Fort Benton Historic District
National Historic Landmark
Founded in 1846 as the fur trade transitioned from furs to buffalo robes, Fort Benton was both a trading post and a center for distribution of Indian annuities. In the early 1860s, Montana’s gold rush and the initiation of steamboat traffic made the town a freighting and transportation hub, the toughest town in the Northwest, and a military post. Hopeful miners and adventurers came up the Missouri River through the wonders of the White Cliffs area and disembarked on Fort Benton’s levee. Busted or flush, they returned in the fall headed for “the states,” as did most who served or preyed upon them. Millions of dollars of gold accompanied the lucky few aboard steamboats and mackinaws. When the placers played out, Fort Benton merchants found new markets north along the Whoop-Up Trail. The first trade goods included whiskey to the Indians; later, more respectable merchandise reached settlers and the Northwest Mounted Police. Entrepreneurs I. G. Baker, T. C. Power, W. S. Wetzel, and Charles and William Conrad developed the territory’s largest banking and mercantile operations. Wagons rolled in all directions from Fort Benton, the self-proclaimed “Chicago of the Plains.” The world’s innermost port flourished until railroads reached the region. In 1887, the steamboat trade’s glory days ended. The economy shifted toward the sheep and cattle industry, with area ranches shipping large herds to markets in Chicago. In the early 1900s, thousands of homesteaders flocked to the region, and Fort Benton prospered as the center of trade for the fertile "Golden Triangle."