Another glorious Montana morning and we were heading to Fort Benton, a historic town on the Missouri River.
We had no idea how much history was in store.
As we packed our stuff into the car and prepared to leave the hotel, Banjo Man began to make noises about wanting to see the Great Falls–the water, not the city. He’d been reading a brochure about all of the falls along the river. Somehow there must be a road, he said.
I couldn’t find one on the map. There was a walking trail, though. Not that we were going to use it.
Him: There must be a road.
Me: Nope. Can’t find anything.
Him: There must be a road.
Me: Here. *You* look at the map.
Him, studying the map and then folding it in disgust: I can’t believe there isn’t a road.
We headed out of town, toward Fort Benton and a handful of museums featuring history of the Old West and steamboats and gold miners.
And then, several miles later…a “Historic Point”appeared on the side of the highway. A Historic Point about the Great Falls.
Oh, was Banjo Man happy he had pulled over to read it! The Falls, it said, were “five miles east of here”. There was an arrow pointing to a large, empty expanse of ranch land. A LARGE EMPTY EXPANSE OF RANCH LAND.
“Let’s do it,” my husband crowed, heading down a gravel road into nothingness.
“Let’s not,” I whimpered. I am not so fond of unpaved rides into the unknown.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “When am I ever going to see the Great Falls again?”
“I don’t care. We’re going to end up in someone’s ranch and get lost.”
He ignored me. Will wisely kept quiet. We drove through miles and miles and miles of back country and then finally there was a sign to the Falls and the road narrowed, twisted, went down a hill. There was a turn that had a mirror so you could see if you were going to smash into an oncoming car.
But we arrived at the dam eventually and I was more than happy to get out of the car and stop holding my breath.
There was a footbridge–the kind that sways in the wind–leading to an island in the river, so off we went in search of a Great Falls Photo Op. The signs prohibited more than six people on the bridge at a time and advised waiting your turn if others were coming the other way and please, do not–under any circumstances– make the bridge sway.
The island was a beautiful picnic area, but there was this:
As my friend Kathy said when she saw this photo, “I wouldn’t wait to hear eight blasts. I’d be gone at one!”
Ah, so true.
But there would be a stampede on the footbridge as the dam burst.
There are always signs to read. But thank God nothing about snakes this time.
After all that excitement we once again headed north to Fort Benton, known as “The Birthplace of Montana” on the Upper Missouri. We expected to view the Missouri, gaze at the first bridge over that river, visit a few small museums and be on our way to Choteau sometime after lunch.
We were wrong.
First of all, there was the Grand Union Hotel–Montana’s oldest running hotel–to see. Although they didn’t serve lunch, the staff let us roam around the dining room, which was exactly the same as it was when the hotel was built.
Check it out at: grandunionhotel.com
When I was planning this trip I thought about staying there one night, but I didn’t think there would be enough to do in Fort Benton to justify staying overnight. Later on in the day I tried to get rooms for that night, but they were sold out. The three of us wished we could stay in town longer and eat in the hotel’s dining room while pretending it was 1882.
From the website:
Montana’s Heritage Complex of World Class Museums and Research Facilities
Located in Fort Benton “The Birthplace of Montana”™ the Heritage Complex is the home of Old Fort Benton, The Museum of the Upper Missouri, The State of Montana’s Museum of the Northern Great Plains, Homestead Village, The Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo Gallery, The Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center, The Overholser Research Center, The Schwinden Library, and The Montana Agricultural Center.
Let me just say that Banjo Man would still be in the Montana Agricultural Center if we hadn’t hauled him out of there. It was massive, with exhibit after exhibit of farming and life on the range. The “Homestead Village” was so much fun, with many, many buildings that showed what life was like back then.
The Hornaday Buffalo Gallery had originally been in the Smithsonian for 40 years.
Masks were definitely required in all of the museums, but the Fort Benton people were a more cheerful and friendlier group than those we met in Great Falls. They were genuinely pleased that we were interested in their history, as they are very proud of it.
A sign from one of the museums at Old Fort Benton:
Fort Benton To Be Continued (because I have so many pictures)…