nick Mehmke, trained at the Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated Western Culinary Institute in Portland, OR. Before coming to the Grand Union in 2006, Mehmke worked at such esteemed eateries as The French Laundry in Yountville, CA. Our delicious entrees were a roasted chicken breast done in a huckleberry pan gravy, and a Seafood Medley served over a fresh coriander pasta prepared with bok choy and kaffir lime coconut milk. Outdoor dining overlooking the Missouri River is available in summer.

Fort Benton is well worth a full day’s visit with several museums and attractions open during late May-September. We enjoyed strolling through the Museum of the Northern Great Plains. The $5 admission fee also covers the Historic Old Fort Museum, Museum of the Upper Missouri and the Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center.

Main Entrance, Grand Union Hotel, Fort Benton, MT.

Ladies’ Entrance, Grand Union Hotel (see Robison Blog for an explanation).

This bison was used as the model for the “buffalo” nickel, first minted in 1913. It belonged to the Hornaday-Smithsonian Bison Collection, now located in the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, Fort Benton.

“Oxbow” bend in the Missouri River, just upstream from Fort Benton.

Levee in Fort Benton, once used by steamers for unloading cargo.

The 1888 Old Fort Benton Bridge, now on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been a pedestrian bridge since 1963.

1884 Chouteau County Courthouse, Fort Benton, still in use today.

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