In Fort Benton, Montana (population 1,502), a visitor can explore 200 years of frontier history, including the culture of the native Blackfeet on the northern plains and the passage of Lewis and Clark. In 1806 Captain Lewis boarded his canoe on the levee at what was later Fort Benton and headed downriver.
Fort Benton was established on the Upper Missouri River in 1846 as a fur trading post and was sold to the military in 1865 as the era of fur and robe trading ended. The seat of Chouteau County, Fort Benton was known as the world's most inland port during the steamboat era.
Often called the birthplace of Montana, Fort Benton boomed with the discovery of gold in 1862. Saloons, dance halls, and other buildings sprang up for over a mile upriver of the Fort. For a time the transient population and vigilante justice made Fort Benton a tough place.
The 1880s brought brick buildings, prosperity, and families as Fort Benton settled down to a more peaceful time. For the past 100 years Fort Benton has relied on agriculture and ranching as economic mainstays, and is now diversifying the economy with heritage tourism development.
Today, the City of Fort Benton, a National Historic Landmark, retains much of its "steamboat days" character. Many of the buildings located within its historic district were constructed during the golden years of the 1880s.
The steamboat levee is now a park running the length of the community with many interpretive signs. The chamber of commerce publishes a walking tour map of 25 significant sites. A restored Engine House serves as the visitors' center and the history of the American West can also be explored by visiting the Museums of the Upper Missouri and of the Northern Great Plains.
The remains of part of the National Landmark "Old Fort," the oldest building in Montana, can be found in the city park, thanks to the Daughters of the American Revolution who took on the rescue of the crumbling adobe structure in 1908.
Archeological digs and the accurate reconstruction of some of the fort's buildings over the site prevent further degradation and interpret the Montana frontier experience. The city and the non-profit River and Plains Society are partners in this effort.
Fort Benton and Great Falls, Montana, are hosting a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Signature Event during the summer of 2005. "Explore! The Big Sky" will bring to life the journals of the expedition in a month-long series of events, including programs that explore the native cultures of Plains Indian tribes.
Fort Benton is part of the "Old Forts Trail" linking two American and two Canadian forts of the Northern Great Plains. Visitors can follow this international historic trail to explore the history of the American/Canadian frontier.
Designated a Preserve America Community in April 2005.