Great Falls is a city in and the county seat of Cascade County, Montana, United States. The 2013 census estimate put the population at 59,351. The population was 58,505 at the 2010 census. It is the principal city of the Great Falls, Montana Metropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses all of Cascade County and has a population of 82,384. Great Falls was the largest city in Montana from 1950 to 1970, when Billings surpassed it. Great Falls remained the second largest city in Montana until 2000, when it was passed by Missoula. Since then Great Falls has been the third largest city in the state.
Great Falls takes its name from the series of five waterfalls in close proximity along the upper Missouri River basin that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had to portage around over a ten mile stretch; the effort required 31 days of arduous labor during the westward leg of their 1805-06 exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Northwest Coast of the Oregon Country. Each falls sports a hydroelectric dam today, hence Great Falls is nicknamed "the Electric City". Currently there are two undeveloped parts of their portage route; these are included within the Great Falls Portage, a National Historic Landmark.
The city is home to the C. M. Russell Museum Complex, the University of Great Falls, Great Falls College Montana State University, Giant Springs, the Roe River (claimed to be the world's shortest river), the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind, the Great Falls Voyagers minor league baseball (formerly known as the Great Falls White Sox and before that as the Dodgers and Giants respectively) team, and Malmstrom Air Force Base. The local newspaper is the Great Falls Tribune. A Coldwell Banker Home Price Comparison Index listed Great Falls as the most affordable area of 348 markets in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
The first human beings to live in the Great Falls area were Paleo-Indians who migrated into the region between 9,500 BCE and 8,270 BCE. The earliest inhabitants of North America entered Montana east of the Continental Divide between the mountains and the Laurentide ice sheet. The area remained only sparsely inhabited, however. Salish Indians would often hunt bison in the region on a seasonal basis, but no permanent settlements existed at or near Great Falls for much of prehistory. Around 1600, Piegan Blackfoot Indians, migrating west, entered the area, pushing the Salish back into the Rocky Mountains and claiming the site now known as Great Falls as their own. The Great Falls location remained the tribal territory of the Blackfeet until long after the United States claimed the region in 1803.
Meriwether Lewis was the first white person to visit the area, which he did on June 13, 1805, as part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. York, an African American slave owned by William Clark and who had participated in the Expedition, was the first black American to visit the site of the future city.
Following the return passage of Lewis and Clark in 1806, there is no record of any white person visiting the site of the city of Great Falls until explorer and trapper Jim Bridger reached the area in 1822. Bridger and Major Andrew Henry led a fur-trading expedition to the future city location in April 1823 (and were attacked by Blackfeet Indians while camping at the site). British explorer Alexander Ross trapped around Great Falls in 1824. In 1838, a mapping expedition sent by the U.S. federal government and guided by Bridger spent four years in the area. Margaret Harkness Woodman became the first white woman to visit the Great Falls area in 1862.
The Great Falls of the Missouri River marked the limit of the navigable section of the Missouri River for non-portagable watercraft, and the non-navigability of the falls was noted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2012 ruling against the State of Montana on the question of streambed ownership beneath several dams situated at the site of the falls. The first steamboat arrived at future site of the city in 1859.
Politically, the future site of Great Falls passed through numerous hands in the 19th century. It was part of the unincorporated frontier until May 30, 1854, when Congress established the Nebraska Territory. Indian attacks on white explorers and settlers dropped significantly after Isaac Stevens negotiated the Treaty of Hellgate in 1855, and white settlement in the area began to occur. On March 2, 1861, the site became part of the Dakota Territory. The Great Falls area was incorporated into the Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863, and then into the Montana Territory on May 28, 1864. It became part of the state of Montana upon that territory's admission to statehood on November 8, 1889.
Great Falls was founded in 1883. Businessman Paris Gibson visited the Great Falls of the Missouri River in 1880, and was deeply impressed by the possibilities for building a major industrial city near the falls with power provided by hydroelectricity. He returned in 1883 with friend Robert Vaughn and some surveyors and platted a permanent settlement the south side of the river. The city's first citizen, Silas Beachley, arrived later that year. With investments from railroad owner James J. Hill and Helena businessman Charles Arthur Broadwater, houses, a store, and a flour mill were established in 1884. The Great Falls post office was established on July 10, 1884, and Paris Gibson was named the first postmaster. A planing mill, lumber yard, bank, school, and newspaper were established in 1885. By 1887 the town had 1,200 citizens, and in October of that year the Great Northern Railway arrived in the city. Great Falls was incorporated on November 28, 1888.
Great Falls quickly became a thriving industrial and supply center and, by the early 1900s, was en route to becoming one of Montana's largest cities. The rustic studio of famed Western artist Charles Marion Russell was a popular attraction, as were the famed "Great Falls of the Missouri", after which the city was named. A structure billed as the "world's tallest smokestack" was completed in 1908 by the city's largest employer, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company's smelter, measuring tall. The Big Stack immediately became a landmark for the community. The Big Stack's 'sister' stack in Anaconda was suffering from cracking and it was decided to remove the support bands from the upper half of the Big Stack and send them to Anaconda. This action proved to be the Big Stack's ultimate demise since the cracks it suffered from rapidly worsened. Citing public safety concerns due to the stack's continual deterioration of its structural integrity it was slated for demolition on September 18, 1982. In an interesting twist of fate the demolition crew failed to accomplish the task on the first try; the two worst cracks in the stack ran from just above ground level to nearly 300 feet up. As the 600 lbs of explosives were set off (which was to create a wedge in the base so it would fall almost vertically into a large trench for the rubble) the cracks 'completed themselves' all the way to the ground—effectively severing the stack into two-thirds and one-third pieces. Much to the delight of the spectating community, the smaller of the two pieces remained standing, but the failed demolition only solidified the safety issue whereas the community cited the event as the stack's defiance. The demolition team who had planted the charges was recalled and several hours later they returned and finished the demolition, after packing another 400 lbs of explosives into the smaller wedge.
During World War II the Northwest Staging Route passed through the city on which planes were delivered to the USSR according to the Lend-Lease program. Great Falls prospered further with the opening of a nearby military base in the 1940s, but as rail transportation and freight slowed in the later part of the century, outlying farming areas lost population, and with the closure of the smelter and cutbacks at Malmstrom Air Force Base in the 1980s, its population growth slowed.