FORT BENTON - You may come across a statue of a dog in Fort Benton — but it's not just any dog. As a matter of fact, he is one of Montana's most iconic figures — Shep.
It all started in the summer of 1936. A sheepherder fell ill and was brought to the St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton. That was when a nondescript sheep dog had followed the herder into town and soon set up a vigil at the hospital's door. A nun who ran the hospital kitchen at the time, fed the dog during those few days before the man died.
The herder's family who lived in the east requested that his body be sent back home. As the gurney was rolled out onto the platform, a dog came out of nowhere watched as the casket was loaded into the baggage car. Attendants recalled the dog whining as the door slammed shut and the engine slowly began to leave the station. The dog turned and trotted down the tracks.
It was on that day the dog became known as "Shep," beginning a five-and-a-half-year vigil that was only broken by his death.
Shep was there to meet four trains almost every day, eyeing all of the passengers, looking for his master. As Shep's popularity continued to grow, people came from everywhere to see him and to try and make friends and some trying to adopt him. All of the attention appeared somewhat unwelcome as most people didn't realize that Shep was a one-man dog, and the only thing he truly cared about was the herder.
Due to the fact that Shep was an older dog when he came to the station house in Fort Benton, the long nights and cold winters took a toll on him. On Jan. 12 at 10:17 p.m., Shep failed to notice a train as it rolled into the station, and when he moved to get out of the way, he slipped on the icy rails, putting an end to his vigil.
Despite his tragic ending, he continues to carry on a legacy 80 years later, and a tribute to Shep was held on Thursday at the Great Falls Public Library. The events included a talk from historian Ken Robison, and a brief video about Shep produced by Eric Visocam of Fort Benton and Plentywood.
Bill Zins, the great nephew of Ed Shields, who was the Great Northern conductor at the time, made Shep famous by starting the Shep Fund to benefit the Montana School Deaf & Blind in Great Falls.
When asked about his great uncle, Zins recalled, "The interesting thing was he was the mayor of Great Falls at the same time that Shep died, so he represented Great Falls at the same time as the Great Northern at the funeral. He was sheriff of Cascade County in the early 30s, he was a representative for Cascade County in the legislature in the 20s. He went to Russia in the war prior to WWI and worked with Russians up there, so quite an instrumental man that a lot of people didn't know about."
Brian Morger, an artist in Black Eagle, shows off his paintings and prints of Shep, stating his reasons behind creating artwork in his name.
"He's from my hometown," Morger explained. "We grew up together in a sense while he was of another era, but I always knew the story of Shep, and when I did my first favorite painting when I got out of college, and I published that image, it was of Shep called 'Shep's Vigil', and it is know my rarest and most sought after image. For many years, it was thought to be sold out, and recently there were eight prints found, and this is one of two that I have."
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