GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Steve McSweeney's life was defined by far more than his youthful association with a scruffy, stray dog. Nevertheless, to one degree or another, the jovial Irishman from Fort Benton will always remain connected to the city's most iconic canine, Shep.
McSweeney passed away on July 23 after a lifetime that saw him raise a large and loving family, advance to the office of president at the First Chouteau County Bank and earn the admiration of his friends and neighbors as one of Fort Benton's most enthusiastic boosters. Yet, as one of a vanishing generation of citizens who personally remember the famous dog, McSweeney's most widespread notoriety likely will be as the teenage boy who cared for the faithful sheepherder's dog.
Most Montana schoolchildren have, at one time or another, probably heard the story of Shep. According to historians from the Overholser Historical Research Center, Shep first appeared in Fort Benton in August 1936 when his owner, an area sheepherder whose name has been lost to history, was brought mortally ill to the St. Clare Hospital.
After the sheepherder passed, his body was sent by train to his family back east. Shep was left behind, but for the next 5½ years he lived under the platform of the Fort Benton train station, patiently waiting for his long dead master to return.
Shep's story sounds apocryphal, like a sentimental story made up for children and gullible tourists. But Shep was a real flesh and blood animal, and according to those who remember him, the story of his years long vigil is true and accurate. Throughout most of that time, Steve McSweeney and his family were the lonesome dog's primary caregivers.
Shep's loyalties were limited to the sheepherder he had spent so many years with. By all accounts, Shep was willing to accept the scraps and other comforts well-wishers offered him, but throughout the entire time he lived in Fort Benton, he remained pretty much indifferent to human contact.
"At first, nobody really cared for him. They thought he was kind of a pain in the (butt)" said Debra Friesz, McSweeney's daughter. "Shep was a scavenger. He was pretty mangy, he wasn't real friendly. He wasn't real popular until he got famous."
Friesz's description of Shep may seem unflattering, but it is borne out by others who remember him. Fort Benton historian, Jack Lepley, who served as a Boy Scout pallbearer at Shep's funeral in 1942, also recalls the dog being something less than cuddly.
"He wasn't a very loving dog — more standoffish," Lepley recalled. "The two depot agents who came and went to man the telegraph in those years — at first they didn't want that stray dog around. They were actually trying to get rid of him, but he'd crawl in under the platform so they couldn't get to him."
Shep's fortunes, and the public's attitude about him, changed after train conductor Ed Shields pieced together the dog's story.
"Ed Shields, who later became a mayor of Great Falls, was the conductor on the Havre to Great Falls line," said historian Ken Robison. "He put Shep's story in pamphlet form and started selling them on the train with all the proceeds going to the Montana School for the Deaf and (the) Blind. They raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years because of Shep."
After the nationwide syndicated column of incredible stories, Ripley's Believe It or Not, picked up Shep's story and the stray dog from Fort Benton became famous nationwide. Lepley recalled passengers hanging out the windows at the Fort Benton station, all eager to get a glimpse of Shep.
"Then he was everybody's dog," recalled Lepley with a chuckle.
But before he was everyone's dog, Shep was the McSweeneys' dog — as much as he possibly could be. According to Friesz, Shep regularly came down to her father's house to eat alongside the family's English bulldogs.
"My grandfather raised English bulldogs, and he wanted them to be somewhat aggressive," she said. "Shep would come down and wasn't intimidated at all by them. These poor English bulldogs would go beneath the section house and hide. It used to just bug my grandfather."
Shep's life came to an end in January 1942 when he was struck by a train pulling into the same station from which his master had departed.
"He was really deaf by that time," Lepley recalled. "I wasn't there at the time, but from what people told me, he didn't hear the train coming. Then when he did, at the last moment, he slipped on the rail, and that was it."
By that time, the nuisance stray that people had tried to chase away from the depot had become the town's hero. Lepley estimates that more than 200 people attended Shep's funeral, which included an honor guard escort to his gravesite on a bluff overlooking the Fort Benton train station.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com