Montana 2014 Part 1 – Day 51 – Great Falls: An exploration of town

Wednesday July 9, 2014, 27 miles (43 km) – Total so far: 2,346 miles (3,776 km)

In 1880, a merchant named Paris Gibson from Ft Benton decided he’d go have a look at the waterfalls not too far upstream that he’d been reading about in the journals of Lewis and Clark. Gibson was suitably impressed by their grandeur. But he was a businessman, so he also saw dollars flowing over the falls. He returned in 1883 with some others and platted a town. He wanted to exploit the water’s energy and build hydroelectric plants to power the town and industry. He hoped to build the Minneapolis (where he was from originally) of the West.

He worked hard to lure investors and industry to town, and dryland farmers to the areas surrounding town. He designed the town to have wide, grid streets and plenty of trees and parks so that it would be an attractive place. By 1890, the first power dam was built at Black Eagle Falls.

It seems like almost every Lewis and Clark sign, memorial or statue shows them pointing at something. They must have spent most of their journey with their arms and pointer fingers raised. Here they are pointing upstream to Black Eagle Falls – the first of the five waterfalls to have a dam built on it (1890).

Great Falls has never become a center of culture. But it did become a very important industrial center up until the 1980s when the copper smelter and other industries closed.

I ride all over town today to check it out. Really, I’m not all that impressed. It’s a pretty gritty city and not overly attractive. It does feel like a place of shut down industry. It just lacks a vibrancy I’d expect a town this size to have.

Looking out over Great Falls from the hill above the visitor’s center.

The downtown area and CBD do still reflect Gibson’s vision. There are plenty of trees and wide streets on a grid system. The surrounding neighborhoods are well-shaded, not something you come across in many western cities sitting on plains. All of that makes the downtown area feel mid-western instead of frontier western. It reminds me of Casper, Wyoming, whose downtown felt mid-western, also.

The positives for the city, of course, are the river and the bike paths that follow it. You can ride out to many of the waterfalls, and there are interpretive signboards in some places. Since all of the waterfalls now have dams on them, they do all look pretty industrial and there isn’t much water flowing over them. It is still an impressive stretch of river, however!

Rainbow Falls – one of the five “great” falls on this section of the Missouri. These falls forced Lewis and Clark to do a 31-day portage of this river section and is also why Fort Benton, just downstream, became an important port (furthest navigable area up the Missouri).

After checking out the falls, the guys and I head to Giant Springs State Park. Vast volumes of water rise up through the Kootenai sandstones and pour into the adjacent river. It poses an interesting geological conundrum because sandstones aren’t porous enough to produce that amount of water. Geologists speculate that the rising water must be coming from the Madison limestones which have sufficient pore space to produce enormous water quantities. Here those limestones lie several hundred feet below the surface. The closest place to here where limestones reach the surface to allow water to enter is in the Little Belt mountains which we crossed yesterday (pics from yesterday show the limestones). Therefore, that water is travelling 35-40 miles from its source before it bubbles up here. Good stuff!

The guys enjoying Giant Springs on the edge of the Missouri River.
Giant Springs.

The highlight of the day is visiting the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center nearby. It was built in 1998. It is very well done. Of course it has exhibits on the challenges and logistics of the 30-day portage the Corps of Discovery undertook to get around the five falls here. But it also has extensive exhibits about the entire expedition and about the cultures of all of the Native American tribes whose territories they passed through.

I’m also happy to see the exhibit near the front desk that introduces the expedition. It gives a thorough explanation of global politics at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and why France was keen to sell all of that land to America. I always like to know the greater context of why things happen where they do, and this interpretive center delivers. There are also plenty of talks, films and other activities taking place the whole time I’m there. I spend at least 2.5 hours in the exhibits – so it’s well worth its cost. Very impressed with this one!

It’s in the low 90s today, so stepping out from the air-conditioned L&C center into the heat is a bit confronting. But we’ve got more of the city to check out. I do manage to get a package mailed to Nigel at the post office downtown. When the postal worker sees that it’s going to be $27 for an envelope containing two pieces of clothing, a book, some photos and a card, she says, “Oh, that seems really expensive”! You said it lady, not me. I tell her, “No, that’s about right for that size and weight. I do this frequently. Those are gifts to send home to my husband. I’m off riding my bike for five months, and he is at home working, so $27 is a small amount to keep the peace”. She laughs and says, “Hmmm, maybe that’s something I could think about doing.”

The guys and I end up putting about 30 miles on the bike today – and it was supposed to be a rest day! But we’ve had a good day – not sure I’d ever want to come back to this town, though. It feels a lot like my hometown – its glory days are over and the rotting carcasses of industrial buildings remain scattered about the place. I can only imagine how cold and desolate it would seem in winter….

Run, guys, run!! That’s a big bear behind you! Please note Kermit never looked back for Verne.
Liked the quote on the bench. “Life is such a gift. Enjoy the present.”


Leave a Reply