NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading


Lewis and Clark
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark Great Falls Portage

Location: Cascade and Chouteau Counties, south of the Missouri River to the east and south of the city of Great Falls. U.S. 87-89 intersects the portage route at the southeastern edge of the city.

Except possibly for the Bitterroot Range and the falls-cascades area of the Middle Columbia, no other physical obstacle challenged the ingenuity and endurance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as much as the portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri. There, at the beginning of the Rocky Mountains, within a few miles the river suddenly dropped hundreds of feet in seething, foamy torrents over five falls and through a series of rapids—insurmountable barriers to navigation.

The time consumed in making the westbound portage threatened the success of the entire venture, for the summer season was advancing, the Shoshonis had not yet been contacted, and the mountains to the west would need to be crossed before the advent of winter. During the month spent in the Great Falls area, several specific adventures also befell the explorers. For all these reasons, it enjoys a preeminence rivaled by few other sites along their route. Unfortunately, extensive hydroelectric development in the vicinity of the city of Great Falls has obliterated the sublime spectacle at the falls that Lewis and Clark viewed. Yet the general setting—the expansive, beautiful upland rimmed by snow-tipped mountains in all directions except on the north—is unchanged.

Rainbow Falls
One of the earliest extant photographs of Rainbow Falls, which was second in height only to the Great Falls in the series of five in this part of the river. This view captures the untamed aspect of the country as it must have appeared in 1805-6. (Montana Historical Society.)

Rainbow Falls
This picture of Rainbow Falls, taken in 1944, contrasts sharply with the one above. Just upstream from the falls is the Montana Power Company dam. In the summer and dry months of the year, far less water comes over the falls than is shown here and large portions of the rock ledge of the falls are bare and devoid of the beauty of white, falling water. (Montana Power Company (1944).)

From the time Lewis and the four men in his overland party arrived at the falls on June 13, 1805, until the expedition moved upriver on July 13, days of backbreaking labor were expended making two crude wagons and portaging the boats, equipment, and supplies. The summer heat was oppressive. Close calls with grizzlies and rattlers were common. During a violent rainstorm, Clark, York, Sacagawea, her baby, and Charbonneau barely escaped drowning along the riverbank.

The failure of improvised caulking materials to keep out water rendered the iron-framed "Experiment" useless. It had been assembled and covered with skins at the upper portage, or White Bear Islands, camp to replace the white pirogue, which was too heavy to portage and was hidden along with a cache of supplies near the lower portage camp for possible use on the return trip. To replace the "Experiment," more valuable time then had to be spent constructing two canoes at a place some distance above the upper portage camp where the timber was suitable.

But some occurrences at the Great Falls were favorable. Water obtained from a sulphur spring on the north side of the Missouri near the lower end of the portage route miraculously cured the deathly ill Sacagawea, without whom subsequent relations with her people, the Shoshonis, might not have been as smooth as they proved to be. And, at the falls, the plentiful buffalo provided a good food supply.

Portage Route Around the Great Falls and Rapids of the Missouri River.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

To affirm that the correct stream had been selected at the mouth of the Marias, Lewis and the advance party had set out from there to locate the Great Falls, of which the Minitaris had told them. Knowing that Clark and the main party would be anxious to learn the news, at sunrise on June 14, the day after he reached the falls, Lewis sent back Joseph Field to advise them. They arrived at the site of the lower portage camp on the evening of June 15, and the next afternoon reunited with Lewis and his comrades. Once a route was staked out, the portage was conducted between June 21 and July 2. Then, after other preparations were made, on July 14 the whole complement pushed upriver.

Because of the separation of the expedition into two major elements under Lewis and Clark, on the eastbound trip, in July 1806, only part of the overall command made the portage: Sergeant Ordway and nine men from the Clark group, and Sergeant Gass and five men from the Lewis party. Despite less manpower, but aided this time by four horses to pull the wagons, they accomplished the portage in only 8 days, in contrast to 11 on the outbound journey. The Gass-Ordway element then proceeded downriver to rendezvous with Lewis and his three companions, who had been exploring the Upper Marias River.

No signs of the portage route are discernible today, but documentary and cartographic research, coupled with terrain study, has made possible its approximate delineation in the map in this volume entitled "Portage Route Around the Great Falls and Rapids of the Missouri River." It also includes key sites, camps, portage methods, and modern features.

Ryan Dam
Ryan Dam, in the center, sits just above the Great Falls. To the right, farther upstream, is Cochrane Dam. Irrigated fields in the distance stripe the landscape. (Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (Blair, 1964).)

From the lower camp, for most of the way the portage route lay 2-3 miles south of and generally paralleled the Missouri, and reached the river again only at the upper camp. Except at the eastern extremity, for the greater part of the distance the route, finally reduced to 17-3/4 miles in length from 18-1/4, ran nearly straight in a northeast-southwest direction across a plain that was level in parts and semilevel in others. Then, near the upper camp, the track descended a gradual slope to an open level cove at the river. Except for a segment of the portage route that crosses Malmstrom Air Force Base and those few places where Federal, State, and county roads and the track of the Milwaukee Road (Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad) intersect or run along it, it is located on private property.

Lower portage camp, on the south, or east, bank of the Missouri, marked the eastern terminus of the portage. About a mile to the south of its site, Belt Creek (called Portage Creek by Lewis and Clark) empties into the Missouri from the south side. Except for livestock grazing, the lower portage camp site, the rocky, gorge-like Belt Creek channel, the rapids of the Missouri at the point where the creek comes into the river, and the bluffs on both sides of the stream are free from modern intrusions—one of the few unspoiled areas prominently associated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

At this point, the Missouri flows between high and, in most places, precipitous banks. The area at the mouth of the creek is virtually treeless. Brush and low shrubs grow in drainage rivulets. High native grass covers the benchland; prickly pear cactus dot the ground. The terrain in the area about a mile up the creek where the canoes were hand-carried up the steep bluff to the plain is treacherous and is in a state of nature except for limited pasturage of livestock and the presence of a dirt road that crosses the creek.

The Montana Power Company owns the land on both sides of Belt Creek for a distance of about 1,000 feet upstream from its mouth. The remainder in the vicinity is privately owned ranch land. The lower Belt Creek area can be best reached by a dirt-gravel county road, but local inquiry is necessary. The lower portage camp site is unmarked and is accessible only on foot or by boat.

The portage route from the edge of the plain above Belt Creek to Malmstrom Air Force Base, about 8 miles in extent, is mainly open farmland. The route then intersects approximately 2 miles of the runway section of the air force base, south of the major buildings and hangars; and, just after crossing U.S. 87-89, traverses the south eastern edge of the city of Great Falls, which is progressively making inroads into the area to its east toward the base. The final 3 miles to the site of the upper portage camp is mainly farmland, though here again the city is encroaching.

Ryan Dam
When little water is released by Ryan Dam, in the background, the Great Falls dwindles to a trickle. (National Park Service (Appleman, 1964).)

The present appearance of the White Bear Islands area and the upper portage camp site has changed considerably since 1805-6. Because the river channel has changed, the three islands have all but disappeared. The two westernmost have become a part of the north, or west, bank of the Missouri, but a heavy growth of cottonwood, willow, and brush still marks the low-lying area. What was the easternmost island has been joined, in effect, to the east bank of the river. A surfaced highway, River Drive (Route 226), out of Great Falls, comes onto the old island area by a short fill, runs its full length, and then crosses over a short causeway back to the old bank. The track of the Burlington Northern, formerly Great Northern, Railroad loops around what was probably the edge of the old riverbank. The latter is separated from the highway only by a water-filled slough that apparently was originally part of the river channel separating the island from the mainland.

Just east of the remnant of the old eastern island, across the railroad track, is apparently the upper portage camp site, which is unmarked. It is in the northern end of a level area, which is nearly a mile in extent north and south along the river and about half a mile wide from the river back to a low benchland. The presumed campsite is about three-quarters of a mile north of Sand Coulee, which bounds the level area on the south and flows into the Missouri River not far above the White Bear Islands area. Great Falls suburban development is taking place along the coulee near its mouth and on the bench above the river bottom. But this has not yet spread to the presumed campsite, which remains open ground and is privately owned.

No one will ever again see the 9-mile stretch of river encompassing the five great falls and rapids, with its sunken, trench-like channel formed by 200-foot-high, precipitous stone walls, as the explorers saw it. It was inevitable that a growing industrial United States would utilize the downpouring flood at the great falls and that a major city, Great Falls, the largest in Montana, would grow near them. This urban center has pushed over onto the north, or west, bank along the mouth of the Sun River. On the bluff behind the town of Black Eagle, on the north bank of the Missouri opposite the city of Great Falls, rises the huge, 506-foot-high smelter stack of the Anaconda Copper Company.

The two captains named only the first two falls downstream: Great Falls, the easternmost, and Crooked Falls. The other falls, in order from east to west, were later called Rainbow Falls, Colter Falls, and Black Eagle Falls. Clark calculated their heights at 87, 19, 47, 6, and 26 feet, respectively. Four of the five shelves of rock, excepting Colter Falls, are still visible in their jagged and massive grandeur, though they are deprived of their mantle of white, churning water. The only time of much flow is in the spring runoff season and during heavy rainfall; in the dry period, only Rainbow Falls shows a sizable drop of water, at its southern edge.

Sulphur Spring
Sulphur Spring, whose waters cured Sacagawea of a serious illness. The outlet stream pours into the Missouri about 300 yards away, near the tree in the upper left. (National Park Service (Appleman, 1964).)

The Montana Power Company has built a series of five dam powerplants in the area; in order going upstream, they are named Morony, Ryan, Cochrane, Rainbow, and Black Eagle. Three of them have been built just upstream from three of the falls: Ryan Dam near Great Falls, and Rainbow and Black Eagle Dams close to the falls of the same name. Morony Dam is about 4-1/2 river miles below the Great Falls and some 1-1/4 miles above Belt Creek, and Cochrane Dam a little less than 2 miles above them. Colter Falls, the smallest of the five, is inundated in the reservoir back of Rainbow Dam.

The Montana Power Company owns most of the riverbank on both sides of the Missouri and for varying depths inland from the Black Eagle Dam to a point some distance below the Morony Dam. But, along this stretch of river, some property is privately owned and the city of Great Falls holds title to a few tracts.

Along the north bank of the Missouri, various roads lead to Black Eagle Dam, which is adjacent to its namesake town; Rainbow Dam Road runs from the town to Rainbow Dam; and Ryan Dam Road, beginning off U.S. 87 some 3 miles northeast of town, extends to Ryan Dam and offers access to Morony Dam. At the Great Falls, just below Ryan Dam, the Montana Power Company maintains a free picnic area on an island, which is connected by a bridge to the north bank. On the south side of the river, River Drive (Bypass U.S. 87) passes Black Eagle Dam and runs eastward from the city of Great Falls to connect with a secondary road that leads to Rainbow Dam before turning south toward Malmstrom Air Force Base. Only horse trails and footpaths give access to the river downstream from Rainbow Falls to Belt Creek on the south side of the river.

Two specific features along the stream that are associated with Lewis and Clark, Giant Spring and Sulphur Spring, are little changed. On June 18, 1805, Clark discovered the former, a tremendous spring of fresh, cold water, along the south bank of the Missouri about a mile above Rainbow Falls. Lewis visited the spring later, on June 29. It was about 25 yards from the river, into which it fell over steep, irregular rocks and at one point dropped 6 feet.

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. (U.S. Forest Service)

Giant Spring, in a city park just off the secondary road leading from Bypass U.S. 87 to Rainbow Dam, remains much like it was then. To this day, it pours forth a gush of 388,800,000 gallons of water daily, out of and over granite rocks; and it still flows into the Missouri, which is immediately adjacent. In fact, at first glance the spring seems to be a part of the river. The only separation today between the two is a low rock shelf, over which the water rushes into the river. A concrete walkway surrounds the spring, whose water is utilized by a nearby Montana fish hatchery.

The Sulphur Spring, whose water probably saved Sacagawea's life, is located opposite the mouth of Belt Creek about 300 yards from the north bank of the Missouri on a sloping grass shelf. The spring is about 30 feet in diameter, and the rivulet it creates drops in a fine little waterfall over a high rock shelf into the Missouri. The spring, which is unmarked and privately owned, is situated in a remote area. Except for a rickety wire fence that keeps out livestock, the environment is virginal. Access, which is extremely difficult, is provided by U.S. 87, Ryan Dam Road, and circuitous travel over unimproved roads and trails; local inquiry is mandatory.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004