18 January 2008

The Jewel in Fort Benton’s Crown: The Grand Union

By Ken Robison

[Published in the 2 November 2007 Fort Benton River Press Grand Union Edition]

The Grand Union Hotel is both the oldest operating hotel and among the most important historic buildings in Montana. Built in 1882 at the height of the steamboat era on the Upper Missouri, the Grand Union welcomed weary travelers to spend a few nights in its luxury before they set out to less “civilized places” like Virginia City and points west. The architectural character of the Grand Union is unique with bricks carefully fitted into excellent bold decorations. Its extensive corbelling, wrought iron balconies and ornate chimneys were an impressive sight. Furnished with Victorian appointments, the dining room’s silver service, white linen and Bavarian china served the rich and famous. A ladies elegant parlor on the second floor, with a private stairway to the dining room, saved the ladies from exposure to the rowdy crowd in the saloon and poker rooms. The ornate lobby desk and broad black walnut staircase highlight the fine carpentry work throughout. No wonder that the opening ball for the Grand Union was “the grandest affair of its kind ever witnessed in Benton, and most probably in the Territory.”

The Grand Union, during its 125 years, has had many lives. It has been “the most luxurious” hotel between St. Louis and Seattle; it has been a “run-of-the-mill” hotel; it has been a “virtual flophouse” with rooms to rent for two bits; and it has suffered years of derelict closure. But today the grand old lady of Montana hotels shines brightly, restored to its golden era glory with modernity carefully folded in.

At the height of the steamboat era in 1879, William H. Todd had a dream. Fort Benton was booming with thousands of passengers and tons of freight arriving at the head of navigation on the Upper Missouri. With trails heading in every direction, Fort Benton was the transportation hub of bustling Montana territory. Todd bought Lot One, Block One, on the steamboat levee, forty-two feet of which fronted on Front Street and one hundred feet on Bond Street [now 14th].

The next year, 1880, William Todd, talked constantly about a grand hotel positioned to receive travelers as they stepped off steamboats and afford them a day or two of luxury before they departed into the frontier life. Todd convinced the optimistic businessmen of Benton that the town was a civilized and permanent community with a great future. By September 1880, a corporation was formed to raise money for The Benton Hotel Company. Within a month the contract was let to Storer and Storer to furnish locally made bricks. Cold weather arrived in November, closing out the booming building season before most of the bricks could be manufactured, and Benton went into its winter slumber.

In the spring of 1881, just as the weather warmed to permit resumption of brick-making and construction work, the brick makers dissolved their partnership and rumors began to fly that the new hotel would never be built. But W. H. Todd and his supporters were determined to press forward. In August ground was broken for the hotel with Todd in general charge of construction and Thomas Tweedy as architect and superintendent of construction. Legend has it that the hotel had no architect, rather the craftsmen simply designed it as they built. Yet, apparently the first elaborate plans were drawn up by an unknown Eastern architect, and then either downsized or ignored by Tweedy.

Plans were firmed up in August 1881 for a three-story brick hotel, 75 ft. 4 inches on Front Street by 80 feet 4 inches on Bond Street. The principal entrance was to be on Bond Street, and the ladies entrance on Front. The main entrance would lead into a lobby with a grand staircase ascending to the second floor. The dining room would front on the river, while the room at the corner of Front and Bond would serve as a saloon and billiard hall. The south room on Front Street could be rented for a barbershop. Just over one year later these plans came true.

By the end of August 1881 the granite foundation was in place and the first bricks laid with Frank Coombs, local contractor, supervising the brickwork that would eventually total a half million bricks. Tweedy insisted on best-seasoned wood for floor joists, and the project suffered delays in the supply of lumber. Meanwhile, Benton’s other hotels, the Chouteau House, the Overland, and the Centennial, were doing booming business. Building costs were escalating in the river city.

After slowing for the winter, construction on the new, yet unnamed hotel accelerated in the spring. The arrival of the steamboat Josephine on May 3rd, 1882 signaled the opening of another great year at the head of navigation. Boats began to arrive almost daily loaded with cargo for the territory and with fine furnishings for the new hotel. The steamer Helena brought carpet, stoves, and a grand piano. The Benton arrived with more carpeting, and ceiling and flooring materials. The Butte brought chairs and glassware for the new hotel. The Helena on its second trip brought walnut boards destined to be assembled into the hotel’s grand staircase.

In June plastering began, and a few days later the steamer Black Hills arrived with the doors and windows, tailor made in Auoka, Minnesota. Benton’s second trip brought sofas, settees, ladies’ desks, boxes of marble, dressers, beds and bureaus from Duluth. The hotel’s famous safe arrived in July on the Benton’s third trip from Bismarck. As the summer passed and the water level lowered, boats like the Butte had to land at Coal Banks with its cargo of seventy barrels of china destined to grace the tables in the fine dining room in the new hotel.

The name, Grand Union, was finally announced in the River Press on September 27th. The two words grand and Union, fit the post Civil War times, the “Grand Union” was the perfect name for the finest hotel in the West. In the midst of furious activity to complete construction, decorate the interior, and hire a staff, Tweedy resigned, and Whitman Gibson (W. G.) Jones, a master carpenter, was brought in to complete the carpentry work that was running behind schedule. Finally, the interior work was almost complete, and the hotel that cost about $200,000 to built and furnish was ready to open.

Bentonites got their first look inside the Grand Union Hotel on Thursday, November 2, 1882, and that evening “the grandest affair of its kind ever witnessed in Benton” was held, a grand opening ball worthy of the fine new hotel. An elaborate program unfolded over the course of the evening with dancing showing the 100 ladies in their finest. At midnight, a supper feast was served, prepared by Benton’s finest chef, young African American Alex Martin, assisted by Jerry Flowers and Samuel Jones, Reflecting the robust black community in Fort Benton at the time, the entire staff of eleven at the new hotel was African American, except two supervisors.

The ball continued with more dancing until the early hours of the morning. The Benton Record dedicated much of its next edition to the grand ball and the new hotel, in elaborate detail. The proudest man on the scene must have been W. H. Todd, who after years of dreaming and fifteen months of construction at last was standing in the lobby of the Grand Union contemplating the great future of the hotel and Fort Benton.

The first guest at the Grand Union was Alex Staveley Hill, a British capitalist and Member of Parliament. Other 90 plus guests in the 55 small rooms that first night included Hill’s brother, Fort Benton’s most prominent citizens like the Conrad family, T. E. Collins, Hans Wackerlin, W. S. Wetzel, W. S. Stockings, Paris Gibson, and prominent visitors from San Francisco, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, New York City, St. Louis, and many others. Ironically, two years later sheep farmer Paris Gibson would found the town of Great Falls at the confluence of the Missouri and Sun rivers. The arrival of railroads at Great Falls would, more than any other factor, accelerate the decline of Fort Benton and the demise of the Grand Union.

Since it was un-ladylike for a lady to walk through the men’s world of the lobby and saloon, the Grand Union had a side door. A lady would enter the hotel by that door and climb a staircase up to the woman’s parlor on the second floor. When nature called, guests would go out the back door of the hotel across a catwalk to a two-story high 16-hole outhouse.

The men’s saloon was a lively place, especially when the many cattlemen and cowboys came to town. Drinking and gambling sometimes led to the birth of legends such as the time when two cowboys bet whether one could ride his horse up the lobby staircase all the way to his room on the third floor. The bet was made, and the cowboy went out to the street to untie his horse. The cowboy led the horse through the front doors, mounted him, and made it up to the first landing before the night clerk heard the commotion and took action. The outcome of the bet was settled, when the clerk shot the rider, so goes the legend.

The dawn of the New Year, 1883, brought another boom navigation year, but the end was near for steamboating. The Utah Northern Railroad had long since opened the era of railroads in Montana, but late 1883 brought the Northern Pacific into Helena. Equally threatening, the Canadian Pacific railroad arrived in Alberta. The days of Fort Benton as transportation hub both north and south of the Medicine Line were at an end, and Fort Benton’s population plunged. Shocking evidence came in May 1884 when the Benton Hotel Company assets went at a sheriff’s sale to a banking firm—at least Benton bankers took over.

The challenge for a series of hotel men in Fort Benton over the next two decades then became how to keep the magnificent Grand Union operating and make it pay. In 1899 local businessmen J. H. Green and B. F. O’Neal bought the hotel for $10,000. Major remodeling took place about 1900, and in 1917 Mr. and Mrs. Charles Lepley took on the challenge.

While river traffic had ended, and Great Falls and Lethbridge now transportation hubs, Fort Benton sank and then began slowly coming back, riding the good years in cattle ranching and by the early 1900s the homesteading boom. Fort Benton settled into a long era as agricultural center for Montana’s golden triangle, with the good and bad that come subject to the weather and commodity prices.

During the 1930s and 40s, the Grand Union went steadily down hill. The bedrooms, once among the best in the west, gained a reputation for having a permanent insect population exceeded only by the disreputable Choteau House. Stories made the rounds about time spent at the not-so-grand Union including the following:

“I had just climbed into one of the creaking brass beds and beginning to get drowsy when I heard some weak voices singing. I couldn’t make out the words at first, but by holding my breath they came more clear. It seemed to b two men. I listened carefully in the silence:

‘Pull for the shore, boys, pull for the shore.’
Was it a ghost? A group of drowned crewmen from one of the steamboats? Again it came:
‘Pull for the shore, boys, pull for the shore.’
Though the voices were weak, they seemed to come from right under the bed. Getting my flashlight, I looked under. There in the pot were two bedbugs on a matchstick singing:
‘Pull for the shore, boys, pull for the shore.’”


Charles Lepley died in 1941 and his wife, May, took over the operation of the Grand Union until 1951 when she sold the hotel to Harold Thomas and his wife Margaretha, the legendary Superintendent of Chouteau County schools. Many of us, including this writer, have fond memories of visits with Margaretha at her suite in the Grand Union. I’d return from my overseas assignments with the U. S. Navy bearing a few sterling spoons acquired from Japan or Singapore or other ports of call and proudly present them to Margaretha to add to her dazzling collection.

By this time, little “grand” remained in the hotel in the eyes of Harold Thomas as related to Jerry Madden of the Montana Parade:
“The lobby, dining room, and saloon were ghosts of a once elegant era. Rooms were threadbare with straw mattresses sill sprawling on sagging springs. Two public bathrooms on each of the three floors were the only personal sanitary facilities. . .
One day shortly after we moved in . . . a friend of mine asked me how in the hell I ever got into this mess. The only answer I’ve been able to find is that the building offered a challenge to a restless soul and a stubborn nature.”

The one-man restoration effort of Harold Thomas likely saved the structure, which by then was on the National Register of Historic Places. Over a quarter-century, Thomas removed the colorful, but dangerous, chimneys, sealed holes, repaired cornices, painted, added structural supports, put in new plumbing and wiring, and fumigated.. In 1979 Mr. and Mrs. Thomas sold the hotel to Levee Restorations. Despite their good intentions, they could never raise the funds needed to move the hotel back into operation.

Fortunately, in 1995 the Jim and Cheryl Gagnon bought the boarded-up hotel, then owned by a contractor in Helena who ended up with the title when the previous owners couldn’t pay him for work he’d done. The Gagnons moved to Fort Benton in 1997 and on November 2, 1999, reopened the front doors after a multi-million dollar restoration. Restoring the old hotel was a labor of love for the Gagnons, and the result has been a model for keeping the best of the old while subtly adding modern amenities for today’s traveler. Masterful restoration combined with good business practices, and exceptional hard work and sacrifice have enabled Jim and Cheryl to keep the Grand Union going as the priceless jewel in Fort Benton’s crown.

Fort Benton has played a major role in every era of Montana history. Few towns in the country better present their historic past with major museums and a research center celebrating native American culture, the fur trade era, the Upper Missouri River, steamboating and overland transportation, the shared past with our Canadian neighbors, open range ranching and agricultural homestead farming eras, The preservation of the Grand Union is one of Montana’s great historic preservation success stories. The 125th anniversary is both a celebration of the hotel and a tribute to Jim and Cheryl Gagnon and the many past proprietors of the grand old Grand Union.

1 comment:

Sven said...

Good JOb! :)