Project aims to bring historic Fort Benton back to life

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Gardeners planting tomatoes or tulips here occasionally stumble upon a piece of century-old pottery and — until the Fort Benton City Council passed an ordinance forbidding it — people scoured the riverbanks with metal detectors, hunting for a piece of Montana history.

Boasting it's the "Birthplace of Montana," Fort Benton is one of two dozen places in the entire state to earn National Historic Landmark status.

As the westernmost steamboat stop on the Missouri River, its importance in the development of Montana and much of the West is unquestioned. However a debate over how to best preserve that history has brewed for months.

The River and Plains Society is pushing forward with plans to re-create the fourth of eight buildings that once made up the trading and eventual military fort. Once complete, the latest building could draw a legion of tourists fascinated by early Western history as well as art lovers, because the building will house premier paintings and bronzes.

But an area archeologist is upset because he believes that in digging the foundation for the new building and log palisades circling the complex, the group ignored the historical value of what remains beneath the ground.

"They're putting up a building on top of a national landmark with no regard to what's underground," Gar Wood said. "The cultural material that could have been interpreted and the knowledge that could have been gained are gone. It's completely gone."

Board members say little remains in the area of the fort that would further explain an already well-documented history. Beyond that, the area has been archeologically compromised by flooding, road and sewer construction and a park sprinkler system....

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