GREAT FALLS – From a bluff overlooking the Missouri River here, you can see a statue of Lewis and Clark, and Sacagawea, down below next to a trail that follows the river for miles and miles.
They’re gazing off in the distance toward present-day Great Falls, and you can almost imagine Clark nudging Lewis and saying, “Look, Meriwether – an oil refinery!”
The statue is just upstream from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which is just upstream from the Roe River.
There is nothing on Earth like the mighty Roe, unless you listen to those conniving conspirators in Lincoln City, Oregon, who long claimed their D River was the shortest river in the world – backed by “Guinness World Records,” which proclaimed it so.
The folks in Oregon had measured the D River at 440 feet, which was all well and good until, in 1988, some Great Falls school children pointed out that their Roe River was less than half that length.
The Roe River – all 201 feet of it – is located in Giant Springs State Park. There, 150 million gallons of water a day bubble up from the Madison Limestone formation 400 feet below.
The waters pop to the surface, and travel all of 67 yards before emptying into the Missouri, which, at 2,540 miles, is the longest river in North America.
For such a short river the Roe gets pretty deep – up to 8 feet in places.
Students at Lincoln Elementary in Great Falls began a campaign to get the D River replaced by the Roe in “Guinness.” It included two of them, Molly Petersen and Dallas Neil – a future punter for the Montana Grizzly football team – going on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson to make their case.
In 1989 Guinness agreed, and the Roe was “Guinness”-approved as the shortest river in the world.
Until the folks in Oregon re-measured the D River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean, at “extreme high tide,” that is. During those periods, they declared, their river was only 120 feet long.
Perhaps tiring of the ongoing battle between Lincoln City and Great Falls, “Guinness World Records” in 2006 quit listing a shortest river in the world.
On a bright, brisk day earlier this month, photographer Tom Bauer and I discover Terry Jenner on a concrete wall separating Giant Springs from the Missouri, casting a fly into the longer river in search of a rainbow trout.
“We’re going to have some disabled veterans up here tying flies tonight,” says Jenner, who works with Project Healing Waters, a national organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of American servicemen and women. “I’m using flies we’ll be tying – I’d like to get a fish on, and show them the flies do work.”
Giant Springs State Park is a cool place, and also home a state trout hatchery. You’ll learn water from the springs arrives at the surface at exactly 54 degrees year-round, and that most of those 150 million gallons a day first disappeared underground in the nearby Little Belt Mountains, where the Madison Limestone formation is exposed.
It takes the water half a century to make its way back to the surface at the springs, and a considerably shorter time to empty into the Missouri.
Our 2 1/2-day visit to Great Falls earlier this month starts with the temperature hovering near 10 degrees, and ends with it pushing beyond 60.
First stop once we hit town: The C.M. Russell Museum. If you grew up in Montana – and often even if you didn’t – you know Charlie Russell like other Americans know Norman Rockwell.
There would not be a C.M. Russell Museum were it not for Josephine Trigg, the children’s librarian at the Great Falls Public Library more than 100 years ago.
Russell created an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 works of art, often paying his bar tabs with Western masterpieces in his younger years. Sid Willis, owner of the Mint Saloon in Great Falls, collected more than 90 CMR works this way, displaying many in his bar.
When Willis decided to sell his collection in 1948 – 22 years after Russell died – he offered it to the city.
“They chose not to buy it,” says Michael Duchemin, executive director of the museum. “So he sold it to a Texas newspaper publisher. That became known as the collection that got away.”
So did many others in the years after Russell’s widow, Nancy, died in 1940. The CEO of American Airlines ended up with half the bronzes in Nancy’s estate, 46 of them, and an oil company executive purchased the rest. A Wall Street financier collected 60 CMR paintings and other works, a New York City tire company executive another 46. A Cleveland, Ohio banker had another collection of Russells.
Sid Willis’s collection can now be seen in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
Fortunately for Montana, Josephine Trigg’s father owned another Great Falls’ saloon, the Brunswick, where Charlie also liked to drink.
Albert Trigg provided Russell studio space in the bar as well. Not only that, Russell eventually built a studio and home next door to the Triggs’ house in Great Falls in the early 1900s and Josephine, then a teenager, became a lifelong friend of Charlie and Nancy.
By the time Josephine died she owned more than 150 Russell works, and in her will she left them all to the city – with one stipulation.
Great Falls had to build a museum to house them within two years. Nancy Russell had already left the city their home and Russell’s studio, and that’s where the museum, which opened in 1953 and has expanded multiple times since, was built.
The museum’s collection now includes more than 700 Russell paintings.
“Russell was an expert storyteller,” Duchemin says, “and he spins a yarn in about every one of his paintings.”
We move on to Black Eagle, an unincorporated town on the Missouri next door to Great Falls with fewer than 1,000 residents, but with a significant place in Great Falls’ history (see related story, page A-1).
Debbie Thomas, a board member of the Black Eagle Civic Club that runs the Black Eagle Community Center, visits with us at the VFW bar in the center. She’s a third-generation owner of Borrie’s, one of multiple supper clubs in the Great Falls area still operating after more than 70 years.
Following dinner at Borrie’s – after all, it’s “prime rib Tuesday” – we check into the O’Haire Motor Inn in downtown Great Falls.
One of the city’s fanciest when it opened in 1962, the O’Haire was built by brothers Bill and Edgar O’Haire after the pair spent two years traveling the United States staying in hotels and motels and looking for ideas to steal.
One – multiple push-button switches placed strategically throughout the room, including in the entryway and next to the bed, that allow you to control every light in the room from one spot – you wonder why newer places haven’t picked up on.
Others, like the one-time helicopter landing pad on the roof, you might have less use for, but those light switches are brilliant.
Neater still is the O’Haire’s Sip ’n’ Dip Lounge, where windows behind the bar let patrons look into the bottom of the swimming pool. For more than 30 years that just meant watching hotel guests swim by underwater – more than one evidently skinny-dipping – but in 1996, for a New Year’s Eve promotion, they sewed some tails up and suddenly, the patrons were watching mermaids pass by the windows.
It caught on. Mermaids now swim five nights a week. That, combined with the unusual-for-the-prairie Polynesian décor and the live entertainment – an 81-year-old piano player and singer who has been performing at the Sip ‘’n’ Dip since she was 28 – led GQ magazine in 2003 to declare the place the best bar on earth.
Tracy Nesbo is one of the mermaids. At age 44 she is the oldest ever; with two years in the pool the longest-serving ever; and for the last month and a half, the only mermaid who is also a grandmother.
“Why’d I start?” says Nesbo, whose day job is as a certified nursing assistant with Benefis Health Care, which runs Great Falls’ hospital. “A midlife crisis, really. I was in the process of a divorce, looking for something, and a friend told me, ‘If you were younger, you could be a mermaid.’ ”
Forty-two at the time, the idea intrigued Nesbo enough that she still applied.
“It’s unique – you get paid to exercise,” she says. “It’s the funnest job. I’m just glad I can’t hear what anybody in the bar is saying. But it’s not as easy as it looks. You can’t have chipmunk cheeks, you have to smile, and you have to sink. And it’s hard on your hair – that’s probably why nobody before ever swam more than a year.”
Nesbo figures she spends 12 hours a week swimming underwater and past the windows. All the mermaids wear swim caps and wigs in an effort to protect their hair from the chlorine and other chemicals in the water.
We start our next morning with breakfast at Tracy’s, a downtown ’50s-era diner with individual Rock-Ola jukeboxes in every booth. Near as I can tell, it’s been at least 17 years since the songs have been changed, judging by choices such as R.E.M.’s “Daysleeper.”
We move on to Malmstrom Air Force Base, such an important part of Great Falls for more than 70 years. It’s been a couple decades since the base had a flying mission, and since 1998 this has been an Air Force base without a control tower.
Helicopters that patrol almost 14,000 square miles of central Montana, where Minuteman III nuclear missiles are buried in the prairie, are based here. But gone are planes like the F-84f Thunderstreaks and massive KC-135R Stratotanker refuelers that once called Malmstrom home.
John Turner of Malmstrom’s public affairs office meets us at the gate and takes us on base, where he introduces us to Malmstrom Museum director Curt Shannon.
Shannon gives us a fascinating introduction to missiles that can carry nuclear warheads at speeds of 15,000 mph. Malmstrom crews man the missile silos 24/7, and when they’re 60 to 100 feet below the ground and on duty, they actually strap themselves into chairs with seatbelts and are in control rooms where everything is bolted to the floor, but the floor itself is not touching anything.
“They floors are suspended,” Shannon explains. “And do you know why you’d want a floor that bounces?”
It’s not, he says, because of anything a crew here might be ordered to do by the President of the United States.
“It’s not for the missiles you’re launching,” Shannon says. “It’s because of the missiles that might be visiting. If we’re launching, it means we’re under attack, and the floors are suspended in case there’s a nuclear detonation nearby.”
There are no rules for how Missoulian reporters and photographers approach assignments in our A-to-Z series, although Bauer and I know going in that a city the size of Great Falls will be a different animal altogether than the smaller Colstrips and Ekalakas that have been visited so far.
I, however, have the brilliant idea of finding the boyhood home of Mike Mansfield, who grew up to be the longest-serving Majority Leader of the United States Senate in American history, and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Let’s just knock on the door and see who lives there now, I tell Bauer.
We’re aided by an address gleaned from a 1963 newspaper article about President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Great Falls less than two months before he was assassinated in Dallas. Before speaking to 25,000 people who crammed the 6,500-seat Memorial Stadium in Great Falls, Kennedy’s motorcade headed for a southside neighborhood.
The president wanted to visit Mansfield’s aging father and stepmother, who lived in the one-time grocery store Mansfield’s aunt and uncle had operated.
When we arrive at the address I have scribbled down, however, we find a mostly vacant lot. Bauer, who grew up in Great Falls and knows his way around, takes us to the nearby History Museum, where executive director Jim Meinert straightens us out.
The address I have is on Eighth Avenue South. Mansfield grew up on Sixth Avenue South.
“But don’t bother,” Meinert says. “That house is gone, too.”
Meinert was there the day Kennedy stopped.
“My mother was smart and planted me over there so I could see him,” he says. “Then I ran as fast as I could to the stadium, but it was so crowded I couldn’t get in.”
In Meinert’s opinion, “Mansfield was the most famous person to walk the streets of Great Falls,” he says. “It wasn’t Charlie Russell. It was Mansfield. He didn’t say much, but I remember when he took that pipe out of his mouth, everybody shut up, because it meant he was going to speak.”
No less fruitful is a trip to the old Cascade County Jail. The jail, now used for storage, is across the street from the 112-year-old county courthouse, where a statue of Lady Justice surveys Great Falls from atop the building’s copper dome.
Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards has said he believes the jail is haunted.
“For all the time I’ve spent in there, I’ve never seen or heard anything,” says Steve Highwood, chief engineer of the county’s Building Maintenance Division.
And we’re likely to strike out on another possibility, given that it’s neither baseball season, nor 1950.
That’d be the Mariana UFO incident.
In August of 1950, Nick Mariana, the general manager of the Great Falls Electrics minor league baseball team, spied two “bright, silvery spheres” moving rapidly over the baseball stadium, which was empty at the time.
Mariana had a camera, and filmed the objects in the sky. It was one of the first films ever taken of a UFO, and one of the first nationally publicized incidents of a UFO in the United States. In 2007, the Great Falls team was renamed the Voyagers, complete with a new logo showing a green alien in a flying saucer.
We do swing by Paris Gibson Square, Great Falls’ public art museum. Named for the man who saw the hydroelectric possibilities on this stretch of the Missouri in 1880 and founded Great Falls three years later, the museum has several interesting exhibits on display.
They range from a room of giant stick figures made of cottonwood branches by the late Lee Steen of Roundup, to a piece called “Three Thousand and Counting,” where Great Falls artist Jean Price has created aluminum dog tags that hang from the ceiling for every American soldier killed in Iraq.
The tags that represent fallen Montanans include copper and brass.
What started as a seven-stool hamburger joint opened by Colleen Newman Scott’s grandmother became one of Great Falls’ most popular supper clubs, Eddie’s.
The Sip ’n’ Dip may have “Piano Pat,” but Eddie’s has its answer in pianists Rudy Preite and Gary Walter, who have been playing at the supper club’s twin piano bar since the 1960s, and still do on Friday and Saturday nights.
It’s a Wednesday, however, but that’s OK. We’ve come for the club’s campfire steaks – and its collection of Evel Knievel “original” artwork.
Eddie’s was a favorite of the motorcycle daredevil when he was in Great Falls, and in his later years, when Knievel started “painting,” he gave Scott’s mother several signed and numbered prints, including ones titled “Mountain Snowfall,” “October Morning” and “Peaceful Flite.”
They’re all displayed in the supper club.
Ever the self-promoter, Knievel proclaimed himself “probably as good” as Charlie Russell or Frederic Remington, and every bit as good as “Van Gogh and some of those guys.”
Problem was, many people eventually came to believe that Knievel’s art teacher and buddy in Butte, Jack Ferriter, was doing 99.9 percent of the painting. Knievel, some claimed, would add a few brush strokes when Ferriter was finished, sign his name and sell hundreds of signed prints at $29.95 apiece.
Scott says she’s unaware of such allegations, but longtime Eddie’s bartender Patricia Kelly says she never believed the motorcycle daredevil – who she calls by his given name – was painting pictures of lighthouses and gentle snowfalls.
“I loved him,” Kelly says. “He was a piece of work. But I don’t think he did those paintings, huh-uh. One time a guy came in here and accused Bob of not painting the pictures, and Bob went after him with a baseball bat.”
Not everything during our 54 hours in Great Falls turned out as well as the campfire tenderloin steaks Bauer and I ate at Eddie’s that night – including those two hours we spent searching for a boyhood home of Mike Mansfield that no longer exists – but we close with something that we really enjoyed.
If you don’t know who Jack Johnson is, you’re not from Great Falls, and not a football fan in this state.
Johnson spent 41 years as the head coach at C.M. Russell High School before retiring, at age 69, after the 2013 season.
His teams played for 19 Class AA state championships and won 13. With 340 victories at CMR, he is by far the winningest football coach in Montana high school history – and with 362 overall, there are only 18 other high school coaches in American history whose teams have won more.
Johnson agrees to meet us at CMR. He is eight weeks out from hip replacement surgery, and less than 24 hours from shooting a mountain lion near the Sun River.
“Great Falls is similar to where I grew up on a ranch in Wyoming,” says Johnson, who left the coaching staff at the University of Northern Colorado to take the CMR job in 1973.
“I didn’t like the college game,” he goes on. “I’m too much of a homebody. I just wanted to get a good high school job and stay put.”
He applied for two in Montana – at CMR in Great Falls, and Flathead High in Kalispell – and still gets a kick retelling the dire warnings school board chairmen at each delivered about the other town.
“The head of the school board in Kalispell told me, ‘Great Falls is flat and ugly. All they’ve got is a bunch of farmers running around wearing bib overalls and baseball caps,’ ” Johnson says. “The guy here told me, ‘They’ve all got the same DNA on that side of the mountains. You don’t want to be on the west side. They’re all goofy over there.’ ”
Johnson’s response to both was the same. “Whoever offers me a job first is where I’m going,” he told them, and that’s how he wound up at CMR.
Over the years Johnson coached many players who went on to play for the Montana Grizzlies or Montana State Bobcats, coached one who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft (Ryan Leaf) and coached others who went on to excel in other sports – future major league baseball players John Leister and Tyler Graham, future pro rodeo saddle bronc world champion Jesse Kruse, and future Olympic boxer Todd Foster.
But the best football player he ever coached in 41 years, Johnson says, was quarterback Dave Dickenson.
Dickenson, who led the Rustlers to back-to-back undefeated seasons, and the Montana Grizzlies to their first national championship in 1995, is one of three players Johnson coached still making names for themselves in the Canadian Football League. All played their college ball in Missoula.
Dickenson quarterbacked both Calgary and the BC Lions to Grey Cup victories, is now the Stampeders’ offensive coordinator and future head coach, and will be inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame this year. Dickenson’s brother, Craig, is special teams coordinator for the Edmonton Eskimos. And Brock Sunderland is assistant general manager of the Ottawa Redblacks.
“I think David would have applied for the Montana job if they hadn’t come out and said he’d be the next head coach at Calgary,” Johnson says. “My daughter Kelly, and Dave and Craig’s sister Amy, were best friends, and I knew from middle school on David would be our quarterback some day.”
That, despite Dickenson’s small frame (5-foot-10) and voice (“high, and squeaky,” Johnson says).
“He watched less film than any quarterback I’ve ever had, and he still knew when to throw the ball, and who to throw it to,” Johnson says. “It was nothing we taught him here. It was just a gift. His brain functioned way faster than the average guy. And he had the ability to make everyone around him better.”
Johnson still wishes Dickenson had gotten a better shot in the NFL, where he spent two years as a third-string QB for four different teams.
“They just didn’t give him a chance because of his size,” Johnson says. “I know his first year in San Diego, Doug Flutie would find David after every game to ask him what he did wrong. I guess if they’re paying Flutie the beau coup bucks they’ve got to play him, but I wish they would have given David a chance.”
Here in Great Falls, they not only don’t hold shortness against you, but – be it a quarterback or a river – they embrace it.