26 September 2010

Great Falls, Montana's All-American City

Time for a little update for Fort Benton's suburb, Great Falls. My article is just out in the new issue of Destination Great Falls. Ben Chovenak does a fine job as editor and photographer.

Montana's "All American City"

Written by Ken Robison

Great Falls, at the head of five falls of the Missouri River and the confluence with the Sun River, began as “the city of wind, water, and future.” The unique setting stimulated many names over the years as Great Falls rose to acquire identify. Reflecting the falls of the Missouri, the first name for the town became “The Cataract City.” As the most prominent feature on the river, Lewis and Clark heard of the falls from the Mandan Indians during the winter of 1804-05. In the early years, every visitor was taken with pride to view the falls and the Giant Spring. Just five months after the first issue of the Great Falls Tribune, the weekly newspaper on September 12, 1885, proudly carried a long poem about the “Big Spring” and the falls by Martha Edgerton Rolfe, the first white woman to live in Great Falls:

Close beside the great Missouri,
Ere it takes its second leap,
Is a spring of sparkling water,
Like a river broad and deep.

Standing on its grassy margin,
While aloft the eagles soar,
Lazily, yet ever watchful,
One can hear the mingled roar

Of the falls of the Black Eagle
And the Rainbow swathed in mist,
Ghostly white then opalescent
Glows when by the sun-god kissed . . .

Paris Gibson was determined to found a “Minneapolis of the West,” a new industrial powerhouse modeled after Gibson’s hometown that he had seen rise from village to city in just two decades. When the first dam was built on the upper falls, Black Eagle Falls, providing hydroelectric power to new refining and smelting industries, Gibson’s newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune, declared that the new town, then just nine years old, had become “The Electric City.” The editorial read:

The Electric City. The remarkable success which has resulted to this city by the harnessing of a small portion of its vast water power, and the transmission of it to be used for various purposes by its conversion into electricity, must be a matter of serious study to a thinking man . . .

Great Falls is not only now a large user of electricity, but she will also have it for sale in the future to her sister towns in the state. When the loss by long distance transmission is overcome, we shall see our city supplying others with electricity, by means of wires and cables, cheaper by far than they can manufacture it themselves; and it also goes without saying that every new electric discovery every new invention for the adaptation of electricity to the industrial arts and sciences will only further tend to make Great Falls known as “The Electric City of Montana."

The rival newspaper, The Great Falls Leader, long carried on its masthead, “The Niagara of the West,” and other names such as the “City of the Falls” have come and gone.

So, what remains today of “The Electric City”? Coal plants in southeast and large hydroelectric plants in northwest Montana have “overpowered” the electrical production of Great Falls. Yet, the city at the falls has always been far more than power production. Paris Gibson did not found Great Falls alone. Beyond Gibson, the visionary, and the other pioneers, Great Falls has always been about the workers and their stories in all walks of life, the iron worker, the smelter worker, the railroad worker, the woman newspaper editor, the miner in the mountains, the cowboy on the range, the farmer (men and women) in the fields, the women and men blazing new paths, the troops marching off to war. Stories of the booming homestead years of the 1910s and the homestead “bust” in the early 1920s. Stories of the mothers and fathers, teachers, nurses, nuns and priests, the jazz players, the gamblers, the prostitutes, the baseball players and ice skaters.

While Great Falls has been known as “The Electric City,” it has always been more. Great Falls is the hub of regional agricultural with farming and ranching that through good years and bad provides a solid economic base. This city is a growing medical powerhouse for a large area. Great Falls has Montana’s largest military presence with the 120th Fighter Wing Montana Air National Guard at Gore Hill and the 341st (Minuteman) Missile Wing and RED HORSE Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base bringing a wealth of national and ethnic diversity as well as economic power to the community.

Great Falls has Montana’s greatest ethnic diversity with the largest American Indian and Black American populations in the state. The sports scene features high school and collegiate sports, national champion figure skaters, a strong hockey tradition featuring an Olympic Team captain and National Hockey League players, and baseball Hall of Famers and a team of future major leaguers. A strong cultural environment is highlighted by the renowned Charles M. Russell Museum and a Symphony that attracts the quality of internationally famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Today, Great Falls has the magnificent River, the unique Falls, the Big Spring, the exceptional River’s Edge Trail, the important Portage Route National Historic Landmark, the nation’s premier Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, and an enormous economic potential from recreational and cultural tourism. With balance and diversity, at age 126 years Great Falls has gone beyond being “The Electric City” and today has emerged as “Montana’s All-American City.”