Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Great Falls, Montana, is situated at the upper end of a series of cataracts that begin at Black Eagle Falls and extend a dozen miles downstream to the largest drop in the Missouri River (given the name Big Falls by Meriwether Lewis), the site of present-day Ryan Dam. Nez Percé and Flathead Indians regularly defied the Blackfoot and entered the Plains from west of the mountains in search of bison, which were abundant in the vicinity of the site of the present city. Another attraction was the shallows situated just upstream from presentday downtown Great Falls, in those days the only practical place to cross the Missouri for forty miles in either direction.

In the heart of Blackfoot country and off the track for road freighters, who gave a wide berth to the deep cuts and coulees formed by the Missouri's feeder streams, the site of the future city remained virtually devoid of permanent occupation by Native Americans and settlers alike until Paris Gibson, a wool merchant and pioneer sheep rancher, founded the town in 1884. He had read the Lewis and Clark journals and came to see the falls for himself. Impressed with their beauty and their industrial potential, he convinced his friend, railroad magnate James Hill, to invest in the town site and urged him to extend his railroad through the new city on its way to the Pacific. Hill made the investment, but to Gibson's chagrin Hill subsequently chose a more northerly route for his transcontinental railroad (the Great Northern) so that the main line bypassed the town. Nonetheless, Gibson proceeded to supervise the symmetrical platting of streets and avenues, laid out on north- south and east-west axes with fourteen lots to the block, each lot precisely 50 by 150 feet. Gibson saw to the inclusion of parks and insisted on planting trees in abundance along the town's streets and avenues. Great Falls was a planned town–a businessman's town, different in style and character from mining camps and cattle towns that had sprung up of their own volition. This difference was noted by another of Gibson's friends, the famed cowboy artist Charlie Russell, who lauded Gibson for his work in founding the city.

Great Falls served from the first as a trade center for area farmers and ranchers, and Gibson and his partners saw to the building of dams to harness waterpower within a decade of the city's founding. Silver smelting emerged early on, and despite the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 and other subsequent setbacks in the crusade to put silver at the center of the country's monetary system, the smelting industry survived and expanded, with copper becoming the predominant product during an era of industrial expansion. The 506-foot "Big Stack" dominated the city's skyline from the time of its completion in 1908. The smelter closed in 1980, and demolition of the landmark stack two years later marked the end of an era during which the smelter had been the single greatest source of industrial jobs for generations of Great Falls residents.

With the loss of the smelter and the effects of repeated drought years during the 1980s, Great Falls faced difficult times. However, other foundations of the local economy remained in place. One such was Malmstrom Air Force Base, established during World War II as the East Base to serve as a ferrying point for lend-lease aircraft headed for the Russian front via Alaska and Siberia. During the cold war era it continued as a missile base. From the first the military's presence had a significant social as well as economic impact. It brought to Great Falls significant numbers of people from many parts of the country, resulting in an increased population and a more diverse social and cultural milieu.

Other institutions also continued to bolster the local economy. National chains added to the number of large retail discount stores in Great Falls during the 1980s and 1990s, serving customers drawn from throughout the northern and central parts of Montana. Major medical and educational facilities have remained in place, and the state university system has steadily increased its presence in the city. During the late 1990s two new interpretive centers were built, one dedicated to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the other to the Native American pishkun, or bison kill site, located not far from town. These joined the C. M. Russell Museum to attract increasing numbers of tourists to the city.

A number of factors combined to stem the initial steep declines following the closing of the smelter and the years of drought and agricultural depression. Great Falls entered the new millennium in a modest growth mode, with its most recent population at 56,690, drawing the city virtually even with where it stood in 1980 before the smelter closed.

See also TRANSPORTATION: Hill, James.

William J. Furdell University of Great Falls

Frohlicher, S. V. Stone Age to Space Age in 100 Years: Cascade County History and Gazetteer. Great Falls MT: Cascade County Historical Society, 1981.

Furdell, William J. "The Great Falls Home Front during World War II." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 48 (1998): 63–73.

Furdell, William J., and Elizabeth L. Furdell. Great Falls: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach VA: Donning Company Publishers, 1984.

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