Saturday, June 7, 2014

Our Lewis & Clark Adventure: Great Falls, MT and the Great Portage

Great Falls Montana is yet another wonderful American city, full of energetic people, proud of their community, with lots of outdoor activities. This is a city I could easily live in, in spite of its somewhat brutal winters.

Lewis & Clark had learned from the Hidatsa when he wintered with them and the Mandan near present day Bismarck, ND, that they would encounter a great falls of the Missouri River, after the entrance of the Yellowstone River. There was another river they encountered, which they named the Marias River, that the Hidatsa had not mentioned. Even more surprising, and more defeating to their mission, was finding not one great falls but a series of five falls in about a 15 mile stretch of the Missouri. They had planned one one or two days to get their large canoes, with all their provisions and gear, out of the river and to carry them a few miles to get around the falls. Meriwether Lewis and a few of his men walked up the bluff above the river and concluded that it would be a 17 mile portage. It wound up taking them almost month to finish the task.
This is the Great Falls, the first that they encountered. It is about 15 miles downstream from present day Great Falls, MT.
A hydroelectric dam can be seen above the natural waterfalls.

I used Photoshop on the above image to picture the scene as Lewis and Clark might have seen it. The distance from the water level to the top of the falls is 97 feet.

A selfie at the falls.

Black Eagle Falls, the closest to Great Falls, MT, the last of the five the Corps encountered.

Crooked Falls in the foreground and Rainbow Falls above it. The fifth falls, Coulter Falls, no longer is visible. It was flooded by the damming of the river for hydroelectric power.

Crooked Falls from above and upstream.  The river is flowing away from us in this view. The "Great Falls" is still about 8 miles downstream. This photo gives an idea of the terrain over which the boats had to be carried.

The Great Falls Visitors Center and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls are both excellent places to visit for information and to help visualize the expedition.

This statue outside the Visitors Center shows the importance of L&C to the area.

Also at the Visitors Center, a statue of an American Indian of the Blackfeet Tribe.
 A pair of birds were making a nest in his headdress.
We took a tour of Great Falls. The tour focused NOT on L&C but on the city of  Great Falls itself, its' origins and development and its' current economic and cultural life.
Debbie and I had the first tour of the season and were its' only passengers.
Our guide was still reading and editing the manuscript of the tour since she had 90 minutes of notes for this 60 minute tour.

I liked our driver's t-shirt.

The area of Great Falls remained uninhabited, even by American Indians, for 78 years after the Lewis & Clark expedition. It was never inhabited by American Indians although it was used by several tribes as a hunting ground. The development of the town was due to a single man with a vision and the means and fortitude to see it completed. Paris Gibson was born in Maine but lived as an adult in Minnesota. He visited the Great Falls area and envisioned an industrial city made prosperous by creating hydroelectric power plants. He returned with surveyors and laid out the overall grid of the city. He wanted to live here himself and to have his friends live here also, so the plans included many parks, large streets with ample area for homes and businesses. He had a railroad friend who extended tract to the city and the rest is history, as they say. The town was officially born in 1883.

Near the river in downtown Great Falls is the railroad district. There is still an active railroad but only for freight.

Many of the old railroad buildings have been converted for other purposes. This is now a children's museum.

Central Ave. Great Falls. I was curious about the "Toiletries - Surgical Supplies" sign.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center of Great Falls has a life size depiction of the Portage.

The Corps had to make wheels and axles of cottonwood trees. The banks of the Missouri river are very steep and only man power was available to get the cargo to the land above it.

The Missouri River splits well below the falls. The Hidatsa had not mentioned this to them. The mission given to them by President Jefferson was to follow the Missouri River to its' origins. The captains explored each of he two rivers for 5-10 miles. They pondered the decision for several days. The army enlisted men felt the right branch was the Missouri but L&C felt it was the left river. That's what they took.
L&C found that they were correct when they came upon the great falls of the Missouri.

This display points out the difficulty Lewis & Clark had in exchanging information with the Indians. Every communication had to go through several uncertain translations. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. One interpreter spoke Hidatsa and French. One spoke French and English.

On the return trip the captains decided to split up to give them a chance to explore different areas. Lewis explored the Marias River and Clark the Yellowstone. They met again weeks later at a spot where they had stored some supplies earlier. Meriwether Lewis encountered some Blackfeet Indians who tried to steal their horses and weapons. Two Blackfeet lost their lives. Including Sgt Floyd, who died of appendicitis near Sioux City, only three people perished during the expedition

Many different American Indian tribes used bison hides to record their history.

Charles M. Russell. At the CM Russell Museum. Russell was an artist, collector, story teller, cowboy poet, heavy drinker, scoundrel, philosopher. He painted more than 2000 paintings, most documenting American Indian and early settler life. He did many paintings of the interaction of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's interaction with the Indians. He was an early resident of Great Falls and lived the remainder of his life here. One of his works recently sold for $5 million.

A CM Russell painting (from the internet)  showing the first Black man, Clark's slave, York, the Mandan Indians ever encountered. They were fascinated by him, wanted to touch him and venerated him as a powerful spirit. They tried to capture some of that spirit and power by allowing him to have sex with Mandan women. Most of the others in the
corps experienced the same pleasures. And it was a long winter.

CM Russell collected many American Indian artifacts. He used these in his works of art.

A Cheyenne girls tunic adorned with elk teeth. I don't know who took the photo in the background.

Russell had quite a number of ceremonial headdresses.

CM Russell's studio

Inside the studio

Cheyenne pappose 

This is a view down the Missouri River just below the Great Falls. It is easy to see why they could not get out of the river here.  They had to retreat several miles back downstream to find a place to exit the river to begin the Portage.

This gives you an idea of what the landscape was like. Pretty much an open rolling prairie.

Sacagawea became critically ill while the Corps of Discovery was in the Great Falls area. Lewis treated her with opium and water from a sulphur spring the Corps had encountered earlier. She recovered. Her position was considered of prime importance to Lewis & Clark because of her native language, Shoshone, and her knowledge of the Indian ways.

When the wind was favorable the Corps took advantage by hoisting the sail.

Another view of the terrain.

Prickly Pear. The nemesis of the men during the Portage. Most of the men wore deerskin moccasins which were not up to the task. Their feet became lacerated, infected, and required much delay.

The leaves of these plants are extremely sharp and can easily puncture the skin. I know.

The Great Falls KOA was a perfect place to stay. The roads in the campground were a little tight. I think that many of the "big rigs" were not happy maneuvering in the campground. But the sites were level  gravel with good services. Wifi worked well but there was no cable TV so no HGTV for Debbie.

Rosie loved the open fields at the back of the campground. I took some videos of her but have not yet figured out how to compress them to use on Blogger. If any of you fellow Bloggers can do this let me know. I use a Mac.

"Strangest dog I ever saw," said Rosie.

This is the view behind the KOA, about 100 yards from our campsite. The tipi* (see note below for spelling) was constructed in an authentic manner except for the canvas shell. American Indians usually used bison hides.

Canadian Geese are raising their families at this time.

Panoramic view of the area behind the KOA. The tipi seen above is just off the frame to the right.

Another view of Great Falls which will probably not make it to the Chamber of Commerce brochure.
While we were in Great Falls Montana, Debbie and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary . We went to dinner at a fine steak and lobster place, Jaker's Bar & Grill. They gave us this ice-cream cake for our Anniversary.

The Black & White for this blog comes from a very early production of Guys & Dolls by the Aiken Diabetes Association, predecessor of the Aiken Kidney Benefit.

Debbie is the Adelaide, the bride. To the far left, yours truly is a member of the Mission Band.
Adelaide finally gets to marry Nathan Detroit after a 14 year engagement.

We continue to be enthralled by the Lewis & Clark Expedition but are happy to being following it in our own (Ford) Expedition and our lovely Airstream, Diva. Rosie keeps sniffing along.

Ciao, Frank

*I always used to spell this American Indian dwelling, "teepee". Then I saw "tepee" and "tipi". I consulted with Mr. Google and all are correct. Tipi comes from the Lakota Sioux word for dwelling.


  1. I have been lurking on your blog for almost a year. Glad to see you are back travelling!
    Great falls is one of our favorite trips "down south" from Calgary. Your words and pictures of this part of the country express it very well!
    Safe travels and maybe we will cross paths on the road!


    Dan Loeb

  2. Hi Frank!
    Great post about Great Falls!
    Did the KOA mention that the land just behind the campsites was used during the L&C portage?
    Interesting timing as PBS is just now playing the Ken Burns special.
    Thanks for sharing!!