A symbol of real American West Waterfall: The site is a logical stop for tourists retracing the path Lewis and Clark took on their expedition almost 200 years ago, but finding the Great Falls in Great Falls, Mont., today isn't easy.

Sun Journal

October 13, 1997|By Michael Dresser and Sheila Dresser | Michael Dresser and Sheila Dresser,SUN STAFF

GREAT FALLS, Mont. -- Before Capt. Meriwether Lewis saw the Great Falls of the Missouri on June 13, 1805, he heard the roar.

What he beheld when he reached the tiny island at the base of the falls astonished him. Here the mighty Missouri River, some 1,500 feet wide and swollen with the snowmelt of the Rockies, fell 78 feet. It was, he wrote in his journal, a "sublimely grand specticle the grandest sight I ever beheld." It was also a crucial moment in the journey, the discovery that dispelled any fear that Lewis and William Clark had taken a wrong turn in their expedition.

But it is all but impossible to recapture that moment. Much of the falls' grandeur has been obliterated, encased in the concrete of the 65-foot-high Ryan Dam. The Great Falls no longer ranks with the great scenic glories of the West. But it still has a fascinating tale to tell -- though not the kind of history that tourist agencies like to emphasize. In its way, the place symbolizes the real American West more accurately than if the Great Falls had been left pristine.

Bicentennial approaching

For Montana, there's a cruel irony about the site.

The 200th anniversary of the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition is approaching. Stephen E. Ambrose's 1996 book about the expedition, "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West," has been on the best seller list more than a year. And director Ken Burns has filmed a PBS documentary on their historic mission that will be broadcast early next month. Tourism officials from Missouri to Oregon are preparing for an influx of visitors.

The modern city of Great Falls is no exception. In preparation for the bicentennial, it is building a Lewis and Clark interpretive center and planning hundreds of activities and observances. But had it been left in its natural state, the Great Falls might have become the focus of bicentennial activities and one of the leading tourist attractions of the West.

"It would have been, it could have been a major recreational center along the river," says Bill Wyckoff, professor of geography at Montana State University. "Today, it's a great anticlimax."

Nevertheless, the Great Falls area is a logical stop for tourists retracing the path Lewis and Clark took on their expedition to explore the lands bought in the Louisiana Purchase.

It was downriver from here, a few days before the discovery, that Lewis and Clark were confronted with one of the most critical choices of their journey. They had come to the junction of two TTC large rivers and did not know which was the Missouri and which was a large tributary. All they knew from the Hidatsa Indians was that the main river had a mighty waterfall.

Most of their party believed the fork to the right was the correct choice, but the two captains suspected that the south fork was the true Missouri. The wrong choice could have delayed -- and might have prevented -- the expedition's passage through the Rockies.

Lewis set out ahead on foot with four men to explore the south fork. It was not until the third day that they heard the roar of falling water telling them the captains had chosen the right course.

But now it's not easy to find the Great Falls in Great Falls.

The site can be reached by car only by taking the narrow, bumpy Ryan Dam Road. The natural wonder that gave the city its name is omitted from Montana's official highway map. One tiny sign marks the turnoff. "To find it," says Victor Bjornberg, publicity coordinator for Travel Montana, the state tourism agency, "you have to be a little adventurous and ask."

On the island where Lewis once stood, the utility company that owns the dam has created a pretty little park. It is reached by a swaying footbridge, marked with a sign that warns that no more than six people should be on it at once. Montana Power Co. says the park attracts about 23,000 visitors a year -- "not a whole lot," Bjornberg says. "They do a lot of weddings there."

The Ryan Dam was built in 1915 -- one of five dams that shackled this stretch of the Missouri River between 1890 and 1930. It is named after John D. Ryan, president of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. and later the Montana Power Co.

With tourism now a major industry and environmentalism a potent political force, a dam probably couldn't be imposed on such a scenic waterfall. But the Ryan Dam was proposed and built with little or no public protest, says Keith Edgerton, who teaches Montana history at Montana State University-Billings.

"People a half-century ago looked at the landscape a lot differently than we do today," Edgerton says. "Any kind of economic development was seen as a boon -- was applauded and appreciated and embraced."

'A company state'

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