How Great is Great Falls, MT?

The short answer is,”Not so great; it used to be greater.” But then there are those who prefer baldness to a full head of hair. Allow me to explain:

To be fair, my perception of Great Falls is not how it originally presented to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,

while they mapped the mighty Missouri on their epic expedition from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Lewis’s impression of Great Falls was, according to Paul Russell Cutright, in his book Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, “the grandest sight he had ever beheld, the water of the Missouri here dropping over a precipice more than 80 feet high. He stood motionless for a long time, completely enchanted by the beauty of the scene.”

Photographed by F. Jay Haynes, Summer, 1880–Montana Historical Society

In fact, as Lewis slowly portaged the Great Falls in June 1805 (his greatest challenge to date), he was amazed to find not just one “great falls,” but a series of five falls of varying sizes that dropped the river level a total of 612 feet over a 10-mile stretch.

Then came the dams. By harnessing the power of five falls with five 20th century hydro-power plants, the industrial age awakened the West, and “The Electric City” became an important crossroad for future settlement, forsaking the beauty long admired by the Blackfeet and other tribes.

Leah and I set out to discover the “falls”, by racing to Ryan Dam before the last light of day.

The gorge was aglow,

while the sinking sun was offering up a shadowless palette of pastels.

I imagined the falls as it once was and what it’s become…

and wrestled with my first impression informed by mountain and machine.

There is no denying that nature has carved out something very special…

but the landscape has been inalterably changed.

Big skies are forever interrupted,

and prairies yield to bounty over beauty.

The following day, we set out by bicycle on the River’s Edge Trail to “find” the other falls.

Nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River provided panoramic views of scenic river valleys;

engaged us with public art created by local artists…

as we rode through neighborhood parks.

The trail carried us to cliffside lookouts of Black Eagle Falls and Dam…

Rainbow Falls and Dam…

and Crooked Falls (still untouched by a dam);

while also connecting us to historic downtown, filled with numerous casino options and burgers to die for…

at the celebrated Roadhouse Diner.

Unfortunately, our search for Colter Falls (the final of five falls) would remain unfulfilled, as the reservoir created by the Rainbow Dam has permanently submerged Colter Falls (making this the perfect metaphor for Great Falls) to the extent that we are left to debate if commerce is a compromise or a sacrifice.

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