By Bruce Auchly
On June 18, 1805, William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition came upon Giant Springs on the banks of the Missouri River in north-central Montana. Ever since, untold numbers of visitors, retracing the expedition's route, have found Giant Springs to be the pleasant spot described 200 years ago.
"We proceeded on ... to the largest fountain or spring I ever saw," Clark wrote, "and doubt if it is not the largest in America known."
Today a state park, complete with picnic areas, a visitors center and fish hatchery occupy the site that thrilled Clark. Of course, Indians who passed through the area probably knew about Giant Springs for hundreds, even thousands of years before Lewis and Clark. But the expedition provided the first written account of the area.
"This water boils up from under the rocks," Clark continued, "near the edge of the river and falls immediately into the river eight feet and keeps its color for one-half mile, which is eminently clear and of a bluish cast."
Giant Springs, which flows at 6.4 million gallons per hour, and today's surrounding state park have gone through a diverse set of partners in the past 200 years.
In 1888, the Montana Silver Smelting Co. built a smelter on a hill just east of the springs. Remnants of the smelter are still visible. Ten years later, the young town of Great Falls looked to Giant Springs as a possible source of city water. However, the town eventually decided on the Missouri River for water.
The most recent partner has been the U.S. Forest Service, which in 1998 opened the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center just a half mile west of Giant Springs. The center's exhibits allow visitors to follow the expedition from its 1804 departure in St. Charles, Mo., to the Pacific Ocean and return two years later.
When Clark wrote about the springs there were probably few trees present. Early photographs of the area 100 years after the expedition show a spring bubbling on the edge of a grass prairie.
That treeless plain has been transformed into a shady grove, starting with Paris Gibson, founder of Great Falls city, who first planted trees more than 100 yeasr ago. On hot summer days, the park is a popular picnic spot.
The springs provide water for the Roe River, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest river in the world. The springs also support a state fish hatchery that's almost 80 years old. The 54-degree spring water temperature allows the hatchery to raise about 1.25 million fish each year. Most of the fish are rainbow trout, which are planted in Montana lakes and reservoirs. Exhibits in the hatchery illustrate the trout life cycle from egg to adolescent fish.
When Lewis and Clark visited Giant Springs, it was a wilderness populated by grizzly bears and miles of prickly pear cactus.
Now several miles of paved trails connect the state park with the interpretive center and the city of Great Falls, allowing modern-day explorers scenic views of the river and prairie without the inconveniences of 200 years ago.