WELCOME to the river and its history      

Winter finds a still Missouri River, with Rainbow Dam in the background.

The first written record of Great Falls was the sighting of the great falls of the Missouri River at about noon June 13, 1805, by Capt. Meriwether Lewis during the Corps of Discovery's expedition to find the Pacific Ocean.

Soon after, Lewis "walked on Ryan Island" near the current location of Ryan Dam, says Don Peterson, who retired from the Montana Air National Guard after 30 years and leads historical tours of northcentral Montana and the river.

Not much else is written of the area until the early 1850s when Issac Stevens led a surveying party in the area to spur a transcontinental railroad and entered into treaties with Indians.

In 1879, Paris Gibson, a Minnesota businessman, arrived in Fort Benton, engaging in sheep ranching, railroads and water power and moving upriver to found Great Falls in 1882.

"He was a pretty bright person," Peterson says. "He saw the potential for power here, similar to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. He surreptitiously took (railroad magnate) James Hill on a fishing trip, then pointed out 'look what we have here' at the great falls," Peterson says.

"They bought a considerable amount of land. H.P. Rolfe surveyed and platted the city in 1883-84."

Gibson and Hill sold two city lots to Anton Hegley on July 19, 1884, in what is believed to be the city's first land contract.


The first school in Great Falls was built in 1885 and the Great Falls Tribune began publishing the same year.

The First National Bank was formed and a fire department organized in 1886. The railroad arrived in 1887, the year Cascade County was carved out of Chouteau County. The population reached 1,200 and a city directory was published.

Great Falls was incorporated as a city in 1888 and Gibson was elected its first mayor.

The following year Montana became a state. The first U.S. Census taken in Great Falls showed 3,949 residents in 1890.

Smelters, flour mills and electric generating plants were built.

At the start of the 20th century, Great Falls began to recover from a financial crisis of the mid-1890s. The next 20 years marked one of the greatest building periods in city history.

The College of Great Falls was established in 1932 by the Sisters of Providence, and the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind moved to Great Falls in 1937.

By the 1930s, Great Falls boasted 11 hotels, four movie theaters, several active literary societies, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and Riverview public golf course, which charged 50 cents to play 18 holes.

The long-sought Alaska Highway was constructed and what is now Malmstrom Air Force Base was established. The air base became a vital part of a changing economy in peacetime. By the end of the 1950s, the base was headquarters for the Minuteman missile project.

In the early 1980s, however, the Anaconda Co. closed its operations, throwing hundreds of residents out of work. The famous Big Stack was later demolished.

After a stagnant period in the late 1980s, the city rebounded and the community strengthened its position as a regional center for shopping and health care.

David Hoffman, PPL Manager
of External Affairs

"We send the bulk of
the power into Montana."




Three rivers run through it

  Great Falls is the heart
of Montana
  River Importance  
    River Recreation  
    River Development  
    River Parks  
    River Edge Trail  
    River History  

Dams part
of city's heritage

In 1890, the first of the Missouri River dams, Black Eagle Dam, was constructed near Black Eagle Falls.

"Many people believe Black Eagle Falls is the Great Falls," says Don Peterson, a local Historian.

That's probably because it's the only waterfall visible from the urban area of Great Falls, along River Drive North at about 30th Street.

Rainbow Dam near Rainbow Falls was built during 1909-10. Five years later, Ryan Dam was built just above the Great Falls.

Volta Dam was the original name, but it was changed to commemorate John D. Ryan, Head of Montana Power Co. and the Anaconda Co.

Morony Dam was built in 1930 and Cochrane Dam 1957-58. There are no waterfalls at either of those locations.

However, the Missouri River drops 551 feet in 22 river miles from the Upper Portage near what locals perennially call Ayrshire Dairy, a defunct dairy operation south of the city, to the Lower Portage one mile downstream from the mouth of Belt Creek.

By comparison, "The Mississippi drops only 400 feet in 1,200 river miles from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico," said Peterson. "The drop here is phenomenal."

The five dams generate more than 200 megawatts of electricity:

  • Black Eagle Dam – 18 megawatts.
  • Rainbow Dam – 35.
  • Cochrane Dam – 54.7.
  • Ryan Dam – 60.
  • Morony Dam – 49.

"We send the bulk of the power into Montana," says David Hoffman, PPL Manager of External Affairs.

One megawatt can supply 750 households, so the Great Falls-area dams can provide power for about five times the number of people in Cascade County's 33,000 or so households.

The dams operate at "run of the river," Hoffman says.

That means when there's a high natural flow of the Missouri, the water flows over or through the dams at the same rate in "real time" so the pools behind the dams don't have to change levels for power purposes, only for natural high-water times.

This stabilizes the river for community recreational use, he says.

PPL works with federal and state agencies to study and protect fish and wildlife. The utility also has donated land for public use, especially along the Missouri as part of the River's Edge Trail.

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