Great Falls city offices are located at 2 Park Drive South, Great Falls, MT 59403.
The City of Great Falls [†] is located in Cascade County, in the north-central region of Montana. Cascade County is bordered on the west by the Rocky Mountains, to the southeast by the Little Belt and Highwood Mountains, and by the Hi-line area to the north. This vicinity of Montana, with its grasslands and mesas, is often referred to as the transitional area between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Great Falls is the largest City in this eleven county region of Montana, ever increasingly serving as a regional hub for medical, retail, and transportation for this region.
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Geographically, the City of Great Falls is nestled in the confluence of the Sun and Missouri Rivers, where the "great falls of the Missouri" were first chronicled in the journals of Lewis and Clark. It was this location that inspired Paris Gibson in 1882 to design and lay-out an "ideal" City for commerce, industry and family life. Gibson's original design is the foundation for much of the City's growth, development pattern, and amenities; however, the City also is influenced by external trends that are identified in this update.
Today the City of Great Falls is the urban center of Cascade County and the north-central Montana region, representing about 72% of the County's population. The City of Great Falls shares many of the economic and demographic characteristics of Cascade County, yet the City's urban characteristics create distinct differences.
Malmstrom Air Force Base is located in the County, but is adjacent to the City's eastern municipal boundary. Malmstrom's economic and social impacts and ties are inextricably part of the City as well as the County. This urban‑rural contrast, juxtaposed with City and County's many shared assets and economic ties, is important to consider when evaluating much of the data available for this Growth Policy Update.
Today's City reveals, in many ways, the story of Great Falls. Paris Gibson was the founder of Great Falls and foresaw its potential. He is responsible for many of the special qualities that shaped the City. These attributes endure today.
Unlike the boom and bust mining towns of the day, the City of Great Falls was carefully platted in 1883. Streets and avenues were laid out on north to south and east to west axes. Central Avenue was designed to be 90 feet across, while all other streets and avenues were 80 feet across. Alleys were designed to be twenty feet across bisected blocks, each of which was divided into 14 lots measuring 50 by 150 feet apiece. Within a few years, Gibson and other settlers built an attractive, well-planned community with broad tree lined streets and 800 acres of park land.
At the time the City of Great Falls was founded in 1884, water was delivered by horse and wagon to front porch water barrels. Four years later, the City was incorporated in 1888. It was then that Ira Myers conceived the idea of a public water system, but an attempt to raise the $35,000 for the construction of a water plant and distribution system failed. In 1889 the governing body of the City granted a 20-year franchise to the Great Falls Water Company, which was successful in selling $150,000 in bonds for the construction of the project. The original system consisted of one steam driven pump capable of 2 million gallons per day and 9 miles of pipe. In 1898 a special City election passed a $375,000 bond issuance, with which the City purchased the water system from the Great Falls Water Company.
As if by some grand pre-destined design, opportunities for growth followed these improvements. The Montana Central Railroad reached Great Falls from the north in 1887. The Montana Smelting and Refining Company started operations near Giant Springs, and in 1890, the Boston and Montana Consolidated Copper and Silver Mining Company began operations of its new reduction works, adding a refinery in 1892. The Boston and Great Falls Electric Light and Power Company organized in 1890 for lighting and street railway car purposes. As a result of these improvements, and the job opportunities that came with them, more settlers came to Great Falls. They became miners, loggers, farmers, and ranchers and worked on efforts to develop hydroelectric power.
Like many early industrial cities, industrial uses, including milling, generally followed the rivers, railroads, and bridges in a linear fashion, but within close proximity to early residential neighborhoods. These uses formed because business owners had access to transportation, warehouses and power. These industrial uses extended from the rail and spur lines and power sources. Commercial uses formed around and near to the train depots and onto Central Avenue. This growth created the basis for the City's downtown business district, and the extension of streetcar lines, with steam-powered trams. The Lower South side was developed as a modest working class area, while development in the Lower North Side was intended as a premier neighborhood creating many unique historic structures that form the basis for recognition as a National Historic District. Institutions such as schools, a post office, and churches followed the City's early residents.
Over time, with the advent of the automobile, commercial areas stretched and extended along corridors. This includes Central Avenue West, 10th Avenue South, and 3rd Street Northwest. Residential areas expanded in a piecemeal fashion, migrating to newer areas of the City, beyond the City's core. New subdivisions included larger lots for more spacious homes. Industries transitioned and some moved outward, as did many commercial uses, offering opportunities for redevelopment and reuse. Highway connections, access and opportunities for expansion furthered this development pattern creating much of what we experience today.
† City of Great Falls: Growth Policy Update, 2013, www.greatfallsmt.net, accessed April, 2021.