Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and Interpretive Center
Fort Benton, Montana, is the western terminus of the National Monument called the Upper Missouri River Breaks, a dramatic length of canyon with breath-taking sheer-walled rock formations and other beauties described so poetically by Meriwether Lewis. His famous passage about "scenes of visionary enchantment" never coming to an end were penned about the white sandstone formations in the Missouri Breaks.
In Fort Benton is a new interpretive center about the Breaks, so new, in fact, that interpretive signs planned for the outdoor walk along the river are not even installed yet. I was in Fort Benton last summer and the center was still under construction. I made a trip back here this summer to see it, although I just happen to like Fort Benton and would probably have come back here anyway. It was truly an impressive crossroads in western history. (By the way, the panoramic photo in the header of this blog, as well as the little oval inset, were taken by me here along the Fort Benton levee.)
The new interpretive center. Last year, I was baffled by the building design, but now it seems obvious that it emulates the white sandstone formations.
The view of the Missouri through the windows in the lobby of the interpretive center.
The interpretive center includes much information for river rafters and canoers, who can hire outfitters in Fort Benton or go on their own. There is also an exhibit room with displays about history, the flora and fauna of the region, geology and earth history, and the native peoples, including Joseph and the Nez Perce, who passed near here in 1877 fleeing the Army, and were finally stopped in north-central Montana.
Interpretive panels along one wall discussing the history of human beings in the area. The text below the portraits of Lewis and Clark describes the decision at the Marias River (whether to take the northern or southern fork) east of Fort Benton and the Great Falls.
An exhibit about area mammals, complete with pouncing coyote. There was a separate exhibit about birds and other animals.
I also watched and subsequently purchased a DVD giving an overview of the Missouri Breaks. I was fascinated to learn that ice dams during the last glaciation forced the Missouri River from its more northern channel into the channel of another, smaller river flowing westward. That is the Breaks area, which is why it looks so different from most of the Missouri's grasslands terrain. Fascinating.
One other aspect of the history of the Missouri from Fort Benton downstream to St. Louis that intrigues me is the steamboat era. I've written on my other blog, Pick and Shovel, about the freight haulers in the West, and how Fort Benton was a major point where cargo was transferred from the steamboats to freight wagons bound for places like Helena and Virginia City. As I learn more about the boats on the Missouri, I continue to be amazed at what people accomplished when there was money to be made, for better or worse.
An interpretive exhibit about the steamboats, with mural-size photographs of some of the boats, which became famous in their own right, depending on what dramatic events befell them.
In these shallow upper reaches of the river--Fort Benton was just about the end of the navigable portion of the river, and then only during high water in the spring--the boats were equipped with newly-invented block-and-pulley contraptions on the bow that could literally drag them over sandbars or through low water. Profit and war, or both: that's what drives most of our inventions, it seems.
Metal figures and interpretive sign outside the center about the "Cow Island Incident" toward the end of the Nez Perce War, when desperate Indians raided a steamboat landing downriver from here, took what supplies they could, and burned the rest.
[All photos by K. Dahl, copyright 2007.]