Ribbons of gold lined the county road off Highway 87 as I made my way to Morony Dam in the early morning, trying to beat the heat of what was slated to be a scorching day in July. My timing seemed perfect, as I enjoyed the leisurely drive singing along to Emmy Lou on the radio, windows rolled down to let the scent of the wheat fields I was passing mingle with the cool morning breeze.
I couldn’t help but marvel at Lewis & Clark’s view of the landscape when they were here on their exploration in June 1805. I wonder if they marveled over the shades of green found in the pockets of coulees, where deer were lazily making their way to graze on the prairie grass, with the Highwood Mountains in the distance painted purple and bathed in a rosy glow. Lewis Meriwether’s description of “majestically grand scenery” could certainly be claimed again today.
Morony Dam was named after John G. Morony, a mover and shaker in Great Falls’ history. He was a banker and director of the Montana Power Company, and instrumental in the construction of the Dam that opened in 1930, featuring 10 spillway gates. Remnants from the old town site are above the Dam, and are managed by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Sulphur Springs, located below Morony Dam, is a natural spring and great fishing hole.
My mission was a visit to Morony, but when I came to the fork in the road, the well-marked signs indicated that Ryan Dam was only a mile away. Since Emmy Lou was still serenading me and there was no need to turn on the air conditioning, I decided a quick drive down to Ryan Island Park needed to be done. I detoured right and soon was winding my way down the hill to an oasis I could have spent all day at if duty didn’t call. Rock walls and steps, masterly crafted to look as natural as the sagebrush hugging the hillside, beckoned me to cross the Missouri River on the wood suspension bridge leading to a bank of trees on the other side. A family of robins caught my attention for a few minutes as the babies were practicing flight from berry laden branch to bridge wires. My chuckles over their antics echoed across the water, disrupting a group of Canadian Geese who honked in protest. I nodded my apologies as I made my way over the slightly swaying bridge to the park setting beyond. I could hear the roar of the falls and see white plumes of rushing water, but exploring would need to wait. Morony Dam was my true destination and I needed to be on my way. I stopped in the middle of the bridge to take photos. On one side were the rock cliffs carved from the sheer force of water over time, and the man-made cliff-like structures on the other end were crafted to hold that water in. I promised the birds that I’d return with my friends and family for a fun, informative day picnicking, exploring the area and learning about the history of the Great Falls of the Missouri.
On the largest of the Great Falls of the Missouri, Ryan Dam, a six-unit hydroelectric plant was erected in 1915 and designated a part of the Great Falls Portage National Historic Landmark in 1966 in honor of Lewis & Clark’s discovery and appreciation of the area. The suspension bridge that spans the Missouri River leads to Ryan Island Park, for better viewing of the Great Falls and provides a pristine setting for a shady picnic. Morony and Ryan Dam are both easily accessible by car or River’s Edge Trail and are popular places for locals and visitors to explore.
Back on the road to Morony, I came upon a site I wasn’t expecting. Ascending from the flats of the plains, like a beacon to this lover of all things old, an abandoned homestead built of bricks stood solid as if defying the wind and adversity that had fallen on her previous inhabitants. She must have been a grand old dame in her heyday, with a sweeping veranda suited more to a Southern Belle than a Montana farm wife in the middle of nowhere. I admired the handiwork of the brickwork and the detailed bones of her porch. Lilacs still flanked her front, standing sentry and giving the illusion that she was still in her glory. I climbed up her wide, wooden steps, worn from years of use, and surveyed her surroundings. The expansive views of the plains, with glimpses of the Missouri River’s blue ribbons, had me enamored and I was ready to set up residence right then and there, as others had. This was the old town of Moroney – what was to be Great Falls, Montana.
Leaving the history that I felt at the homestead behind, I headed down to view the Dam. I came upon a day-use area, with a picnic table in a little copse of trees and signage to inform river floaters of the conditions of the Missouri River that had access to a trail beyond. Walking along the banks, in contrast to the dark, murky water, several stark, white pelicans were grooming themselves on outcroppings of rocks in the river. I envied them their lazy day as I watched the water spill out of Morony Dam. Looking left to right, I found reasons to stay there all day, but I had a full day of work ahead. Knowing that I was only minutes from Great Falls, I knew I’d be back for my own lazy day on the river soon.