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Fort Benton bridge

Lewis and Clark with Sacajawea memorial statue
Memorial statue of Lewis and Clark with Sacajawea in Fort Benton.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Brick building in Fort Benton
Fort Benton.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

"...a judicious position for the purpose of trade."

- Lewis
4 June 1805

Another unexpected fork in the course of the Missouri posed a problem for the Corps of Discovery.

The expedition camped here on June 4, 1805, and spent nine anxious days trying to decide which fork was the Missouri. The wrong route could have cost them weeks. On June 7, Lewis and another man nearly fell to their deaths exploring cliffs in the vicinity. Finally, Lewis took the correct southern fork to the Great Falls of the Missouri, while the rest explored the northern (the Marias).

From their encounter with the Marias, near present-day Loma, to the exploration that sent them up the correct southern fork, the expedition spent the nine days only 25 miles from the first of the five "Great Falls." Expedition journals identified this area as "a judicious position for the purpose of trade."

Fort Benton did become a center for trade and transportation. In 1846 the fort was built as a fur trading post and by 1859 it was the eastern terminus of the Mullan Road to Walla Walla, Washington.

The town became a thriving inland port for steamboats traveling the Missouri. They used the four-block-long levee to reach the riverbank to unload cargo and passengers. The gold rushes of the 1860s brought thousands to the fields of Montana, and the steamboats were the quickest and easiest way to get there.

Tickets could cost passengers their life savings, but the lure of gold and the frontier was strong. In its peak, the levee docked as many as ten steamboats a day. During the steamboat era, Fort Benton became known as the "wildest block in the West" because of its saloons and dance halls.

The rugged Missouri past Fort Benton forced the steamboats to put cargo and wagons ashore for freight-wagon transport to the gold fields of Helena, Virginia City, and others points as far west as Idaho and north to Canada.