May 28, 2017

The Grand Union Hotel, Fort Benton, Montana

Grand Union Hotel

We recently took a trip back in time and visited the charming Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana

I honestly was not too sure what to expect when we planned to visit the small town of Fort Benton.  We were more than pleasantly surprised!  We discovered an intriguing piece of Montana history, a little jewel of a town located in a small river valley along the Missouri River.

The Grand Union Hotel is a stately hotel that has withstood time and will return you to the days of the fur trade, when steamboats lined the river just outside its windows.  Fort Benton once earned its fame as a fur trading post, growing in popularity with the discovery of gold in Montana, bringing countless outlaws, merchants, traders, and pioneers to this trade center.

You cannot miss the hotel when you arrive in Fort Benton.  It is located right on the Missouri River, and is one of only two hotels in the town.  The hotel looms distinctly over Front Street, just as it did when it first opened in 1882. 

The Grand Union is the oldest operating hotel in Montana.  The hotel originally opened on November 2, 1882, seven years before Montana became a state.  The hotel was built at the height of the steamboat era on the banks of the Upper Missouri River. These were exciting times in Fort Benton, with the fur trade and the steamboats.

The hotel has 26 guest rooms, offering a Deluxe Single, with a queen bed, or a Deluxe Double, with either two queen beds or two full-sized beds.   There is also your choice of a Junior Suite, or the Master Suite.  One of the main attractions to me is that their rates are affordable for the grandeur and luxury of this historic hotel. 

We stayed in the stunning Junior Suite, on the third floor, featuring incredible views of the Missouri River from all of the windows in our room.  At dusk and dawn there were deer feeding in the trees across the river.  People were out jogging on the paved running path that curves along the river in front of the hotel.  Our room was of good size, featuring a sitting area with a loveseat, and a queen sized bed.  Every detail has been considered, including a pedestal sink in the bathroom, and an old fashioned analog clock on the nightstand table.  The rooms are beautiful, making you feel right at home and as if you could be visiting during Fort Benton’s heyday.

Junior Suite

Junior Suite

The Master Suite is huge!  The Suite overlooks Front Street, the main street in Fort Benton.  When the hotel first opened in 1882, the Master Suite was the Ladies Parlour.  There was a saloon downstairs (that is now a conference room) that was considered too rough for the ladies, so only men were allowed.  But Front Street was a tough street, and the women would sit on the balcony of the Parlour and watch the gunfights.  It is funny that women were not allowed in the saloon, but were given the room that overlooked the chaos of Front Street in those days.

The hotel has seen various owners over the years.  Certainly the current owners, James and Cheryl Gagnon, have to be some of the loveliest.  James and Cheryl were living in Hong Kong when they returned to Montana to visit relatives in 1995.  Their vehicle happened to break down in Fort Benton, and they discovered the abandoned Grand Union hotel. 

         As native Montanans (Cheryl grew up in nearby Chester), they saw the opportunity to restore and reopen the old hotel.  They purchased it and spent the next few years restoring it to its original splendor. 

The restoration began in 1997, and the Gagnon’s had the difficult task of working from a nearly empty canvas.  The building had been abandoned and completely stripped.  The few pieces that remained were the original staircase, and the reception area in the main lobby. Cheryl went right to work, completing all of the design work herself.  She had worked in the design department for a Hong Kong architecture firm, and was excited to complete the task. On November 2, 1999, on the hotel’s 117th anniversary, the Gagnon’s reopened the Grand Union’s doors, recreating the atmosphere from so long ago.

Fort Benton Hotel, Copyright Montana Vacation Blog

Fort Benton Hotel, Copyright Montana Vacation Blog

One of the things you will notice about the hotel is the expensive glass windows and building ornamentation are on street side and parking lot side, but not on the back of the building or the side facing the Missouri River sides.  When the hotel was first built, the street side and the parking lot side were the premium rooms.  No one wanted a room on the river, due to the noise from the frequent steamboats.  Very interesting, considering now I think having a room on the river is a must!  These days, it is much more tranquil than at the height of the fur trade!

The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and continues to provide a grand experience for all of its visitors.  The Grand Union Hotel is, well, grand. The adventure and history that has taken place within its walls still resonates today. 

Alex Neill at the Grand Union Hotel, Fort Benton, Montana, Copyright Montana Vacation blog

The Union Grille Restaurant is the hotel’s restaurant, also open to the public.  The Grille has built an excellent reputation, drawing visitors from near and far.  Their patio opens at the end of May, where you will be served your meal right next to the mighty Missouri River. I would recommend the Lamb Meatballs, the Warm Kamut Chicken Salad, and any of the entrées.

The patio of the restaurant

The patio of the restaurant

Breakfast is included in your hotel stay, so be sure to head down to the restaurant early.  We brought breakfast up and ate it in our room each morning, as we were eager to get out and explore the town.  For Flathead Valley resident coffee drinkers, the Grand Union serves Montana Coffee Traders, so you won’t have to miss out on your coffee from home during your stay. 

The Grand Union also offers many fun packages to take advantage of on your trip.  There is a 2-day Spring Chefs Tasting with wine, the last weekend in April of each year.  One of the hotel’s fun events is the annual poker tournaments, one in the spring and one in the fall.  They also cater to weddings, family reunions, and business conferences. I would recommend the “Grand Getaway for Two” Package; running from November 1 through April 30.  Fort Benton would be the perfect quiet getaway for you this winter.

The Grand Union also features the Union Goods gift shop, where you will find a variety of western treasures.

Inside the gift shop

Inside the gift shop

We were absolutely blown away by the rich and charming Fort Benton.  A paved trail, which passes right outside the Grand Union, parallels the Missouri River and Front Street for the length of the town. It offers a stroll through Montana history in the Historic District and Levee Walk. There are several signs on each block informing you of each block’s history. Your stroll will even take you right through “the Bloodiest Block in the West” – or so it was in the 1800’s.  And don’t miss a stop at the Wake Cup Coffee House, for lunch or a dessert and coffee while you are touring the town. 

The town itself is located along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and is the gateway to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.  Fort Benton is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  We took a drive a few miles downriver to Decision Point, where Captains Lewis and Clark wisely chose the Missouri over the Marias River over two hundred years ago.

The array of museums in this small of an area is incredible!  You can visit the Museum of the Upper Missouri, the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, the Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center, the Hornaday Buffalo; and don’t miss the Shep Memorial – the dog who waited five and a half years at the train station for his deceased owner to return!  The collections on display at the various museums are unbelievable – including Chief Joseph’s surrender rifle on display at the Upper Missouri River Breaks Interpretive Center.

The Historic Old Fort Benton is the restored trading fort that existed in the 1800’s, and a stop in the fur trading store to see Mr. Spoon is a must.  Clad in 1800’s garb, he will give you the history of the town and fur trade, tell stories, and even sing for you!

The Old Fort Benton, and the Neill family pictured with Mr. Spoon

The Old Fort Benton, and the Neill family pictured with Mr. Spoon

Fort Benton offers more than just history. There are guided scenic float and fishing trips available.  Adventure Bound is a company that works together with the Grand Union Hotel, offering 1 day, 3 day, or 7 day trips to see the famous White Cliffs, offering pickup and drop off at the hotel, and gourmet food.

We had such a great time visiting Fort Benton, waking up next to the river, eating dinner on the patio, and brushing up on Montana history.  We did not want to leave, and we will return soon.

I truly hope you can make a trip to Fort Benton, so that you can experience the interesting history, the beautiful Missouri River, and the elegant Grand Union Hotel for yourself.

Warm Wishes from Big Sky Country,

Alex M. Neill

Montana Vacation Blog

www.montanavacationblog.com

For specific information on visiting the Grand Union Hotel, you can visit their site at http://www.grandunionhotel.com/, or call them directly at (888) 838-1882.

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