It is located along the upper Missouri River where the Lewis and Clark Expedition had to portage around five waterfalls in June 1805 and then again during their return trip in 1806. Within a 15 mile stretch of the Missouri River there is an elevation change of 500 feet. This very difficult 18 mile portage around the falls took over 31 days. This portage was one of the most difficult of their journey. Great Falls gets its name from these five waterfalls. Today the city is called “The Electric City” because each of the falls has a hydroelectric dam.
We spent time exploring the different falls and dams that make up Great Falls. The falls look much different today than they did during the time of Lewis and Clark because they were altered by the construction of the dams. The falls which at one time was seen as a great obstacle by Lewis and Clark is now seen as of great benefit to supply energy and power to the city.
Great Falls/Ryan Dam was the first we visited. When first seen by Lewis and Clark, a measurement of the height was taken by Clark using a sextant and a rod using geometry. Clark estimated the height to be 97 feet and ¾ inches which is remarkably accurate to the 96 feet shown by recent electronic measurements. Clark was only off by a foot!
To best view the dam and falls we walked across a suspension bridge across the Missouri River to Ryan Island Park. The upper part of the falls were covered by the 1,336 foot Ryan Dam. At first the dam was called Volta Dam after the Italian Alessandro Volta for whom voltage was named. It was later renamed Ryan Dam.
The last falls we visited was Black Eagle Falls/Black Eagle Dam. This falls is 26 feet high and 600 yards wide and was the first to be dammed in 1890. We viewed the falls and dam from the Black Eagle Memorial Island Park which was accessed across a bridge.
We also visited Giant Springs State Park, a beautiful state park. Clark first found this great spring in June, 1805 and called it the largest fountain or spring he ever saw. It is one of the largest freshwater springs in the United States. Over 150 million gallons of water flow from Giant Springs into the Missouri River everyday.
The springs are the source of the Roe River, which at one time was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest river in the world. Whether or not that record stands today, at only 201 feet in length it is definitely one of the shortest. The Roe River flows into the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States.
There were still interesting exhibits and displays here about the Expedition. Meriwether Lewis wrote that he saw more buffalo in this area than he ever witnessed before. Buffalo was a staple diet for the local Native Americans and became a favorite meal for the members of the Expedition.
On another very hot day we drove to the Upper Portage Camp Overlook. This area overlooks the site of the 1805 Lewis and Clark Upper Portage Camp on the banks of the Missouri River. Even though the landscape has changed over the centuries, it was still a place where we felt a deep sense of history.
While Clark directed the portage around the falls, at this site Lewis supervised the assembly of a boat they had hauled in pieces from Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Considered an experiment, the iron boat frame was designed by Lewis in 1803. The canoe shaped frame was 36 feet long and 4 ½ feet wide with nearly 200 pounds of iron strips connected with screws. It was further strengthened with willow limbs and covered with animal skins. It was designed to carry 8,000 pounds. Lewis’ crew labored for weeks preparing 28 elk and four bison hides. Unfortunately during a trial run the boat at first floated like a cork and then sank. Lewis was devastated by the failure and ordered the boat to be buried here.
They then quickly moved upstream and made two large cottonwood boats as a replacement. The iron boat and failed experiment was never mentioned in their journals. A replica of the boat experiment is located here today.
Meanwhile at the Lower Portage Camp, Clark and the rest of the Corps of Discovery struggled around the five falls. Four times they loaded baggage into six canoes laid upon carts and then pushed and pulled the heavy loads across 18 miles of rugged terrain. They used sails to help them whenever strong winds allowed and endured brutal hail storms. At one point they documented hail as large as seven inches in diameter that bounced 12 feet and landed 30 feet away. It left them bruised and bloodied. They endured heat, rain, prickly pear cactus, and mosquitoes. Through it all Sacajawea, having recently been deathly ill, carried her four month old baby.
The Expedition all gathered together at the Upper Portage to rest and plan the rest of their journey before leaving on July 13, 1805. They stockpiled meat, wrote lengthy journal entries, made detailed maps, and dug a cache to store items and equipment they wouldn’t need until their return trip when they camped here again from July 13-26, 1806. It was here they celebrated the nation’s 30th Independence Day on July 4, 1805 with a feast of bacon, beans, dumplings, and bison meat as well as singing and dancing. They wrote they fought off mosquitoes and grizzly bears that harassed them daily.
We also found a geocache here after a long search in the hot sun.
We enjoyed our time in this historic city except for the extremely hot temperatures.
Next up: Lewistown, Montana