Big Sky Bypass

A proposed power plant threatens the site of Lewis and Clark's epic portage. Will this pristine landscape be marred by coal-fired generators?

Lewis' rendition of Great Falls and
the portage route, c. July 4, 1805

Credit: American Philosophical Society

In a sense, Great Falls, Mont., owes its founding to Lewis and Clark. The two explorers and their Corps of Discovery—a group more than 30 strong, including soldiers and an interpreter—came to a series of waterfalls on the Missouri River here in June 1805. More than a year and a half into their journey west—tired, battling illness—they faced a brutal 18-mile overland trek around the cascading waters.

The explorers constructed makeshift wagons with roughly hewn wheels and had so many supplies and so much equipment that they needed to make the portage four times, pushing and pulling their wagons up rugged slopes thick with cactuses whose spines punctured their moccasins as if they were paper. Bleeding, bone-weary, many of the men collapsed into sleep at each halt in the crossing. The Great Portage, as it came to be called, is a mythic moment in a mythic journey. Seventy-five years later, it would lead another man to the same spot. "Paris Gibson founded Great Falls," said Ellen Sievert, the Great Falls/Cascade County preservation officer. "He read about the site in the Lewis and Clark journals, came down to take a look, and liked what he saw."

Gibson was hardly traveling out of simple cultural curiosity. The 1880s is remembered as the Gilded Age, an era of larger-than-life capitalist buccaneers. And Gibson, who had built the first flour mill in Minneapolis, was looking to make a buck. When he encountered the falls and realized their untapped potential for hydropower, he saw his chance. He turned to James J. Hill, the legendary railroad baron, who gave him the financial backing to found the city of Great Falls. Gibson built the first dam on the falls (and eventually became a U.S. senator from Montana). Other dams and power plants soon followed, giving Great Falls the nickname "The Electric City."

Today, this dual heritage of Great Falls—as Great Portage site and Electric City—is at the center of a major controversy. A power cooperative, with support from the city of Great Falls, plans to build a coal-fired power plant immediately adjacent to the portage site, named a National Historic Landmark in 1966. The plant’s supporters portray the impact on the landmark as negligible. But the plant would include a 400-foot smokestack, a handful of towering wind turbines apparently tossed in to appease environmentalists, and a series of five-acre pits to be dug and filled with ash over the projected 30-year life of the coal-fired generators. The plant is sure to generate other industrial activity that will transform a pastoral stretch of rolling, windswept country. An important piece of the Lewis and Clark legacy could end up bordering rattling coal trains, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment, with the hum of a power plant constant and smoke rising into the sky.

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