Montana Natives Restore Grand Historic Hotel
By Kimberley Yablonski
Montana Living — The Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, Montana, hugs the banks of the Upper Missouri River like an old friend.
After all, the Missouri River and its bustling steamboat traffic gave birth to Grand Union hotel more than 120 years ago, when Fort Benton became America's most remote port. Like many homesteaders who headed west full of dreams but ended up beaten down by harsh conditions or even worse dead, the Grand Union Hotel has seen its share of desperate times.
Seven years before Montana became a state, in the days when Fort Benton was the crossroads of the gold and fur trades and a stepping off point for the growing nation, more than 300 people attended the hotel's opening. In 1882, the Grand Union Hotel cost $50,000 to build and another $150,000 to furnish. Unfortunately, the grandeur was not to last. Less than a year later, completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Helena and the Canadian Pacific Railroad to Calgary meant the end of the steamboat era for Fort Benton and sent the hotel into a tailspin of decline.
The fact that these railroad lines bypassed the town only added to the town's plight, and in 1884, the hotel went bankrupt and was auctioned off. In the years to follow, the Grand Union was passed from owner to owner. In 1899, it was purchased for just $10,000.
Two world wars, the Great Depression, Prohibition and harsh economic times took its toll on the old building. Eventually, it was boarded up. However, time was on her side. The Grand Union Hotel was given yet another lease on life when native Montanans James and Cheryl Gagnon purchased it in 1995. After a four-year, several million-dollar restoration, the Grand Union Hotel now offers the splendor of its early beginnings when Montana was in its rough and tumble early days.
The Gagnons grew up near Fort Benton in Chester, Montana, but had lived much of their lives far away in Seattle and Hong Kong. On a visit home from overseas, car trouble led them to Fort Benton. As the mechanic worked on the car, the Gagnons strolled the four-block main street and happened upon the abandoned hotel with its "For Sale" sign. "We found the hotel by accident," Cheryl Gagnon said. "I love historical buildings, but we had no concept of purchasing a hotel at that point." Like so many before them, they followed a dream.
After having lived 12 years in Hong Kong, they packed up their two children and returned to Montana. They did all the demolition and stripped the woodworking themselves. As a couple (Cheryl is a commercial designer and Jim is in finance) they were well suited for the challenge. The building had been closed for nearly a decade and years of neglect had damaged the building to its core.
Cheryl admits the project was daunting. "Just the pure scale of the restoration was a bit overwhelming. There was skepticism that we would ever really open," she said. Proving the skeptics wrong, the oldest hotel in Montana re-opened its doors to the public Nov. 2, 1999, on the 117th anniversary of its original launch in 1882. Thanks to the Gagnon's work, the hotel is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has won various state and national restoration awards.
The lobby, with its grand black walnut staircase and original front desk, welcomes today's visitors. Referring to old photos from the local museum, the Gagnons duplicated the original lobby as closely as possible. When the Grand Union was first operating, women had their own, ornate doorway to enter the hotel leading to their own parlor on the second floor. The gift shop was originally the saddle room for cowboys who were relegated to the third floor's smaller rooms. Ironically, today's coveted river view rooms were not sought after in the hotel's early days.
Back in the era of the steamboat, having a room on the river was "equivalent to a room facing a freeway," Cheryl explained. The original three-story hotel had 55 guest rooms and a two-story outhouse. Today, it has 26 rooms, four of which are suites. Cheryl did all the decorating herself and designed the furnishings based on her research of the period. The guest rooms have details like small ceramic tiles in the bathrooms, luggage trunks with granite tops and large, dark walnut headboards. The architecture is Victorian with a combination of Victorian and Western décor inside.
"The feeling is very masculine," Cheryl said. "We wanted the hotel to be as historically accurate as possible. "It's very rewarding to have saved a part of Montana's history. To have people come in and say 'thank you for doing this' is very meaningful." Another important benefit of the restoration is the jobs it has provided. The hotel employs about 30 people, all of whom are Fort Benton residents. "We have an incredible staff," Cheryl said. "It's like a small family. I treasure them." The hotel's restaurant opened in August 2000. With limited choices for food in small Fort Benton, the Union Grille provides travelers with savory options. "We really did need it in order to provide the whole package for guests," Cheryl said.
The restaurant offers a European breakfast, dinner and weekend brunch. Chef Clayton Arakawa, who previously worked at Sundance resorts in Utah, changes the menu often.
His Montana regional cuisine is amazing. He prides himself on using the freshest in-season ingredients. Main-course choices include Montana mixed grille with lamb, elk and a huckleberry reduction; northern plains buffalo with a fig port wine reduction; and pecan dusted Alaskan halibut with roasted new potatoes, vegetable ragout and forest mushroom sauce.
An extensive wine list and equally intriguing desserts, such as warm chocolate cake and seasonal berries, round out the meals. The bar and back patio, which is a great place to have drinks and watch the Missouri River roll by, offer a menu for less formal dining. "When people come from bigger cities they say they didn't expect to find this here," Gagnon said. The restaurant is casual. There is no dress code. Rolling wheat fields, ranch land and the bluffs of the Missouri River hide Fort Benton from the highway. About 40 miles northeast of Great Falls, Fort Benton is a popular launch site for upper Missouri River trips. Several canoe, kayak and river float outfitters are based in the town.
Floating on the trail of Lewis and Clark
One way to enjoy the comfort of the Grand Union hotel is to book a suite after floating the Missouri River. The luxury of the hotel is a welcome treat after camping on the Missouri River, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 once travelled.
The hotel has already seen an increase in summer 2005 bookings for history buffs that want to be on the same part of the river where Lewis and Clark camped 200 years ago. In 1976, 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River were designated as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. In 2001, portions of riverbanks were declared the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in recognition of these areas historical, geological and cultural significance.
Fort Benton attractions include the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, Museum of the Upper Missouri and the remains of the old fort that gave birth to the town. A visitor's center is scheduled to open in 2006. Visitors can walk along the riverside park, view the Lewis and Clark Memorial or stroll along the steamboat levee, cross the old bridge and just let history and the Missouri River flow on by. On the Web: www.grandunionhotel.com Info: 888-838-1882.