Why Fort Benton is a Must-See Montana Town for History and Nature Lovers
It probably comes as no surprise that the most popular thing to do in Fort Benton that brings visitors to this little town year after year is the fort itself.
Fort Benton was once a big trading post town and remnants of this past can still be found within its old trading fort, which today is a museum.
However, the history of the town is more than just the fort. So much in fact that Fort Benton is home to several museums and art galleries, all part of the Fort Benton Museums and Heritage Complex.
In addition, Fort Benton has a beautiful location alongside the Missouri River, a cute main street that’s bustling in the summer, and is part of the Lewis and Clark Trail in Montana.
Here are the museums in Fort Benton. We’ve included a brief description of each, clustered together by the ones that are on the same premises. (Though all of these museums are within walking distance to each other; Fort Benton is a small town!) Next, we’ll go into longer descriptions of each place.
Fort Benton Museums and Heritage Complex Attractions:
- Old Fort Benton
- Starr Gallery of Western Art
- Museum of the Northern Great Plains
- Homestead Village
- Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo
- Museum of The Upper Missouri
- Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center
Old Fort Benton and Starr Gallery of Western Art
In the late 1800s, Fort Benton was a major trading post for buffalo robes and other wares along the Upper Missouri River.
You can visit the fort to tour a trade store set up like the one way back then. It is filled with historic artifacts, including examples of those very buffalo robes. Also onsite is a reconstructed 19th-century blacksmith and carpenter shop.
Next to the trade store is the Bourgeois House, also referred to as the Chief Agents resident. It basically served as the headquarters of the fort and was the home of the original founders of Fort Benton. The Bourgeois House has been transformed into a western-inspired art gallery called the Starr Gallery of Western Art.
The Starr Gallery of Western Art houses works made by local Montanans. This includes the No More Buffalo collection by sculptor Bob Scriver. Also be sure to study the prints of paintings done by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss painter who traveled the region with Prince Maximilian and documented what he witnessed via his paintings. These paintings are considered to be one of the best depictions of Native American life during this era.
After you’ve spent some time gazing at all the interesting art, head upstairs to view the office and living quarters of Fort Benton founder Alexander Culbertson and his wife Natawista, who was the daughter of Two Suns, the chief of the Blood (Kainah) tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy
Museum of the Northern Great Plains / Homestead Village / Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo
A visit to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton really gives you a good base for understanding the town and its past. There is so much history to learn about in this museum, set up in an engaging and interesting way.
The Museum of the Northern Great Plains is also adjacent to the Homestead Village and Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo exhibit, all of which are part of the Fort Benton Agricultural Center, which offers event space.
The Museum of the Northern Great Plains
The Museum of the Northern Great Plains focuses on the homesteaders; those who came here searching for a better life. It then follows those original homesteaders through three generations, showing the hardships and triumphs of making a home and raising a family in this frontier landscape at the turn of the 20th century.
Exhibits and artifacts include old tractors and farming machinery, classic automobiles and carriages, historic photographs, and more.
An actual homestead has even been recreated to serve as an engaging exhibit you can walk through, to really get a sense of what it was like to live in such a place during the early 1900s.
What’s really cool is that many of the buildings used in the homestead recreation are actual historic homestead buildings that have been moved and restored for this museum.
While walking through the exhibit you’ll see a bank, drug store, mercantile, church, 1-room schoolhouse, and City Hall. There are also houses that reflect prairie settlers’ homes and how they were designed and decorated during the era.
Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo Exhibit
The buffalo exhibit next to the museum is also a sight to behold. It is named after William T. Hornaday, who oversaw the collection of these buffaloes to preserve them in time back in 1886 when there was a real fear that the buffalo was about to become extinct. Thankfully, they did not!
Smithsonian is in the name because these buffaloes were displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC for decades before they were put into storage and eventually transported to Fort Benton, where they found a new home.
The Hornaday Smithsonian Buffalo exhibit consists of the same six mounts that were in the Smithsonian and are set up the same way they were in the Smithsonian.
Museum of the Upper Missouri
The Upper Missouri has been privy to some of the biggest transformations of the Montana plains over the past 150 years, with Fort Benton as its focal point.
At the Museum of the Upper Missouri, you’ll learn about the many points in history that happened because of the Upper Missouri River. These include the fur trade, military posts, mercantile and banking industries, plus more, including a lawless era when Fort Benton was truly the wild west.
The museum exhibits discuss these moments in time as well as stories from the trails and trade routes that people took to start new lives and find their livelihood along the Upper Missouri River and in Fort Benton.
Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument / Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center
Experience the geological elements of the Upper Missouri River while also immersing yourself in its history at the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
This monument is dedicated to the 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River that stretches from Fort Benton to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Along the banks of the river is what’s referred to as the Breaks country, which encompasses six wilderness study areas.
Within its borders are the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and the Fort Benton National Historic Landmark.
This stretch of the Missouri River is deemed a National Wild and Scenic River and it remains wild and similar to when Lewis and Clark rode down it during their expedition.
This incredible natural monument can be experienced via river floating, fishing, hiking along the banks, or via a scenic drive along the Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway.
Learn about the expansive natural and cultural history of the Missouri River Breaks in detail at the Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center. At this interesting center, you’ll see important artifacts of the Nez Perce Tribe, steamboat replicas, and life-size replicas of fish and other creatures you can see in the Missouri River.
In addition to the artifacts on display, there are numerous informational boards located in the exhibit.
For those wanting to experience being on the Upper Missouri River in present-day, the interpretive center also has info for those planning to float along with the Wild and Scenic Upper Missouri River.
Fort Benton Grand Union Hotel
This hotel is listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places and was once considered to be the most elegant hotel between Seattle and St. Louis. At the turn of the century during the steamboat era, ladies and gentlemen would stop here on their travels after the hotel was built in 1882. However, the hotel’s acclaim was short-lived.
The Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1884 and was routed through Helena. Visitors embraced the appeal of the fast railway and began bypassing Fort Benton for Helena. With the decline of Fort Benton, the hotel also fell into disrepair…but it never stopped operating.
Today, it has been restored to its original glory and is considered to be the oldest operating hotel in Montana.
Lewis and Clark Memorial
Another spot along the Lewis and Clark Trail that is located right in Fort Benton by the river on the town’s steamboat levee is the aptly named Lewis and Clark Memorial.
The memorial is a large statue crafted by Bob Scriver. The statue is of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea with her baby son. The statue commemorates the expedition with a focus on their days spent analyzing the best route to the Pacific Ocean where the Missouri River mouth and Marias River mouth met.
Old Fort Benton Bridge
This historic bridge became a pedestrian-only walkway across the Missouri River when the New Fort Benton Bridge to its south was built.
It’s a beautiful area with excellent river views from the bridge. The banks of the river framing the bridge are grassy with trees for shade, while picnic tables make it a great place for a picture-perfect meal.
Old Fort Benton Bridge is just a 7-minute walk down from Old Fort Benton and the Lewis and Clark Memorial.
Golden Triangle Brew Co.
Golden Triangle Brew Co. is a locally owned brewery that creates custom malts with local grains, barley, and other farm-sourced ingredients. In addition to beer, there’s a small snack menu.
Like everything in Fort Benton, history abounds here, too! Golden Triangle Brew Co. is located in a historic old mercantile that was built in the 1880s.
Signal Point Golf Course
Fort Benton is also home to a golf course. The Signal Point Golf Course has scenic views thanks to its location on the bluffs of the Upper Missouri River. The course is a 9-hole with a 36 par so it’s easy to fit in a round during a quick trip to Fort Benton.
If you’re a dog lover, you can’t miss seeing the Shep Memorial. This statue is in the likeness of a sheepdog that followed an ill sheepherder to the hospital in Fort Benton in 1936. When the sheepherder died, his casket was put on a train back east to his family.
The dog was bonded to that sheepherder and met the trains each day for 5.5 years hoping to see his human friend again. It’s a bittersweet story and is a must-visit site to learn more about Shep the dog and his devotion.
Enjoy Your Time in Fort Benton
Whether you’re looking for history or recreation or both, you’ll have a truly memorable time in Fort Benton, one of Montana’s best hidden gems.