The area surrounding Great Falls reads like a history book. Thumb through its pages and you'll glimpse eras of America's past: the Indians, the fur trade, the Montana mining frenzy, the military, the steamboats, the homesteaders and the railroad.
The Missouri River cuts through the plains of central Montana, a thread of history now encompassed by farmsteads and fields of grain.Settlements on the banks of the river are windows to the past.
Fort Benton, established by the American Fur Co. in 1846, was the first town in what is now Montana. The terminus for steamships carrying passengers and freight up the Missouri from St. Louis, its history ebbed and flowed with the river.
Virgelle (pronounced "Vir-GELL"), downstream from Fort Benton, reached its peak after the turn of the century, serving homesteaders who put down roots on the vast prairie.
Virgelle's link to civilization was the railroad. It had replaced steamships as the means of transportation out West. The Great Northern built a spur between Havre to the north and Great Falls to the south.
In 1912 the railroad moved the spur to the river bottom where Virgelle is to make the route more scenic. That was the year the Virgelle Mercantile was built. The town also had a bank, a grain elevator, a railroad depot and houses. Today, only the bank, the mercantile and an ice house remain.
Both Fort Benton and Virgelle are an easy drive from Great Falls.
Another point of interest near Great Falls is the Ulm Pishkun State Historic Monument. There, American Indians stampeded buffalo off a rocky bluff to certain injury or death below. Then they processed the meat and hides for their use.
All three sites offer you a change of pace from the amber waves of grain and spacious skies of central Montana.
Here are details:
Only two roads lead to Virgelle from Highway 87, and both are gravel. The more interesting route takes off south of Loma and crosses a bridge over the Missouri. It's seven miles to Virgelle. The road turns at right angles to follow section lines through a sea of grain fields. Signs at critical junctions keep you headed in the right direction. (The only junction that isn't clearly marked, if I remember correctly, is on the highway. But it is the same turnoff as a Lewis & Clark point of interest. The junction is near the Great Falls side of the bridge that crosses the Marias River at Loma.)
You descend into the Missouri River bottom and come to a stop at the river. There is no bridge, just a sign that says "push for service" and a big black button.
Push the button and Beverly Terry and her dog Jocko will come out of the house on the opposite shore and crank up the ferry.
It is a homely craft, slightly out of plumb. Planks of wood are well worn. A small shed protects the tractor engine that winds the cable.
Terry operates the ferry along with Jimmy Griffin of the Missouri River Canoe Company. It is one of three ferries still in use on the Missouri River in Montana.
The gravel road passes her house with its well-tended vegetable garden and continues to Virgelle, population 3.
Like most ghost towns, it is off the beaten path. Unlike most ghost towns, it has a bed & breakfast inn.
The B&B is in the Virgelle Mercantile that dates back to 1912. Don Sorensen is the proprietor. It doubles as an antique store and as headquarters of the Missouri River Canoe Company. The bank, a stroll along a lonely boardwalk from the Mercantile, is another showroom for antiques.
Two homesteader cabins brought in from nearby farms are on the grassy slope between the Mercantile and the river. They are part of the B&B. Guest rooms in the B&B share a bathroom. The homesteader cabins share an outhouse and a solar shower. All the accommodations are furnished with antiques.
One of the cabins was the home of Charles Geiser Sr. Born in Iowa in 1877, he worked in the Dakotas and in Wisconsin before heading west to Montana as an employee of the Great Northern Railroad. In 1910, he homesteaded about 20 miles north of Virgelle where he raised grain and hogs. He lived in the cabin until 1956.
Inside, a small table stands in front of a window, and a wood-burning cookstove is in the corner. The cabin has two rooms and three beds. The only source of light is a kerosene lamp.
Sorensen, who grew up in nearby Big Sandy, came to the area as a child. His family often camped in the cottonwood grove below the Mercantile. "I relive that everyday," he said.
Rooms are $40 a night including breakfast. The room with two double beds is $70 a night. Homesteader cabins are $40 a night. The Virgelle B&B serves a breakfast that sticks to your ribs. An example: baked French toast with homemade choke cherry syrup, sausage, fruit and orange juice.
The B&B can be reached by calling 1-800-426-2926.
Fort Benton's roots sink deep into history. Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) were the first white men to set foot in the area. Later, fur traders built forts along the river. Fort Lewis, Fort Piegan and Fort Mackenzie were short-lived. But Fort Campbell, later named Fort Benton, was a survivor. Fort Benton was established by the American Fur Co. in 1846, and is now dubbed the "birthplace of Montana."
The fur trade flourished then floundered. By 1865, it was history.
The Missouri became a river of commerce. The arrival of the first steamboat from St. Louis in 1860 and the discovery of gold in 1862 kept Fort Benton alive. So did the U.S. military. It maintained a presence from 1869 to 1881.
The town became a center of commerce. Roads from Fort Benton went as far north as Canada and as far west as Walla Walla.
The arrival of the railroad in 1887 doomed river travel. The USS Mandan was the last steamship to navigate the Missouri. It pulled into Fort Benton in June of 1921. For the Mandan, the Missouri became the river of no return. The ship sank downstream from Fort Benton after being stopped by ice flows.
After the miners and the military came the homesteaders. Fort Benton became a center for agriculture. The town has had as many incarnations as a cat with nine lives.
Today, Fort Benton is a sleepy municipality waking up to its heritage. Remnants from its past line Front St. The Grand Union Hotel was completed in 1882. The T.C. Power and Co. building dates from 1867.
The Fort Benton bridge was the first to cross the Missouri in Montana. The original was built in 1887. It collapsed in 1908 and was replaced by the present bridge in 1921.
Ruins of the original fur trader fort are in Old Fort Park. One block house of the adobe fort remains. Residents are doing an archaeological dig to find exact locations and dimensions of other structures.
On display at the Museum of the Upper Missouri in Old Fort Park are three Hornaday bison. In the late 1800s, William T. Hornaday was the curator of the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. Realizing that wild bison herds were quickly vanishing, he killed some for display. They were at the Smithsonian for 70 years.
The Museum of the Northern Great Plains at 20th and Washington has a fascinating collection of farm equipment, vintage vehicles and other items. The museum traces the evolution of farm machinery.
Both museums are open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Memorial Day through Labor Day. They are open through September from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and closed from October to May 15. Admission to both is $3 adults, $2 children.
Another important figure in the town's history is a dog named Shep. He belonged to a sheepherder who became ill the summer of 1936. The sheepherder was brought to St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton. The dog followed him there and kept a vigil outside the hospital's door. A nun fed him during the few days until his master died. Shep followed his master's coffin to the train station where it was sent back East to be buried. Shep, hoping for the return of his master, met every train that came into the station for 51/2 years. Station attendants fed him and cared for him as best they could. But in Jan. 1942, stiff legged and hard of hearing, Shep failed to hear a train roll into the station. He saw the engine when it was almost over him but he slipped and fell on the rails and was killed.
One of Fort Benton's many historic monuments is a statue of Shep, a dog of unfailing loyalty.
Ulm buffalo jump
South of Great Falls off I-15 near the town of Ulm is a rocky bluff used hundreds of years ago by American Indians as a buffalo jump. Take the Ulm exit, turn west and follow the signs to the Ulm Pishkum State Historic Monument. The road takes you to the top of the bluff that has an endless view of the Montana prairie and the mountains beyond.