I am an addict of all descriptions of the Lewis and Clark expedition. One of the many extraordinary obstacles overcome during that journey was the portage of the Great Falls of the Missouri. The Mandan Native Americans described this landmark of the upper Missouri River to Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1804. The explorers anticipated finding these falls thus verifying that they had made the correct choice when faced with the merging of the Milk and Missouri Rivers earlier in their journey.
Lewis, as he frequently did, left the party with Clark in charge to continue the struggle of moving all of their supplies and equipment westward against the current of the river. After he had traveled about two miles Lewis heard the sound and saw the spray from the falls and seven miles later he arrived. Here is his written description taken from his journal as edited by Elliott Coues in “The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition”:
“The river immediately at this cascade is 300 yards wide, and is pressed in by a perpendicular cliff on the left, which rises to about 100 feet and extends up the stream for a mile; on the right the bluff is also perpendicular for 300 yards above the falls. For 90 or 100 yards from the left cliff, the water falls in one smooth, even sheet, over a precipice at least 80 feet. The remaining part of the river precipitates itself with a more rapid current, but being received as it falls by the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below, forms a splendid prospect of perfectly white foam, 200 yards in length and 80 in perpendicular elevation. This spray is dissipated into a thousand shapes, sometimes flying up in columns of 15 or 20 feet, which are then oppressed by larger masses of the white foam, on all which the sun impresses the brightest colors of the rainbow. As it rises from the fall it beats with fury against a ledge of rocks which extend across the river at 150 yards from the precipice. From the perpendicular cliff on the north, to the distance of 120 yards, the rocks rise only a few feet above the water; when the river is high the stream finds a channel across them 40 yards wide and near the higher parts of the ledge, which then rise about 20 feet and terminate abruptly within 80 or 90 yards of the southern side. Between them and the perpendicular cliff on the south the whole body of water runs with great swiftness. …”
Lewis himself found this description not adequate to describe what he saw and intended to revise the description to better reflect the magnificence of this natural phenomenon. He never got around to making those revisions. The next day, June 14 of 1805, Lewis continued upstream and discovered a second falls, 19 feet high and 300 yards across. He named it “Crooked Falls” next he climbed a nearby hill and found a third waterfall he described as “…one of the most beautiful objects in nature, a cascade of about fifty feet perpendicular….” Lewis named these falls “Beautiful Cascade”, but they are now known at “Rainbow Falls”. Further upstream Lewis spotted yet another falls that were only about 6 feet high but stretched more than a quarter of a mile across the river, these became known as “Colter Falls”. Captain Lewis continued his explorations and about two and a half miles upstream of Colter Falls he located a fifth cataract. This one was about 26 feet high and close to 600 yards wide and became known of the “Black Eagle Falls”.
Just upstream of the Great Falls sits Ryan Dam reducing the Missouri’s flow to slightly more than a trickle. No roar, no mist, no rainbows. Between Rainbow Falls and the Great Falls resides the Cochrane Dam and just downstream of the Rainbow Falls is the Rainbow Dam. The flow over Crooked Falls is significantly reduced because of Rainbow Dam. Colter Falls, upstream of the Rainbow dam, is now submerged. The Black Eagle Falls are upstream of Black Eagle Dam and the water held back by this structure has made the Black Eagle Falls a vestige of what the Corps of Discovery experienced.
I’m certain the people now inhabiting the city and environs have benefitted from the hydroelectric power generated and the water impounded by these dams, that’s progress. But just as it is now impossible for me to experience the agonies of the Corps of Discovery’s portage around the falls as described in the Journals, it is also impossible to experience the magnificence of those five cascades. Charlize and I both considered the experience a “bummer”!