Tuesday, September 03, 2013

More Montana including historic Fort Benton

Don't get so focused where you're going that you don't see where you are!”
--great advice for travelers from Darrell Kipp, filmmaker, writer and educator

I've been traveling through The Great Northern Plains
The northern prairie before the farmers arrived was a sea of grasses interspersed with sage and badlands. The land supported vast herds of bison, pronghorn and prairie dogs which provided food for the wolf, coyote, eagle. Trees include ash, cottonwood and box elder. Prairie streams accommodated muskrat and beaver that brought the first white trappers to tap the riches of the high plains. Furs, gold, and cattle encouraged successive invasions. Eventually the farmers arrived and changed the land forever, creating one of the most productive grain producing regions in the world. 

Hwy 2 pretty much parallels the U.S/Canadian border, and the busy freight and Amtrak train route. The highway is a peaceful drive with wide open spaces! The area is in what is called the High Plains. Few trees are here in the eastern part of the state.

The Three Chinooks
Chinook is the name of a small town on Montana's Highway 2, the brand name of my tiny home on wheels, and it also is a weather phenomenon. A “Chinook” is a wind that can warm a winter chill 50 degrees in several minutes and melt a foot of snow in a day. I decided it would be fitting to spend one night here as part of my adventure.

The drive from Fort Peck to Chinook – about 150 miles.
Driving into town, I noticed that a lot of things and places – including the RV park where I stayed – have the name Bear Claw because a nearby small mountain range is called Bear Claw.

Historic Fort Benton
My original tentative travel plans were to cross North Dakota, Montana and Idaho totally on Highway 2. Showing this first map to friends in Prescott Valley, Darcie said I should go a bit out of my way – southwest on Highway 87 – to go through Fort Benton so I could meet and visit her dad and his wife. I'm so glad I took her suggestion! I never dreamed what awaited me.

Early Missouri River traffic
Indians in their canoes were the early river traffic. In the mid-to-late 1800s, steam-wheelers arrived and were moored along the bank of the Missouri at Fort Benton – it was the farthest upstream they went, and then only in Spring when the river ran high enough. The boats were loaded with whiskey, gold pans, sail, bacon, boots and miners. Ox teams then hauled the freight along a half-dozen or so trails to far-away points. Wells Fargo coaches took miners to Helena, about 150 miles away, for $25; fights with the Blackfoot Indians were free.

Early Fort Benton
Between 1859 and 1890, six hundred boats docked at Fort Benton. They supplied the U.S. Cavalry, the Indians the soldiers hunted, Canadian Mounties, and whiskey-runners. Benton merchants were impartial about business. Merchandise was sent to posts at Fort Whoop-Up, Qu'Appelle, Last Chance Gulch and other places with just ordinary names.

Fort Benton, alongside the Missouri River, was founded in 1846 by the American Fur Company and is
the birthplace of Montana. It recently was named by Forbes magazine as one of the fifteen “prettiest small towns in the nation.” (Forbes website, Aug. 16, 2013).

Four outstanding days in Fort Benton
I parked at a lovely campground and then walked the dozen or so blocks along the Missouri River and into the historical downtown area. I found Wally and Muncie Morger's home. At age 90, Wally is the town's oldest living native; a walking history book. During his working years – after serving in the Marines – he had a rural mail route. His wife, Muncie, is very active in the community. Between the two of them, this delightful couple must know everyone for miles around. As a keepsake memento, Wally gave me a buffalo nickel and Muncie gave me a beautiful quilt!

That first afternoon just flew by as I learned about the Morger family and the town. For dinner they took me to Ma's Cafe in nearby Loma. Along the way we took a drive to a farm property where a small herd of bison are raised. This guy looks like he's hogging the alfafa!

For dinner Wally and I chose the walleye pike – yum! Delicious!

During the next three days I learned so much. Special places I visited included Old Fort Benton, Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument Interpretive Center, Museum of the Upper Missouri, Museum of the Northern Great Plains, Montana's Museum of Agriculture, Gallery of Western Art and Taxidermy, Homestead Village, The Historic Grand Union Hotel, The Schwinden Library and the Chouteau (pronounced Show-tow) County Library. If that isn't enough, the entire walkway along the river has statues and interpretive signs of historical buildings.

Here are some of the photos I took as I wandered museums and walkways.

In Heritage Village
Jail cell - looks very uncomfortable
The large stuffed buffalo on the right was the model for the old nickle. Also it was at the Smithsonian for years before coming back to Fort Benton

clever idea for a fence - at Ag Museum
Oops! misspelling on walkway to BLM center
Grand Union Hotel
Opened Nov. 1, 1882 – this elegant hotel was Fort Benton's pride, a haven of relaxation in a boisterous frontier town at the head of navigation on the Missouri. It was the finest hostelry between Seattle and the Twin Cities and cost $200,000 to build It is still an operating hotel with an elegant dining room.

Looking down the Missouri River from the old bridge above

One of several Lewis, Clark and Sakagwea

Five of The Morger clan at a minor league baseball game.  I went with them to a Voyagers game in Great Falls one evening (not shown is Wally)
The famous dog, Shep (read his story below)
An unnoticed and undocumented Sheepherder's body was shipped back East one August day in 1936. From that moment a nondescript sheep dog of pronounced Collie strain was observed meeting each train. He met every train, day or night, for the next 5-and one-half years! He slept nearby at nights. Not a young dog when his master died, he was no longer agile; his hearing and other senses dulled with age. Shep met his last train January 1942. As train #235 pulled up at the Fort Benton depot, bystanders saw him look up when the engine was almost upon him. He slipped on the snowy rails and was hit by the train. The dog was buried on a bluff overlooking the depot. His funeral was attended by hundreds, and school was dismissed so the children could attend. Fort Benton Boy Scout troop acted as pallbearers and taps was sounded at the grave site. There are two monuments of Shep in Fort Benton. A spotlight shines on the grave each night.

After Fort Benton - Great Falls, Montana
Jeremiah is a 2004 model, the other one is 1998
Needing some groceries and a stop at the Verizon phone store, I spent a day in Great Falls. The next morning, I went to the Visitor Center and took a small tour bus that took us through the historic area and some tourist spots along the river. When we returned to the Visitor Center, imagine my surprise to see another Chinook parked alongside Jeremiah!

After Great Falls - The next blog entry will tell about my tour of Glacier National Park.