Many heritage areas in the eastern United States emphasize the relationship between rivers, railroads, and industrial development and how those resources contributed to national economic growth and wartime mobilization. Great Falls can do that too. Situated on the Missouri River and designed by its founders to be a northwest industrial center, entrepreneurs counted on the falls to be a source of power and then on the railroads coming from Minnesota, especially the promising Manitoba Road headed by James J. Hill, to provide the transportation.
Paris Gibson, the promoter of the Electric City, allied his interests to two of most powerful capitalists of the region: Marcus Daly, the baron of the Anaconda Copper Company interests and James J. Hill, the future rail king of the northwest. Their alliance is embodied in several different properties in the city but the most significant place was where the Anaconda Copper Company smelter operated at Black Eagle until the last decades of the 20th century. When I surveyed Great Falls for the state
preservation plan in 1984 the smelter stack had recently come down but a good bit of the surrounding industrial plant remained. When you look at the same place today, the site has been nearly wiped clean, still closed off to the public but ripe for the day when it could be a center for public interpretation of the impact of the smelter on the city, state, and nation.
Great Falls already has shown an ability to reimagine and find new uses for its industrial landmarks, as demonstrated by the adaptive reuse projects surrounding its railroad corridors. Yes, railroad corridors because while the Manitoba Road and its successor the Great Northern Railway dominated the city, the Milwaukee Road also built into the city in the first
decade of the 20th century and soon erected its tall tower depot right on the Missouri River. But wherever you go along the river you find significant buildings associated with the Great Northern and its allied branch the Montana Central Railroad, especially the downtown warehouses. Some are still fulfilling their original function but others
have taken on new uses as offices and museums, such as the local history center and the well-regarded children’s museum.
Still at the head of the city, as appropriate for its role in creating and sustaining Great Falls in its early decades, is the magnificent depot of the Great Northern. Montana has many small town examples of the
“metropolitan corridor” written about by historian John Stilgoe; Great Falls is superb extant example of how the corridor shaped the landscape and architecture presence of urban centers across the northern plains. These properties suggest the richness of the industrial and transportation stories associated with the rise of Great Falls and its role in western history.