On the afternoon of 14 June, 1805, proceeding two and one-half miles upriver from the "Cascade of 14 feet 7 in. in descent" (later named Colter Falls), Lewis arrived at the uppermost cascade:
this is not immediately perpendicular, a rock about 1/3 of it's decent seems to protrude to a small distance and receives the water in it's passage downwards and gives a curve to the water tho' it falls mostly with a regular and smoth sheet. the river is near six hundred yards wide at this place, a beautifull level plain on the S. side only a few feet above the level of the pitch; on the N. side where I am the country is More broken and immediately behind me near the river a high hill.
His next discovery provided absolute confirmation that he and Clark had made the right decision at the mouth of Maria's River, three days before. Finally he had found the evidence the Hidatsas had told them of:
below this fall at a little distance a beautifull little Island well timbered is situated about the middle of the river. in this Island on a Cottonwood tree an Eagle has placed her nest; a more inaccessable spot I beleive she could not have found; for neither man nor beast dare pass those gulphs which seperate her little domain from the shores.
Lewis's First View
Photo by F. A. Greenleaf
Upper Falls from the north, before 1885
The eagle's island is at extreme left of center.
Captain William F. Raynolds, of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, passing this way in command of a U.S. government expedition in 1860, reported that there was still an eagle's nest in a cottonwood tree on the island. Moreover, he observed a specimen of "this peculiarly American bird" perched in a nearby tree, and thought it might be the very same bird Lewis had seen 55 years before.1 That is remotely possible, considering at least one captive black eagle is thought to have lived nearly fifty years during the mid-twentieth century, but the average age, even in 1805, was at least somewhat less.2 In 1872 an engineer named Thomas P. Roberts led a party of seven men on a government-sponsored expedition down the Missouri from Three Forks to Fort Benton to ascertain the river's suitability for commercial navigation by light-draft steamboats. Roberts similarly noted an eagle's nest in the remains of an old cottonwood on the island, and also saw a bald eagle. Getting a close look at it, he "had a good opportunity to judge the age of the bird, his feathers being soiled, torn, and otherwise old looking," and concluded it probably was the same bird Lewis had seen. "The sight of this eagle was to me one of the most peculiarly pleasant incidents of our reconnoissance [sic]."3
This waterfall, Lewis wrote, "is certainly much the greatest I ever behald except those two which I have mentioned below"—obviously referring to the "handsom Fall" and the "grand Fall." It was, he said, "incomparably a greater cataract and a more noble interesting object than the celibrated falls of Potomac or Soolkiln [Schuylkill] &c." (He might also have mentioned—but never did—the Falls of the Ohio, which both he and Clark were quite familiar with, and had last navigated in late October of 1803.)
Clark's First View
Photographer unknown, 1880s.
The eagle's island is just above photo center.
Clark, completing his survey trip up the south side of the river on 18 June1805,
A writer from the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine toured the falls of the Missouri in the autumn of 1887 and reported: "The appearance of the Black Eagle Fall suggests its future use. Some day it will drive saws, spindles, and mill-stones."4 Indeed, plans for harnessing the fall's potential were already under way. The first dam, completed in 1891, provided both direct mechanical power and a limited amount of electricity for local use.
1. W. F. Raynolds, Report of the Exploration of the Yellowstone River (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868), 108. Unique to the continent of North America, Haliaeetus leucocephalus (hal-ih-ay-EE-tus lew-koh-SEFF-ah-lus, meaning "sea-eagle with a white head") is estimated to have numbered in the tens of thousands in 1782, when the species was adopted as the national emblem of the new United States.
2. John K. Terres, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds (New York: Wings Books, 1991), 477.
3. Thomas P. Roberts, "The Upper Missouri River," Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. 1 (1876), 230. Wheeler, Trail of Lewis and Clark, 323, credits Roberts with naming Black Eagle and Rainbow Falls, as well as the Long Pool above the uppermost rapid, but Roberts himself does not claim that in his memoir, and there is no further evidence to substantiate it.
4. Eugene V. Smalley, "The Upper Missouri and the Great Falls," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 35 (New Series 13), No. 3 (January 1888), 415.