Great Falls: then and now
August 27, 2008
by Craig & Liz Larcom
Stride through the nation’s airports these days and you’ll see a lot of business casual flowing by – until you get to the gate for Great Falls, that is. That’s where the denim, fabric of the west, begins.
There are, mind you, ranchers and farmers in the Great Falls area that don’t own a thread of denim. Why, there are some that don’t wear boots, oversized buckles, or cowboy hats. It’s just that here in the middle of wheat and cattle country, there’s enough western flavor that no one particularly notices such garb. It’s the kind of place where a patient wouldn’t give a second thought if the doctor were wearing cowboy boots. Or the streets had an overabundance of pickups. Or the symphony had an event called “Black Tie and Blue Jeans.”
Chalk it up to the agricultural underpinnings of the Great Falls economy, along with some Charlie Russell effect. What city wouldn’t appreciate its western past with a keenly-observant cowboy artist like Russell as its chief historian?
Thousands of visitors each year flock to the newly-enlarged C.M. Russell Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of Russell art and personal objects. Russell is known for his story-telling canvases that accurately captured the life of both cowboys and native Americans as the Old West faded.
But Charlie didn’t move to Great Falls until 1890.
Shift back to June 13, 1805 for the first written history about Great Falls. That’s when Meriwether Lewis saw the Great Falls of the Missouri, “the grandest sight I ever beheld.” Actually, Lewis heard the falls from seven miles downstream and already had them pegged for the landmark falls the Mandans had told him about the previous winter.
The Great Falls of the Missouri turned out to be just one of a series of falls and rapids that drop over 500 feet in 8 miles. The Lewis and Clark expedition took a month to portage their goods around the falls on an 18-mile route. Grizzlies, thousands of bison, prickly-pear cactus that pierced the men’s moccasins, and the last of the grog were all part of the experience, which is memorialized at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Interpretive Center east of the city. Local citizens who are dedicated to authenticity make up the Lewis and Clark Honor Guard, which also tells the historic story with re-enactments of the expedition’s adventures.
Rivers were the highways in early Montana and travelers avoided the bump in the road at Great Falls for some time. Then Paris Gibson came. Instead of a barrier to travel, Gibson saw the falls as power for industrial mills and smelters, and he envisioned a city that would be a center of commerce and industry.
Gibson, a former Minneapolis businessman, was a man of action. In 1882 he platted Great Falls with straight, wide streets, planned 886 acres of parks and enlisted the financial help of his longtime friend and railroad magnate James. J. Hill.
By the time the railroad reached Great Falls in 1887, rapid growth was underway and businesses already included a bank, newspaper and general store. By 1891 the first mill, hydroelectric dam and smelter had appeared.
Capping it off was the arrival of the Anaconda Mining Company which in 1907 started building a smelter with a smokestack that would be the world’s tallest at 506 feet high. Employing as many as 2,000 at a time, the copper smelter was a mainstay of the Great Falls economy until it shut down the last of its operations in 1980. The stack was demolished in 1982.
In the meantime, a new economic force had arrived in the city – the army base which came to be Malmstrom Air Force Base. Now controlling 200 nuclear-tipped missiles in silos scattered throughout the area, Malmstrom has a proud history of capturing the Blanchard Trophy, awarded for best missile operations. The base amounts to about 35 percent of the city’s economic base.
The F-16s seen flying overhead are part of a separate military unit, the Montana Air National Guard, which shares the runways with 737s at the Great Falls airport.
A refinery, pasta plant, flour mill, and air freight hub are among other businesses in the city. Points of pride include the cutting-edge McLaughlin Research Institute and the Pulitzer Prize won by the Great Falls Tribune.
Great Falls, now the third largest city in Montana, still treasures the Missouri River that runs through it. The falls are harnessed by four hydroelectric dams, but city parks, the River’s Edge Trail, and Giant Springs State Park provide popular recreation.
Other places to visit are Paris Gibson Square art museum, the hands-on Children’s Museum, and nearby Ulm Pishkun State Park, where native Americans hunted bison by stampeding them over cliffs.
And what better salute to Great Falls agriculture than buying a loaf from the Great Harvest Bakery or a steak dinner at Borrie’s?
Denims not required.