Heritage Tourism: Montana’s Hottest Travel Trend (Retrospective 1998)

A statue of Shep the dog stands on Front Street near the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton. (Greg Vaughn)
A statue of Shep the dog stands on Front Street near the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton. (Greg Vaughn)
From the Editor: Montana had a record year in 2016 with the largest jump in year-to-year visitation at Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Millions of people travel to Montana every year to visit these natural attractions. This excerpt from an article from 1998 examines how small towns began capitalizing on a new trend to draw these visitors to their communities.

Fort Benton used to be a sleepy farm town that was going downhill fast, according to a prominent local business woman. Now, thanks to Shep the dog – and a few other historical landmarks – the Montana town of 1,600 is an international tourist destination.

People come from all over the world to see the statue of Shep, the loyal collie that was devoted to his sheepherder master, says Sharalee Smith, a member of the River and Plains Society and the Fort Benton Restoration Society.

As the story goes, Shep’s master died in Fort Benton in 1936 and his body was shipped back East on the Great Northern Railroad. From then on, Shep met every train – looking for his master to return – until the collie was hit by a locomotive in 1942. Great Northern employees buried the dog and erected a marker over the grave. Fifty years later, Fort Benton residents decided their noble dog deserved better. They raised $100,000 and had Shep sculpted in heroic bronze.

The town’s efforts have paid off. Shep is the biggest draw for international visitors. “I get hundreds of calls from all over the world about Shep,” Smith says.

Heritage tourism, or visiting an area’s historical sites, is the hottest trend in the travel industry today. Tourists these days want more out of travel than visiting a park or a mountain range. They want to experience unique places, traditions and history – and learn about their cultural roots.

In Fort Benton, a Missouri River town located northeast of Great Falls, Shep is just one of the historical attractions. Fort Benton is a town rich with history. Considered to be the birthplace of Montana, the town is home to the oldest standing structure in the state: an 1846 blockhouse that served as a fur trading post and military fort, and is currently being restored. Known as the “toughest town in the West,” Fort Benton was also a major transportation and shipping center, strategically vital to the Lewis and Clark expedition and to the settlement of the Northwest.

The idea behind heritage tourism (also known as cultural tourism) is that communities identify their historical and cultural resources and then develop these resources with the intent of sharing them with travelers. A key factor in developing heritage resources is to provide an authentic experience for the traveler while maintaining the quality of life in the community. Properly implemented, heritage tourism results in economic growth, as well as restoration and preservation of community resources.

Montana has been very active in the heritage tourism movement. In 1997, the Montana state Legislature authorized a new state agency called the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission. The commission is responsible for coordinating and promoting the state’s bicentennial observance of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which will take place from 2003 to 2006. The commission, under the directorship of Clint Blackwood, will work to affiliate groups throughout the state to plan activities, provide services and develop programs that will be useful to Montana’s tourism industry for years to come.

As the bicentennial approaches, Montana businesses are preparing for large numbers of tourists who want to learn about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The two-year expedition, which covered about 3,700 miles, started in Illinois and passed through portions of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Diorama at the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls. (Witold Skrypczak)
Diorama at the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls. (Witold Skrypczak)

In Montana, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls has already attracted 63,000 visitors since its opening four months ago. The center features exhibits that detail the 1804-06 journey of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with focus on their interactions with the Plains Indians. Cultural exhibits have been coordinated with the Crow, the Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Salish and Pend d’Oreilles, Hidatsa and Shoshone people.

Travel experts believe that the center in Great Falls has such high visitation because tourists have already started their Lewis and Clark theme vacations, stopping at attractions along the famous trail to collect historical tidbits.

The Lewis and Clark observance is a significant historical event and should have noticeable impact on Montana tourism. Visitors that come to Montana for the bicentennial will most likely have a natural affinity for visiting ghost towns, museums, galleries, powwows and other western heritage attractions. They will spend money on gas, food, souvenirs and hotel rooms; if their experience is satisfying, they will come back again.

Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research Director Norma Nickerson agrees that the Lewis and Clark bicentennial could be a tremendous opportunity for the state’s travel and tourism industry. Visitors will come for the bicentennial and then visit other historic sites like those in Fort Benton.

Heritage tourism is “a win-win situation,” Nickerson says. “It’s smart and it’s a good direction to go. Not everyone has the natural resource attractions to bring people in. It’s a good avenue for a lot of communities.”

Ginny Cass was a member of the Missoula City/County Growth Management Task Force in 1998. Shannon Furniss was editor-in-chief of the Montana Business Quarterly and left in 2015 to start her business, Market Interactives.