Stroll through Missouri River history at Fort Benton

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Fort Benton Bridge

The Fort Benton Bridge was built as a way to haul farm goods from the Judith Basin to the town’s rail line, keeping the trading city alive after river travel died. 

Although founded in 1846 by the American Fur Company along the Missouri River, Fort Benton became well-known in 1860 when the first steamboats arrived from St. Louis following a two-month trip upstream.

The steamboats made the trip with 400 soldiers aboard who would help build the Mullan Road, a military route between Walla Walla, Washington, and Fort Benton. The road was completed in 1862.

Modern travelers can get a sense of the history of Fort Benton by taking a 1.5-mile walk along the town’s paved Missouri River path. The route glides under the shade of towering cottonwood trees along Front Street. The path is festooned with statues, plaques and reader boards filled with information on the area’s early white history. Several benches are also positioned along the walk providing a place for quiet contemplation as the water rolls past.

Grand Union Hotel

Fort Benton’s Grand Union Hotel was built in 1882. The name was meant to emphasize the reconciliation between the North and South following the Civil War.

Along the walking path is the Fort Benton Bridge, completed in the late 1800s, the iron bridge was built with one portion capable of pivoting to allow boat traffic to pass. Although the pivoting portion was washed out in a 1908 flood, the structure was repaired and is now open only to foot traffic across the river. Today’s walkers cross for free, where once pedestrians had to pay a 5 cent toll to cross, 25 cents for a horse and buggy. A $5 fine was levied on anyone who stopped or walked too quickly along the foot bridge that temporarily replaced the washed-out span.

Fort Benton remains a launching point for some Missouri River travelers. Today’s boaters can learn more about the history of river travel in the town’s four museums. The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center, operated by the Bureau of Land Management, is also a good source for river floating information.

If you plan to stay overnight, check out the Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882 at a cost of $200,000. It boasts many of it’s original, elegant architectural and hand-carved, wooden features but with modern amenities. 

Fort Benton is located 40 miles northeast of Great Falls via Highway 87.