Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Great Falls

The entire two-month journey from the Mandan villages where the Corps of Discovery wintered was easy compared to the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri. From fifteen miles away Captain Meriwether Lewis, traveling overland with a small advance party on June 13, 1805, saw telltale spray and soon heard “a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken.” Approaching the sound, Lewis saw “spray arise above the plain like a collumn of smoke.”

The Great Falls circa 1901. Stereograph by N. A. Forsyth
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, ST 001.292
Humbled by the magnificence of the falls, Lewis felt his written description impossibly inadequate. The grueling eighteen-mile portage around the natural wonder, however, was a month-long ordeal with many days spent in preparation and eleven days in transit. Grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, and “muskquetoes” kept the men vigilant while, scorched by the summer sun, they dragged crude wagons filled with supplies across gullies and around ravines. Today the great rock cliffs over which the water tumbled lie exposed, the falls long since harnessed for hydroelectric power. Although the town of Great Falls has grown up around the area and the portage itself is not discernible, the visitor can still locate the route, identified through documentary and cartographic research. Sites include several campsites, the sulfur spring that saved a critically ill Sacagawea, and Giant Springs. The portage, a National Historic Landmark, is under varied ownership and ranges from highly developed to near pristine.

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