Great Falls, Montana, located in the north-central part of the state, is a city steeped in history. From its early days as a gathering place for indigenous tribes to its pivotal role in the development of the American West, Great Falls has a rich and diverse history that has shaped the city into what it is today.
The history of Great Falls begins long before the arrival of European settlers. The area around the city was home to various Native American tribes, including the Blackfeet, Salish, and Gros Ventre. These tribes relied on the abundant natural resources of the region, including the Missouri River, which runs through the city, for food, shelter, and transportation. The Great Falls of the Missouri, a series of five waterfalls on the river, provided a natural barrier to navigation but also served as an important gathering place and trading hub for the indigenous peoples.
The first European to explore the Great Falls area was the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis, who, along with William Clark, led the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s. In 1805, Lewis and his team encountered the Great Falls of the Missouri during their westward journey, noting the impressive natural beauty and power of the falls. However, it would be several more decades before European settlers would begin to establish a permanent presence in the area.
In the mid-19th century, the United States government initiated a series of treaties with the Native American tribes in the region, leading to the opening of the Montana Territory for settlement. The discovery of gold in the nearby Helena area in the 1860s sparked a gold rush, drawing thousands of prospectors to the region. Great Falls, located on the Missouri River and along major transportation routes, soon became an important supply center for gold miners, and its population began to grow.
One of the key figures in the development of Great Falls was Paris Gibson, a businessman and politician who played a pivotal role in the city’s founding. Gibson purchased land along the Missouri River in the 1880s and set out to develop a townsite, which he named Great Falls after the impressive waterfalls on the Missouri River. He envisioned the city as a hub for commerce, transportation, and industry, and his efforts laid the foundation for Great Falls to become a thriving city.
The construction of the Great Northern Railway in the late 19th century further spurred the growth of Great Falls. The railway connected the city to other parts of Montana and beyond, opening up new markets for local goods and facilitating the transportation of people and resources. Great Falls became a major transportation and trade center, attracting industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, and hydroelectric power generation.
One of the city’s most significant historical landmarks is the Great Falls Portage, a series of five dams and powerhouses built along the Missouri River in the early 20th century. The construction of the dams provided a reliable source of hydroelectric power, which helped drive the growth of industries in Great Falls and the surrounding area. The dams also provided flood control and improved navigation on the Missouri River, making Great Falls an important transportation hub.
Over the years, Great Falls has been home to various industries, including mining, manufacturing, and agriculture. The city was known for its smelters, refineries, and sawmills, which provided employment opportunities for thousands of residents. In the early 20th century, Great Falls was also a prominent center for aviation, with Charles Lindbergh making a historic stop in the city during his solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
Great Falls has also played a significant role in American military history. During World War II, the city was home to the Great Falls Army Air Base, which trained thousands of pilots and aircrew for the war effort. The base later became Malmstrom Air.
What is your favorite piece of Great Falls history? Whichever it is, I really hope you enjoyed this post. I won’t pretend that I did all this research myself.. My little friend ChatGPT was very helpful- I think it did a pretty good job! If you’re looking to learn more about the history of Great Falls, I highly recommend visiting some of the many museums we have around town. And if you are interested in moving to Great Falls, reach out to me to get the ball rolling.
1 thought on “History of Great Falls, MT”
Nice post Kristi! I enjoyed reading it.