To follow the true course of the Missouri River, they knew they must encounter the falls. With some guiding words of a native tribe they had spent the winter with, as well as making a critical correct decision enroute, in June of 1805 Lewis and Clark heard a roaring sound that was music to their ears. Ahead lay the rushing cascade of water. They just didn’t realize what an overwhelming obstacle these great falls would be.
The town of Great Falls, Montana, situated along the banks of these series of falls, makes the most of the legacy left behind by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. A statue commemorating this major event along their route stands in a prominent location overlooking the Missouri River. An adjacent Visitor’s Center helpfully suggests the historic sights that can be found nearby. We got an early start on our day’s activities.
Brutal and arduous, the Corp’s epic portage around the Great Falls robbed them of a solid month of prime midsummer travel days just as they reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Menaced by grizzly bears and flash floods, mauled by hailstorms, their feet jabbed by countless thorns of prickly pear cacti, the men had to drag six enormous dugout canoes and tons of gear nearly 18 miles to bypass five major waterfalls that roared through the Missouri River gorge.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center commemorates their incredible portage as well as covering their entire journey from start to finish. Built into steep bluffs overlooking a swift and relatively undeveloped stretch of the Missouri, this is an impressive and excellent presentation of their expedition. Beginning with a excellent introductory film, preceded by an enlightening ranger presentation, it is worthy of more than a quick look.
The overland portage was a grinding ordeal. Empty, each dugout canoe weighed about 1,000 pounds. They were dragged loaded with supplies. The burden, Lewis recorded, was as much as the men could possibly move. The territory they covered was hot, with scarce water, with soil hard as rock beneath their feet.
The men made the overland passage four times in eleven days—a remarkable accomplishment. Traversing across the plains, skirting the gulches and ravines that fed into the gorge, they hauled the canoes and gear on flimsy chassis they had cobbled together, the wheels cut from Cottonwood trunks. Clark stayed at the Lower Portage Camp, overseeing supplies for transport. Lewis remained at the Upper Camp, receiving the goods, reviving the portage crew and preparing for the continuation of the trip. On the second and third trips the men hoisted the sails of the canoes, allowing the incessant plains wind to give them a boost. But, on the last trip over, thunderstorms hit, filing the gulches with rushing water and stranding the crew on the plains. Adding injury to insult, a hailstorm beat them bloody, huddled as best they could under the canoe, incurring serious injury to some. The same day, Clark was almost killed himself—along with Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their child, Pomp—when a flash flood swept through a ravine where they had taken shelter.
Those five waterfalls in the Missouri River canyon that presented such an obstacle to the Expedition would provide opportunities for a fledgling hydro-power industry in the late 1880s. And so goes the progress of a nation. A silver smelter and a giant Anaconda Company Refinery were sited near this abundant power source and were linked by a number of railroads to the rest of the nation. As the appetite for power increased, new dams and powerhouses were built, along those very same falls that Lewis and Clark navigated around.
The smelter and refinery are long gone. Abandoned railroad tracks have been converted into a rails-to-trail River’s Edge Trail. Hydro-electric facilities, now owned by PPL Montana, have been updated over the years and now provide electric power. Though the river has been dammed, the reservoirs behind them extend for limited distances, leaving much of the river surprisingly free-flowing. The falls, though somewhat diminished in water flow, still exist to this day. Easily seen from the Trail, overlooks along a scenic drive also give views similar to what Lewis and Clark encountered.
The river view from the Interpretive Center is still relatively pristine. Though grain fields now dominate the flatter areas surrounding Great Falls, remnants of the shortgrass prairie still cling to steeper slopes along the gorge. There, with the Missouri washing over its stony bed, the mix of prairie grass, prickly pear cactus, yucca, and wildflowers offers a glimpse of the land as the Lewis and Clark Expedition saw it in 1805.
Lewis and Clark might take center stage in Great Falls, but close on their heels is another Great Falls legend, that of the Cowboy Artist, Charles Marion Russell. We had known about him for many years, but this was our first opportunity to get a better perspective. I was not about to miss this chance and made sure we worked in his museum.
Just days after celebrating his 16th birthday, Charles Russell moved from St Louis to Judith Basin in Montana where he tended sheep for a brief time. He spent two years learning from a hunter. His experience led him to become a night wrangler and he seized the time and opportunity to closely observe and sketch all the daily and nightly activities of the camp. After 11 years of being a ranch hand, he retied to pursue his life as a full-time artist.
The C.M. Russell Museum is a montage of this artist’s life. A very fine museum displays a large and varied collection of his works, from simple sketches, to watercolor renditions to large canvases of oil paintings. His admiration of the Plains Indians is illustrated in many of his earlier works. The cowboy’s life is romanticized in a great majority of his paintings. Images of bison, wolves, elk and other wild animals are his subject matter in other paintings. He was a man of his time in the West, and his wife as his personal representative, promoted his skills and the works he produced.
Along with the Art Gallery, the museum complex includes his log cabin studio where he was most at home and did his work. Built in 1903, it is filled with authentic cowboy gear, including his and his wife, Nancy’s, riding outfits. We learned that besides his work, Russell most enjoyed horseback riding and cooking for guests. By the end of our visit we both felt that he was one authentic kind of guy and would have been a pleasure to have been in his company. No pretensions—just an ordinary guy with a self-taught talent doing what he loved.
Our time was short in Great Falls, but very well-spent. Camped near that famous river, we easily slipped into the flow of the place. Little by little, as our travels across country take us in and out of the great state of Montana, we are seeing more of its towns and places each trip we make. Great Falls has definitely been one of the high points of Big Sky Country.
We ended our day at a restaurant decked out in log cabin style. Situated right on the banks of the great Missouri River, it was a place that tied together all the things we had recently learned. A great river through the western part of our country, much changed from a mere 200 years ago. Yet there are still those untouched places where the river appears as it always has. Limit your vision to a small part of its course, and envision what it was not that long ago. The setting sun’s reflected light on the water could easily have been a scene shared with those early explorers. Much has changed since then, unfathomable distances to bridge . . . but the river connects us to them.
Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris . . . flowing on.