Travel: Postcard from Fort Benton, Montana

The Missouri River in Fort Benton, Montana. | Dennis Lennox

I found myself in this sleepy town along the Missouri River over a late summer weekend.

Fort Benton was first visited by the famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 8,000-mile expedition between the years 1804 and 1806. With their Corps of Discovery, the duo not only found a way across the mostly undiscovered continent but asserted American sovereignty in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase.

The westward expansion that Lewis and Clark ignited would put Fort Benton on the map. The trappers, traders and pioneers who followed over the ensuing decades made it the birthplace of Montana.

Never a real fort, at least not in the way most people think of forts, this was a fur trading post that quickly became the last port before the 900-foot-wide great falls that serve as the namesake of present-day Great Falls made the Missouri unnavigable.

Back then, the river was the equivalent of today’s interstate highway. The goods and supplies transported from St. Louis were offloaded and then sent farther west across Montana and Idaho to Walla Walla, Washington, on a wagon road that was built just before the Civil War.

The Grand Union Hotel anchors Front Street in Fort Benton, Montana. | Dennis Lennox

To call Fort Benton sleepy is an understatement, though in its heyday the main drag fronting the river — the aptly named Front Street — would have been bustling with all sorts of activities. A series of signs along the riverwalk take visitors back to when things in town were considerably rowdier.

Those days are long gone as the carpet is literally and figuratively rolled up after 5 o’clock.

Those who do stay the night almost certainly book a room at the National Register of Historic Places-listed Grand Union Hotel, which for many is a destination in its own right.

Built as the railroads were about to make Fort Benton irrelevant, the Italianate-style hotel — one of my favorite period hotels anywhere in the American West — was basically built in the wrong place at the wrong time. After years of dereliction, it was thoughtfully restored at the turn of this century. The 26 rooms reflect the era of its construction while also offering the comforts and amenities one expects today.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Benton, Montana. | Dennis Lennox

A short walk away is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

In continuous use since 1881, the simple but elegant brick Gothic revival church is typical of the Protestant churches that sprung up as mining camps and frontier settlements became towns or cities and one-time missions evolved into permanent congregations. I’m informed by a brochure that St. Paul’s is the oldest Episcopal church in Montana.

Other sights include the stately Chouteau County Courthouse and the museums that make up the Fort Benton Museums and Heritage Complex. Sadly, the museums are only open from Memorial Day through the end of September (as in next weekend).

If you go

The Grand Union Hotel has regular offers centered around its fine dining restaurant, the Union Grille. This includes a fall wine tasting event over the weekend of Oct. 6 that features a six-course paired dinner.

An hour away in Great Falls are two visits: the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and the C.M. Russell Museum, the latter of which is named for the cowboy artist Charles Russell.

Great Falls is also home to the closest airport with flights on Alaska, Delta and United or their regional partners. For those driving, Fort Benton is six hours from Spokane, five hours from the Canadian city of Calgary and eight hours from Salt Lake City.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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