The oldest town in the state of Montana isn’t that old.
If you’re an Easterner. Or a European. But by intermountain West standards, ~160 years old is pretty ancient.
Fort Benton, Montana, was the head of steamship travel on the Big Muddy, and hence one of the most inland ports in the world, from the 1850s, when special steamships were devised that could handle the shallow waters, snags, and other impediments of the Upper Missouri, and the late 1880s, when the railroad came to Montana (I’ve occasionally wondered if Charley, the hero of Repeating History, which is set in the late 1870s, might have traveled by steamship from Fort Benton at one point — maybe someday I’ll find out). Nowadays, it’s the seat of Chouteau County, and bigger than I had thought it would be, with an elegantly remodeled Carnegie Library (about which more anon), and a stately stone courthouse. It is, after all, Town for a great many farmers and ranchers, who are the main reason for its continued existence.
But it also knows its large place in Montana history, and does some lovely things with it. The riverfront, for instance, where once upon a time hundreds of puffing, smoking steamships disgorged thousands of tons of freight destined for the gold mines of Virginia City and Last Chance Gulch, is now a grassy promenade studded with signs telling the town’s fascinating history. Did you know that an acting governor of Montana drowned in the river here? Or that a dog named Shep once gained national fame for waiting here for years for a master who never came back? (the man couldn’t help it — he’d left town in a coffin) The Grand Union Hotel still welcomes guests (albeit at a price that was completely out of my range) behind its stocky but elegant red-brick façade.
And then there are the museums. Sorry. You know by now that in one of my lives I am a freelance museum curator, and it will probably come as no surprise to you that I was, in part, a history major in college. Fort Benton, oddly enough, has a restored fort. The Museum of the Upper Missouri tells the story of the steamship era. The Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive (sigh) Center introduces the shiny new (so new that the last time I was in this part of the world, in 2000 when a friend and I kayaked part of the Upper Missouri, it didn’t exist yet) Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. And then there was the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, which tells the story of the homesteaders and ranchers, and the tough lives they led and still lead.
And, of course, there’s the Hornaday buffalo. Have you ever seen a buffalo nickel? This was the fellow they modeled it on. Ever gotten a good look at the bison on the National Park Service logo? Yeah, him, too. The whole diorama, which consists of sixteen, if I remember correctly, bison of all ages and sexes, lived in the Smithsonian Institution for decades before making its roundabout way back to Fort Benton, where it is on permanent display now. I have to admit to a strong preference for live and wild over taxidermied when it comes to any animal, but still.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I discovered every motel in town was full — not tourists, but some nearby road construction project. I went to the library to see about some wifi so that I might find an alternative (camping is all well and good, but not several nights in a row). As it turned out, while it was nice to check my email, the librarian was of much more help. Seems there was a set of cabins, mostly used by hunters, in the next little town down the road. I was dubious, but I called, and yes, since it wasn’t hunting season, they had a vacancy. I snagged it, thanked the librarian, and tooled twenty miles north to the wide spot in the road called Loma (population 85).
Not only was that no hunting cabin (unless you counted the elk motif decorating the entire place), it held the most comfortable bed I slept on during the entire trip. The restaurant next door was called Ma’s Loma Café. As I was to find out, Thursday nights were Mexican night. Cooked by Ma, who was first generation Mexican-American. I had the best fajitas and guacamole I’ve had in years. Not hot spicy, but delicious spicy. Combined with classic Montana beef (in my humble opinion some of the best on the planet). I’m drooling just thinking about it. I did not eat alone, either. As soon as I sat down, the couple at the next table invited me to join them, and I, for one, had a wonderful time. They were locals, and as interested in me as I was in them.
And after that? I wandered back to my cabin, sank into the bed from heaven, and that was the end of me for the night.
Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures