Fort Benton, situated over 2,000 miles from the mouth of the Missouri near St. Louis, was established in 1846 as a fur trading post for the Blackfeet and Crow tribes. It was managed by the American Fur Co., owned by Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and his St. Louis partners. Later the fort became a military post and, when gold was discovered in 1862, the main stopoff and supply point for the mineral fields that lay some 200 miles to the north. "It became the rendezvous and outfitting point for the whole mining region," states Joseph Mills Hanson in From the Conquest of the Missouri.
Fort Benton, around 35 miles from the Great Falls of the Missouri, the long stream's head of navigation, was the most northern outpost on the river. Open prairie and rutted wagon tracks into the mountains lay behind the small hamlet, now recognized as the oldest settlement in Montana. Hanson described "huge freight wagons drawn by a half-dozen span of oxen or mules" waiting in front of the fort to take miners to mountain mining camps such as Alder Gulch, Last Chance Gulch or Deer Lodge. "Here were miners from the Pacific slope, farmers from the Atlantic seaboard, fur traders and hunters of the vanishing Northwestern wilderness, clergymen, ex-convicts, hardened desperadoes, and heroes of law and order; every type and condition of man that the continent could produce, gathered together by one common aim and impulse, the pursuit of wealth," wrote Hanson.
The first steamboats to reach Fort Benton were the Chippewa and the Key West in July, 1860. In the spring of 1865, the steamer Tom Stevens reached the head of navigation. In June 1865, the Twilight arrived, completing its nearly 11-week maiden voyage from St. Louis. Once there and unloaded, the Twilight turned around and sped back to St. Louis in less than three weeks thanks to a helpful current. Back at the St. Louis levee, the Twilight's profit-minded owners (including John P. Keiser and Henry McPherson, both of St. Louis; W.J. Knott, Franklin County, and J.S. Kinney, C.W. Sombart and J.L. Stephens, all of Boonville, Missouri) reloaded the steamer and it headed again to Fort Benton. Sadly, however, the trip aborted some 200 miles upriver from St. Louis. Had she made it, the Twilight would have been the first steamer ever to reach Fort Benton so late in the year.
Fort Benton was not easy to reach. Some of the river's most perilous shoals and obstructions were within 150 miles of the settlement. In 1804, the explorers Lewis and Clark had observed a range of white cliffs downriver from Fort Benton—formations resembling columns, statues, and towers "as if sculpted by the hands of some ancient, lost civilization," as one Twilight traveler put it. Prince Maximilian zu Wied, a Prussian naturalist, traveling in the area in 1833, named the formation the "White Castles." One magnificent
structure in the group is "Citadel Rock," painted by the famed Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who accompanied the prince. The Citadel was not only a sensational chunk of landscape; it also represented danger for pilots since it was situated on one of the Missouri's narrowest bends.
When the river level was extremely low within a day or two of Fort Benton, steamer passengers were Likely to be dropped off along shore and met by mule-drawn wagons that took them the rest of the way to the fort. On the Twilight's trip to Fort Benton, its passengers were discharged some 100 miles south because of perilous shoals; many of them hiked the sagebrush prairie to reach their final destination.
The so-called "mountain trade" created a heavy demand for river transportation, since the Missouri River was the main route or "golden highway" to the West. More sternwheelers than sidewheelers visited Fort Benton during the 30 gold rush years that ended around 1890. One major casualty of the gold rush was the upper river fur trade. It never recovered.