Fort Benton, Montana is a small town resting on the banks of the Missouri River. It’s a historical area known as the “Birthplace of Montana.” Lewis and Clark made their way through Fort Benton, and the famous Nez Perce National Historic Trail runs through the town. When gold was discovered in the territory that would become Montana, and Idaho, people seeking their fortune bee-lined into Fort Benton, along with madams, shopkeepers, and opportunistic outlaws. There’s no doubt Fort Benton had a contribution to the settlement of the western areas of the United States, and the town is registered as a National Historic Landmark because of its importance. But, it was a faithful dog named Shep that stole the hearts of the people of Fort Benton. The small town had no idea how an unassuming event would add to their history.
Shep’s life changed dramatically one August day in 1936 when his owner, a sheepherder who lived in the area became sick while tending to his flock. Needing medical care, the man ended up at the St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton. No one paid much attention to his dog that had followed him into town, and sat patiently waiting outside the hospital for his owner to come out. The nun who ran the hospital kitchen was the only person who took pity on poor Shep, and made sure he was fed during his hospital vigil. Unfortunately, the sheepherder didn’t recover, and passed away three days later.
Learning of the man’s death, his family back East in Ohio asked for him to be returned to them. His body was removed from the hospital, and taken to the funeral home. When the undertaker delivered the coffin to the Great Northern train station where it was loaded into a baggage car, Shep was the lone mourner following him. People who witnessed the sad scene said Shep whined as the door was closed, and appeared depressed as he watched the train pull out of the station. With his head hung low, Shep left the station platform, and headed down the tracks. He would spend the next five and a half years at the station waiting for his owner to return.
No one knew if the large brown and white shepherd dog even had a name, so the railroad employees started calling him Shep. Some people thought he was an Australian Shepherd or Border Collie. Most likely, he was a collie mix of some sort. In the end, his breed didn’t matter. It was his love, and loyalty for his owner that tugged at the heartstrings of those who knew his sad story.
Each day four trains pulled into the station at Fort Benton. Shep was there to greet each one, waiting and watching, his tail wagging in excited anticipation as passengers debarked, and then falling in disappointment as the train pulled away. He never missed a day, and not even the coldest or hottest days could keep him from his watch. The two agents who manned the telegraph didn’t like having the mangy stray dog roaming about the station, and tried to chase him away, but Shep wasn’t about to leave his post; taking shelter underneath the train platform where the men couldn’t reach him. They eventually accepted the fact that Shep wasn’t going anywhere, and left him alone.
The dog’s devotion was strong. He wasn’t interested in playing with kids or interacting with anyone at the station. Described as not being particularly friendly, he was a quiet, dedicated, and proud dog. Shep had one mission, and that was to find his owner. He was fed scraps and received some attention from railroad employees. His home was a dug out hole under the platform at the train station, and he wore a path to the Missouri River for water.
In 1939, a conductor, Ed Shields wrote a story about Shep’s daily vigil at the station, and published it in a booklet to sell to passengers riding the train. He donated all of the money to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, and over the years raised tens of thousands of dollars for the school. It wasn’t long before journalists began writing about the lonely dog, and Shep’s story was even picked up by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Magazines and newspapers worldwide wrote about his determined devotion, and Shep became a celebrity. Train passengers requested to be routed through Fort Benton so they could catch a glimpse of the now famous dog. Shep got so much mail, the railroad hired a secretary to handle his fan mail. People came by car just to take pictures, and many people wanted to adopt Shep, including sheepherders. But, the station workers had gotten to know Shep and understood the train platform was the only place Shep wanted to be, so they refused all offers of adoption.
On January 12, 1942, Fort Benton received a dusting of snow. Shep wasn’t a young dog when his owner died, and living under the station platform had taken a toll on him. He was waiting on the tracks, like usual, as the 10:17 train pulled into the station. He normally jumped aside before the train reached him, but on that morning, he didn’t hear it coming. When he finally saw the train, it was almost on him, and when he tried to move out of the way, he slipped on the icy rail, falling under the train’s wheels. Shep was killed instantly. His wish had finally been granted, and Shep could now be reunited with his beloved owner.
The town mourned Shep’s passing, holding a funeral for him two days later, and both wire services carried his obituary. Hundreds of mourners attended Shep’s funeral, and it was officiated by Reverend Ralph Underwood who used a quote by Senator George Graham Vest which was a tribute to a dog’s devotion to his owner Vest gave to a jury about another dog, Old Drum. It was a fitting description for Shep, a proud and faithful dog who spent his days in a lonely vigil waiting for his owner.
In 1994, a life sized bronze statue of Shep was sculpted by Bob Scriver for the fiftieth anniversary of Shep’s death. The people of Fort Benton raised $75,000 for the statue. It sits in a park across from the Grand Union Hotel. Click here for a short video of Shep. He appears after 26 seconds.
“The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.”
From “Eulogy On The Dog,” by George Graham Vest.
Shep’s final resting place is on a bluff overlooking the train station. Yellow letters spell out his name, and a life size statue of the faithful dog, marks his grave site. The train no longer stops at the station in Fort Benton. There are no more passengers who step onto the platform to scurry past a loyal dog looking for his owner, but Shep continues his vigil high on a hill overlooking the train station.
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