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Sunday, December 25, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Montana -- Dogged Devotion Crowns A Town's `Levee Of Fame'

FORT BENTON, Mont. - The dog's head, turned slightly, peers ahead. Its curled tail almost quivers and its front paws rest on a section of railroad track, elevating the full body for a leap it will never make.

This is Shep, handsome in larger-than-life bronze, one of the first things visitors see along the park-like levee that parallels Front Street on one side and the Upper Missouri River on the other.

Fort Benton, Montana's first settlement, has not waited for 1996 to exploit its history. That year is the 150th anniversary of its founding as a fur-traders outpost.

A part of the history here is a bit back from Front Street, the now unused Grand Union Hotel, for decades in the 19th century regarded as the grandest inn between Minneapolis and Seattle.

But it's the bronze Shep and its legend that grip and holds visitors.

Good dog, Shep

The story is old, the statue is new. It was dedicated last June, a monument to a dog's unwavering loyalty to its master.

A half-century ago, many Americans knew the Shep story.

This was the sheepdog whose last sight of its shepherd master was in 1936 when a train departed Fort Benton with the casket in which he was to be buried somewhere back East. No one now remembers the exact names of either the shepherd or his dog.

Shep was what admiring Fort Benton residents and railroad people called the dog that met every train that arrived in Fort Benton for the next six years, waiting for its master to return.

While Shep would accept food and greetings, the dog refused all invitations for a new home, preferring to sleep, summer and winter, near the depot from which its master might emerge.

On a wintry day early in 1942, an aging Shep slipped on an icy track and was killed by one of the trains he was meeting.

A story worth telling

Fort Benton residents who took comfort in Shep's loyalty and vigilance buried the dog near the railroad tracks and erected a modest wood slab marker at the spot.

Though out of sight, the grave and the story never left the thoughts of Fort Benton's people.

John and Sue Lepley, local historians with the skills to raise civic-pride money from the town's 1,660 residents, kept the Shep story simmering. In 1992, the 50th anniversary of Shep's death, the Lepleys helped organize Bricks & Bronze, a group whose goal was to raise $100,000 for a Shep statue.

Bob Scriver, Montana's best-known sculptor, shaped the statue, his second Fort Benton commission. In 1976, to celebrate the nation's Bicentennial, Fort Benton had raised $500,000 for a memorial to the Lewis & Clark expedition. It stands a short walk along the grassed levee, just beyond the preserved river boat that once carried furs and other commerce between Fort Benton and St. Louis.

Lots more to remember

Markers along the four-block levee walk supply other nuggets of Fort Benton history - a who's-who of 17th and 18th century Fort Benton traders and the locations of the best saloons and brothels.

One marker points to a section of Front Street that was called the "bloodiest block in the West, where gunslingers left the road red."

Just past the Lewis & Clark Memorial is the Museum of the Upper Missouri and the office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which monitors the "wild and scenic" Upper Missouri and the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

Adjacient to the museum in a wooded park are remnants of a rebuilt Fort Benton, once a refuge during the Indian wars. One item is the rifle carried by Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce Indian leader who in 1877, weary from fighting superior Army forces, finally declared, "I will fight no more forever."

The Big Bull

There's still more to this small Montana city. The Big Bull, also called Hornaday's Bull, is here. In 1886, William T. Hornaday, perhaps America's first taxidermist, killed a bull and five lesser buffalos so he could "preserve" a species that once roamed the Great Plains by the hundreds of thousands and fed and clothed the Plains Indians.

Hornaday took the six to Washington, D.C., in 1877 and they were put on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. The Big Bull was the model for the Buffalo nickel, a postage stamp and currency.

The six preserved bison stood together in the Smithsonian for 70 years before being sent "home" to the University of Montana at Missoula.

In 1970, the people of Fort Benton raised $400,000 to have the stuffed bison restored. The Big Bull, a cow and a calf are together again in Fort Benton's Museum of the Upper Missouri. The three others are in the Museum of the Great Plains on the Chouteau County fairgrounds here.

Bob Buyer is a reporter with the Buffalo (N.Y.) News.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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