Riding into Fort Benton

By Rick Bass Explore Big Sky Contributor

They say there are only two stories in the world: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger rides into town. Many of the best stories are an amalgamation of the two, and driving into Fort Benton, descending from the high plains into the Missouri River bottomlands studded with giant cottonwoods and seething with Canada geese, a traveler – and writer – couldn’t ask for much more.

As I drive in with a friend, Cristina, who’s never been West, I realize it’s a bit strange that my first impulse was to show her the prairie, not the mountains. Perhaps it had something to do with the idea of a blank canvas – there is so much space here to fill the heart, the mind with awe.

Called “The Birthplace of Montana” – meaning, of course, white Montana – Fort Benton was established by the American Fur Company in 1846.

Prior to that, it was, in some ways, the historical nexus of the Lewis and Clark expedition: On June 2, 1805, just east of here at what’s now known as Decision Point, the leaders had to choose whether to take the left fork – the Missouri River – or the right, the Marias. Despite the protests of their men, the captains gambled left and forged upstream another 40 miles toward what is now Great Falls.

As in many small western towns, a historic hotel anchors Fort Benton’s main street. The oldest operating hotel in Montana, the Grand Union was built in 1882, when it was reportedly the finest between Chicago and Seattle. Restored in 1999 by owners James and Cheryl Gagnon, it is today as good a place as any to spend a hundred bucks on dinner.

Dorothy Meyer, assistant general manager at the Grand Union and a native of northwest Montana, finds the essence of Fort Benton in the roads leading to and from this small town, population 1,486. Meyer likes to get out in every possible direction, and likes to come back, too.

Set in a wide valley beneath howling winds, it is carved by the Missouri River and by time. It’s a fairy tale kind of place, with its bygone ghosts.

Dorothy’s right about the roads: From its beginnings, Fort Benton was the portal for trappers and buffalo hunters who would alter the West, and a jumping-off point for the eventual white settlement of the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. To pursue any of those pipe dreams, one had to follow the Missouri, which meant coming to Fort Benton.
Beyond it, the country got wild. If geography is not destiny, then destiny does not exist.

The oldest operating hotel in Montana, the Grand Union was built in 1882 and today offers fine dining and lodging. PHOTO BY SARAH HELMBRECHT

Staying at the Grand Union, I wander across the street to the Banque Club, craving a steak and a drink, as one does sometimes in the loneliest of landscapes.

I’d heard about an informal gathering at the bar there sometimes referred to as Cocktails with Carter, and that the bartender, Carter Johnsrud, is pretty colorful. While I’m leery at first, I soon see what the fuss is about when he treats me and Cristina, another writer, to free whiskeys. It’s evidently been a long day for him, and we’re the only ones left in there – it’s gotten late, somehow.

But it doesn’t hurt that he’s gobsmacked by Cristina, who looks not unlike the actress Anne Hathaway. 


“You look like someone,” he says. “Aren’t you someone? I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just say it directly, you look, well, great.”

Cristina smiles. “You’re doing fine,” she says.

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A bronze statue of Shep, the town’s honorary mascot, stands in the center of Fort Benton. PHOTO by DONNIE SEXTON/MT OFFICE OF TOURISM

You’d think Fort Benton would be all over the Lewis and Clark saga, but the big celebrity in town is an old border collie named Shep, nearly 70 years gone now. His master, a sheepherder, died one day and his body was shipped by rail to family back East. Old Shep kept waiting by the tracks every day for years, until one sad day when, his hearing diminished, he slipped on the tracks and didn’t hear the train coming.

There’s a silhouette of Shep on the bluff overlooking town, and in the center of town a giant bronze statue of him by Montana sculptor Bob Scriver. My little German shorthair pointer growled and barked at this imposing monolith, rushing at the hero’s elevated iron ankles.

The next day, we meet an old guy in the elevator at the Grand Union, with his equally old wife. Dressed up for the occasion, he’s wearing slacks, a white shirt, vest and bolo tie, and she’s in a dress and jewelry, her silver hair piled high. They’ve driven a long way, they say, to have a nice steak, a nice stay at the nice hotel, remembering older, maybe better times. They’re 75, if they’re a day.

It’s not the simple elegance or opulence of the rooms, nor any one perfect dish on the menu – not even the port reduction on the salty rack of lamb or the pumpkin risotto – that bolsters or saves a marriage; instead it’s the act of trying, the presence of two willing participants. I remember seeing a younger couple earlier in the day, maybe in their 30s, playing tennis on the city courts down by the river.

We go for a drive at dusk. Winterkill has decimated the pronghorn populations, but they’ll be back – ghosts themselves, they are the remnants of long ago, the only animal that could summon such blazing speed to escape the clutches of the North American cheetah that once stalked these same plains 12,000 years prior.

Constructed in the late 19th century, this bridge now serves as a walking bridge near downtown Fort Benton. PHOTO BY CHRIS BOYER/ © www.kestrelaerial.com

We turn down toward the ferry launch and ring the buzzer. In the cabin on the other side of the wide muddy river, a light appears.

Minutes later, we see the bob of a flashlight coming down to the other shore, hear the cough of the diesel engine, then witness the mythic sight of a flat-bottomed barge chugging across the powerful waters, tethered to the overhead wire cable guy line spanning the two shores. The dark waters lap at the wide bow, and when it reaches our shore, we drive on, our tires rumbling onto the planks.

The ferryman nods at us, reverses the engine, and carries us across, into the darkness, a warm dry wind blowing, a crescent moon rising. My little dog leans into the wind, stares ahead, eyes illumined by the ferry’s lantern.

So much beneath us, so much behind us. We move forward, history trailing. Should we look forward, or peer back? Either view is interesting, mid-river, and we push ahead.