On June 16, 1805, Captain Clark of the Corps of Discovery – with an extremely ill Sacajawea accompanying him – halted below the confluence of Belt Creek and the Missouri River (“portage creek,” to the Corps), setting up what would become the base camp for their month-long assault around the “great falls.”
As part of Meriwether Lewis’s effort to cure the young mother, he used the water of a sulphur spring that is located across the Missouri from the mouth of Belt Creek and called Sacajawea or Sulphur springs. The actual area of the Lower Portage Camp may be glimpsed looking downriver from Sulphur Springs toward a wide flat spot on the opposite shore. Owing to the rock outcrops on either side of the river, it is doubtful the channel has changed much with time. And the rapids Lewis details in his journal are still in place.
To make the portage, the men ascended Belt Creek, crossed the prairie near what would become Malmstrom Air Force Base hauling the boats to the southwest edge of Great Falls, then followed Box Elder Creek (Willow Run in the journals) to the White Bear Islands and the Upper Portage Camp on the Missouri, a distance of about 18 miles.
Less than two miles below Black Eagle Dam, the world’s “shortest river,” the Roe, extends to the Missouri from its source at Giant Springs. A sign placed by the Lincoln School fifth grade class of 1987-88 reads, “The Roe River is the world’s shortest river, having an average length of 201 feet, as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. Lewis and Clark were the first white people to see the river in 1805. The name ‘Roe’ means fish eggs and comes from its proximity to the State Fish Hatchery.” The spring is part of the 3,400-acre Giant Springs State Park, which stretches for 14.5 miles along the Missouri at Great Falls.
Paris Gibson of Minnesota read of the wonder of the “great falls” in the journals of Lewis and Clark, and in 1880, he traveled to Montana to view them for himself. Rather than admiring the thundering cataracts as the captains had, Gibson felt that the water simply running over the falls was a waste and saw the possibility of money and power being generated instead. Gibson knew he would be able to persuade his friend Jim Hill, architect of the Great Northern Railway, to send a rail line to his city.
Young Paris returned to the falls again in 1882 and filed for ownership of the land that would grow to be Great Falls. In the summer of 1884, he set about building the town site, and by 1887 the Montana Central Railway arrived, linking the city with mining camps and other towns in southwest Montana.
As Butte’s Anaconda Company grew, new places with cheap power were needed to produce the copper. Gibson’s young city had all the right ingredients. A new smelter was built on the north side of the river, and a dam was constructed to supply the required electricity. Black Eagle was the first of the magnificent falls to go under. The other dams fell in place over time.
Solid and staid, the grown-up city of Great Falls is the anchor of Montana’s best grain-growing region, the Golden Triangle. While agriculture rules the economy, the city is filled with art museums and historical venues – just the kind of town to raise a family.
After crossing Maroney, the last of the dams, the Missouri travels 32 miles, for the most part out of sight of roads and people, to Fort Benton. When it finds “Benton,” the river will have journeyed 245 miles from its origin and lost 1,386 feet in elevation.
Sixteen miles before Fort Benton, the river passes the Carter Ferry, the first of three commuter “boats” serving backcountry roads and used mainly by ranchers and farmers. Working off of a cable system, the ferries are rudimentary barges with a small engine house on one side. A person needing service presses a buzzer, alerting the operator in his home, then awaits a cruise across the water.
The Virgelle Ferry at Virgelle and Coal Banks Landing is 39 miles below Fort Benton, and the McClelland operation crosses 64 miles downriver from Virgelle. The Carter and Virgelle “boats” are near regularly traveled roads, while McClelland isn’t close to anywhere. It crosses the Missouri in a very remote segment of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Just before Fort Benton, the Missouri comes into view of the highway at a sweeping, open big bend. An interpretive site, high above the river’s west flank, looks down on cultivated land inside river’s curve. From 1845 until 1846, this was the site of Fort Benton’s predecessor, Fort Lewis, an American Fur Company trading post.
On the Missouri, Fort Benton has great significance. With the settling in of the first residents during the autumn of 1846, “Benton” began its reign as the oldest continuing town in the state, and hence Montana’s birthplace. From 1860 until 1888, it was the destination of all steamboat navigation.
A quiet Front Street of today faces the old levee and river. Big cottonwoods and grass have taken the place of the raucous scene of days long gone. At one time, from the moment the ice melted in the spring until the river froze in the fall, the 1.5-mile levee never slept. It was piled with goods going out to the mining camps of southwest Montana or shipments of gold headed east.
Agriculture keeps Fort Benton going now, but the town hasn’t forgotten its past. Historic signs and relics of the 1880s line the shady levee. And the venerable Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882, still proudly operates on the banks of the Missouri.
From this point on, for the next 300 miles, the big river will maneuver through some of the most storied and magnificent prairie landscape in the West. Save for tiny Loma, guardian of a major tributary, the Marias, the towns are removed from any contact with the river, and the importance of the terrain extends much farther from the waterway than it does upstream. Let’s call it a giant eco-system.
Rick and Susie Graetz work in the University of Montana Department of Geography.