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Amazing Animals of MontanaIncredible True Stories
By Shirley, Gayle C.
Globe PequotCopyright © 2005 Shirley, Gayle C.
All right reserved.
"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, quoted at Shep's funeral
One August day in 1936, a Great Northern train chugged into the station at Fort Benton, Montana-just as it had for countless days before. Engine bells clanged; whistles blew. Passengers jumped to the platform, and new ones clambered aboard. Railroad employees hustled to load mail bags, trunks, suitcases, crates, and milk cans.
But amid the usual bustle at the little depot that day, an unusual drama was unfolding. Part of the cargo being loaded into the baggage car was a coffin bearing the body of a Montana sheepherder. He was destined for burial in Ohio.
Only one mourner watched as the car doors slammed shut and the train pulled slowly out of the station. His tail drooped and he whined woefully. The brown and white sheep dog didn't understand where his master was going without him. He just knew he belonged at the dead man's side. With sad and puzzled eyes, he turned and trotted away.
And so began one of the most famous and heartwarming dog stories ever told-the story of a loyalty that would never die.
For the next five and a half years, the dog met every passenger trainthat stopped at Fort Benton-day or night, rain or shine. Always, he watched carefully as the travelers disembarked, hoping his master was among them. Always, he went away disappointed. But he never gave up.
At first, railroad employees assumed the gaunt, shaggy dog was a stray and tried to chase him away. But the dog was determined to carry out his strange mission, and everyone finally accepted the fact that he was there to stay. Sympathetic stewards on the dining cars began feeding him scraps from their tables. He wore a mile-long trail to the Missouri River where he drank, and he slept in a hollow he dug under the wooden platform.
Railroad employees decided to call the dog Shep. The name seemed appropriate. He looked and acted like a dog trained to nip at the heels of straggling sheep. Some thought he was part collie.
Ed Shields, a Great Northern conductor, was the first person to publish the story of Shep's vigil. He was the one who discovered that the dog had come to town in the company of a sick sheepherder. No one seemed to know the man's name. For three days, Shep had waited for his master outside the hospital. When the man died and his body was moved to the mortuary, Shep tagged along. Finally, he escorted the dead man's coffin to the train station. He had followed as far as he could.
Shields's story came out in 1939 in a booklet that Great Northern sold to its passengers. Almost immediately Shep became one of the most famous dogs in the world. Newspapers and magazines across the globe reported his unflagging devotion, and he was featured in Ripley's "Believe It or Not." Fan mail poured in. In fact, Shep got so many letters that Great Northern assigned a secretary to handle them.
Train travelers began asking to be routed through Fort Benton so they could see Shep. Others flocked to the prairie town by car, hoping to snap a picture. Dozens of sheepherders and others offered to adopt the dog, but station employees decided he should be allowed to live where he chose. And he obviously chose the Fort Benton depot.
Sheep was a quiet, dignified dog. He wasn't interested in romping with the children who came to pet him. In fact, at first he seemed a little overwhelmed by the fuss people made. But gradually he began to accept his role as celebrity. He grew fat and sleek on the tidbits people offered him. And he grew more trusting of the station employees who looked out for him. All that was missing from his life was his master to whom he would always be true. He was still a one-man dog.
Shep's long vigil ended on January 12, 1942. He hadn't been a young dog back in 1936. Now he'd grown old and fat. His hearing and sight were no longer keen, and he moved slower on legs grown stiff with age.
That winter morning, Fort Benton was dusted with snow. Shep stood on the tracks, watching the 10:17 train pull into the station. He'd done so many times before, always jumping to safety before the train reached him. But that day he slipped on the snowy track and fell under the wheels. He died instantly.
Perhaps Shep and his master would be reunited at last.
This might have been the end of the story if Shep hadn't inspired the affection and admiration of so many people. The news of his death went out over the Associated Press wires, right along with news of the great war that only one month earlier had devastated Pearl Harbor. Thousands mourned Shep's passing.
The people of Fort Benton planned a funeral service. On January 14, a clear, sunny day, Shep's body was placed in a wooden casket made by one of the station agents who had befriended him. Boy Scouts carried the casket from the train station to the top of a nearby hill. Hundreds joined the funeral procession-including the mayor of Fort Benton and Ed Shields, the mayor of nearby Great Falls.
A local minister delivered a eulogy praising Shep's fidelity. A bugler sounded taps, and Shep was lowered into his grave. A few weeks later, Great Northern erected a concrete and wooden monument made in the dog's likeness. It still stands guard over Shep's grave today.
Shep inspired yet another memorial. Shields decided to give profits from the sale of his booklet to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind in Great Falls. He created the fund in 1946 with a donation of $200. Shields and others continued to contribute over the years, and by 1981 had collected more than $50,000. In more recent years, contributions continued to be given in Shep's name, although in smaller amounts. The money is devoted to such worthy items as visual evaluations, glasses, and special visual equipment for the school's students.
Shep's story has long attracted the attention of many Americans. In 1960, a Reader's Digest article about his vigil reached an estimated twelve million readers. Other magazines have carried the tale, as have national television networks.
Even more than six decades after his death, Shep has not been forgotten. Fort Benton history buffs still regularly field questions about the loyal dog. Ken Robison, a retired Navy captain and Fort Benton history expert, answered questions in 2004 from folks around the world, including a British writer penning a book of collie stories and an Ohio college student writing a thesis on the remarkable canine. "We have so much interest in Shep it's just absolutely amazing," Robison said.
The name of Shep's master was lost to the ages, and Robison has done research to try to determine it, but has not been able to nail down his identity through official records or eyewitnesses.
To help keep the memory of Shep alive, Fort Benton residents raised $75,000 for a larger-than-life bronze statue of Shep. In 1995, the memorial was erected in a city park beside the Missouri River.
The statue, created by famous western artist Bob Scriver, sits atop a granite slab, surrounded by a thirty-foot brick octagon called Shepherd's Court. Here, on the levee overlooking the river, hundreds of people have placed brick memorials to loved ones or beloved pets. Meanwhile, over at the Museum of the Upper Missouri, there's a display of Shep's collar and dog bowl, and "Shep" coins are sold.
All this fuss over a dog? Railroad Magazine posed the same question the year Shep died. Then it offered this response:
"Brother, you just didn't use your brain when you made that crack. Maybe you are blessed with lots of friends and relatives. We hope you are. But how many of them would show you as much loyalty as Shep gave, even unto death? Count on your fingers the number of people you know who'd be likely to meet every train for five long years in the hope of seeing you come home again."
Excerpted from Amazing Animals of Montana by Shirley, Gayle C. Copyright © 2005 by Shirley, Gayle C.. Excerpted by permission.
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