This article originally appeared in KRTV Great Falls.
Volunteers in Fort Benton are busy reconstructing the historic keelboat Mandan.
The Fort Benton Community Improvement Association aimed to restore the keelboat, that has long been sitting in Front Street overlooking the Missouri River.
The keelboat appeared in the 1952 film, “The Big Sky,” playing a starring role set in the fur trade era.
Kirby Matthew, a retired worker from the US Forest Service, who also worked as the Historic Preservation Specialist stated, “It kind of has a fascinating history to it. It was constructed in 1950 as a movie prop for ‘The Big Sky,’ and then it came to Fort Benton in, I believe, in 1964 and it’s been sitting here as kind of a little landmark in Fort Benton for about 60 years now, and it’s about 70 years old, so it’s old enough to qualify for the national register.”
He added, “It’s an interesting artifact of the history of Montana and it’s a representation of the Keelboat trade on the river coming into Fort Benton.”
Cascade County Historian, Ken Robison gave a brief history behind the relevance of the Keelboat. He stated, “before steamboats were capable of coming all the way up this last part of the upper Misouri River, they used Keelboats to bring Indian trade goods from 1831 on … Having that keelboat on the Levy to represent that important era is really important symbolically. It also is important in other ways because that particular keelboat was the movie prop.”
The project for phase 1 is to remove the rotten wood as well as other material that is no longer of use.
Matthew said, “there’s a lot of material missing on the inside that had been rotted and replaced, and through clips from the movie and some movie trailers, we had some pictures that showed the interior trusses and how it was put together, and we had been poking along to try and re-construct that center truss, and we have enough evidence on sight that seem to be working fairly well. It was an interesting challenge because when I came over.”
Matthews said, “I told them ‘I don’t know anything about building boats.’ But I got over and looked at it, and it’s 2 by 4 and plywood, so I understand that stuff. But it was a learning process, and it’s a one of a kind. But as we go, we can see things and how they are put together. It’s coming along. We’ve done better than I thought on this first phase. We’ve made it further than I thought we would. There is going to be a couple challenges ahead, but it’s just the work, not the understanding how to do it.”
They aim to divide this project into 3 phases. With Phase 1 complete, they are looking to start phase 2 next summer, with the goal of finishing the entire project within the next few years.