Great Falls, MT: August 8-17, 2011

There were two sites of interest on the trip between Hungry Horse and Great Falls. After making it back over the Rockies, Captains Lewis and Clark split their forces in order to explore alternate routes.  Lewis and three men headed north to explore the Marias River with the goal of finding how far its tributaries extended.  President Jefferson’s deal for Louisiana defined its northern border as the limits of such tributaries.  Determining that they didn’t reach higher than the 49th parallel, Lewis named his last bivouac Camp Disappointment.  Unfortunately, our GPS couldn’t find it and our dead reckoning skills failed.

On their way back, they had an encounter with eight Blackfeet braves that ended in the death of two of them who were stealing their guns and horses at what is known as the Two Medicine Fight Site. This was the only hostile action with deaths inflicted by the Corps.  We found the fight sight, marked simply by this sign, making us feel that there probably hadn’t been much more at the Camp Disapointment site.

Our campground in Great Falls was close to Old Town and the River drive. It gave us an opportunity to reach the most important things we needed to see in and near town.

Teddy’s increasing slide was our primary consideration. He would eat nothing without being hand fed, and even then it had to be enhanced by fresh cooked chicken and even baby food. We took him in for another round of tests; the results showed that his liver function was severely distressed. He continued to go on walks and wandered the campground’s dog park with curiosity. But in between, he slept nearly all the time.

The Great Falls

Lewis & Clark knew the falls were there, but they didn’t know what an obstacle they would create.  It was almost as harrowing as their upcoming trek across the Rockies.  Upon arrival, Lewis was so overcome by their grandeur that he lamented his inability to portray it in his journal. A scouting party discovered that Great Falls was only the first of five falls that had to be portaged, covering a distance Clark estimated at 18 miles. The portage took a month.  It  began with burying their two pirogues at the Lower Portage Camp, manufacturing wheels for the other canoes, and towing all of their gear while plagued by heat, hailstones, prickly pears and whatever else nature could throw at them.  At the Upper Portage Camp, they tried to assemble Lewis’s Iron Boat, an invention he’d had built in Harper’s Ferry and carried all this way. But there were no pine trees to provide the tar with which the animal hides covering the frame could be sealed.  It failed, and they had to build two more dugouts before proceeding.  They buried supplies in a cache and finally, on July 15, 32 days after their arrival,they set forth again to find the Shoshones, their key to the mountain passage that lay ahead.

As you travel Riverfront Drive, you encounter all of the falls except “Great.” Only Crooked Falls retains its original configuration. Great, Rainbow and Black Eagle have all been dammed.  Half of Black Eagle and all of Colter are submerged.   Nevertheless, it’s scenic beauty. To view Great Falls itself, we had to drive out of town and down a circuitous route across the plains.

L&C Center

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, near Crooked Falls, was opened in 1998 by NPS and is a well done, comprehensive display of the Corps and the environment they encountered. A two story diorama demonstrates the travails they suffered to complete the portage.  There are interpretive exhibits for most of the significant points along the trip, including the Lolo Pass challenge (several chapters ahead!).  There’s heavy coverage of the many diverse Native American cultures they experienced. Their decision at Three Forks where the Missouri ended, is explained more in the next chapter. Sgt. Pryor’s travails during his side trip on the trip home are revealed — the Crows stole all his horses and he and his small band had to build bull boats — small round boats of Mandan design that consist of a willow frame covered by a single bison hide. And, of course, there’s yet another commemorative statue — different from the one next to the Visitors Center (both are pictured).

Upper Portage Camp

Near the end of our journey, we went up to the beautiful expanse that held the Upper Portage Camp. There, we saw a replica of the Iron Boat frame, numerous commemorative signs, and a beautiful landscape. Equally important, the sight was on the Ayrshire Dairy Farm, one of many area participants in Undaunted Stewardship, a partnership of properties and organizations committed to preserving and maximizing the utilization of the land.  Visit for more information.

Separate Trips

Dot and I did separate adventures on separate days so one of us could stay close to Ted.  She took a trolley tour through town that exposed the “modern” history. After being the site of significant trapping and trading activity from 1822-1882, it was platted by a businessman named Paris Gibson and grew from there to a principal Montana metropolis. Don drove up to Fort Benton, about 40 miles north.  Fort Benton calls itself “The Birthplace of Montana,” a registered trademark, because it is the convergence of so many events. It’s part of the L&C Trail and Nez Perce Trail.   It’s the terminus of the Old Fort and Whoop-Up whisky trails as well as the Mullan Military Trail (first federal highway in the U.S.) across the Rockies.  It still maintains much of its original appearance as a wild west town.  There are commemorations along the waterfront in every block, including a monument to Lewis’s decision when he first encountered the Marias River (sign below); the use of keelboats to ferry the furs down river; and the Mullan Road.

And it houses numerous other treasures.  Fort Benton itself has been reconstructed. It was a major fur trading center in the 1840’s – a steamboat junction for the transportation of pelts east.  The guide told us many stories of the nature of the trade, and out front is a contraption to compress the pelts to bind them for shipment (below).

The city holds The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The Breaks is a 375,000 acre preserve administrated by the Bureau of Land Management that remains essentially the same undeveloped badlands it was 200 years ago. Not much of the shoreline is visible except by boat, but a video and collection in the administration center enhance the story.

It also features The Museum of the Northern Great Plains, a hidden treasure. — a comprehensive interpretation of the history of agriculture in Montana over the past century. That’s all to the left as you enter, and it goes on forever.

At your right is more treasure — a circular room that houses an exquisite presentation of The Hornaday Bison.  Created for the Smithsonian in 1887, it was considered passé by 1955 and disassembled. Over the next forty years, the magnificent specimens were collected by this Museum.  A local sculptor created a mantel-sized collector’s item of the six bison together.  Fifty were cast and sold for $3,200 apiece. Thus, the community not only acquired and restored the collection but built its new home and displayed it for future generations.

I would be remiss not to honor the man who created these beautiful memories. William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937) was a zoologist, taxidermist, conservationist and writer whose contributions to preservation match those of people like Teddy Roosevelt.  His pioneering work for the Smithsonian was eclipsed by his 30 year tenure as head of the New York Zoological Park. His writings popularized animal life and it preservation.  A Boy Scout medal and a mountain in Yellowstone bear his name.

The bison extravaganza is surrounded by two dimensional and three dimensional art in the rotunda and an adjacent gallery, created by acclaimed artists such as Helena’s Bob Morgan and sculptors such Blackfeet Nation’s Bob Scriver.

Charles Marion Russell

Charlie Russell was preceded in the annals of western artists by George Catlin (1796-1872) and Karl Bodmer (1809-1893).   He was a contemporary of Frederick Remington (1861-1909). Together, these four prolific artists have chronicled the Old West for all times.

Born in 1864, Charlie spent his early years in Missouri, but by age 16 he was a Montanan. He married Nancy in 1897 and they moved to Great Falls. His home and studio are preserved there. Russell died in 1926.  Nancy outlived him by twenty years and moved to their second home in California after affairs were settled.  At his request, he was borne to his grave in a horse-drawn hearse.  The house and studio are now adjuncts to the obvious well-endowed museum in the center of town.  One needs to spend hours inhaling his work, from casual sculptures and detailed doodles within his prolific letters to the magnificent seriousness of his 2D and 3D work. Artists close to him are also featured.

I would like to tell you lots more about Great Falls, but my heart isn’t in it. I know in advance what I’m going to have to tell you in the next chapter, and the pain is too much to bear. So please let these pictures tell you the rest of the story.

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