Unnatural Nature: Trees and the Early Development of Great Falls, Montana, 1883-1916

By Troy A. Hallsell

When I first moved to Great Falls, Montana, in the summer of 2018 two things leapt out at me. First, the city had a well-developed, though not particularly well-maintained, park system. This was not much of a surprise; most cities founded or already established by the early twentieth century developed a park system as part of Progressive Era reforms.[1] Second, it had a dense urban tree canopy much like the one in Midtown, Memphis, where I had called home during graduate school at the University of Memphis. At first glance it did not surprise me that a city over 100 years old had a canopy. But then it hit me: I was on the upper Great Plains­; these trees should not be here. What follows is the story of Great Falls’ tree canopy development. It illustrates how Progressive Era beliefs and practices shaped today’s Great Falls, a demonstration of how aspects of the era’s environmental policies remain influential for modern day residents.

Paris Gibson as a United States Senator (1901-1905). Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Paris Gibson founded Great Falls as a business venture at the confluence of the Sun and Missouri Rivers in north central Montana Territory in 1883. While exploring the Missouri River cascades the previous year he declared “he had never seen a more attractive or ideal location for a city.” He claimed the falls “constituted the only waterpower site between St. Anthony’s Falls (now Minneapolis) in Minnesota and Spokane Falls in Washington” and determined the area contained coal deposits and other minerals such as silver, copper, and iron, with an abundance of agricultural and grazing land nearby. “I had looked upon this scene for a few moments,” he remembered, “when I said to myself, here I will found a city.” With railroad magnate James J. Hill as his patron, and harnessing the mighty Missouri River’s hydro power, Gibson set out to create an industrial city on the Great Plains.[2]

Gibson believed trees were integral to the town’s urban development.[3] Not only would they increase property values, but trees would attract settlers form the east. “In a tree-less country like this,” Gibson claimed, “the value of trees…will always be more highly appreciated that in the well-wooded states of the east.”[4] “As a native of Maine and former resident of Minneapolis,” one historian noted, “Gibson longed for the forests of his home state, which partially explains his advocacy of a program for planting trees to beautify the city.”[5] Unfortunately, Great Falls’ location was not conducive to arboriculture. The town sat in the far northwestern Great Plains. The region’s climate was good for short grasses such as grama grass, western wheat grass, mountain sage, and sagebrush. It was also arid, accumulating a mere 15 inches of rain per year, with shallow soil—attributes that did not permit tree growth across the region.[6] As a result, Gibson, along with the town’s park commissioners and elected representatives, devised a methodical plan to plant and grow a forest on the Great Plains.[7]

Given Great Falls’ location on the upper Great Plains, park commissioners had to import young saplings from the east. While native trees like cottonwoods, box elder, and willows could be found nearby, the Park Commission spent $157.92 in 1897 to ship non-native trees like elm, white ash, white birch, and golden willows to Great Falls. “Owing to the extraordinary effect of the chinook winds in the winter, many varieties of trees that can be grown successfully in the Mississippi Valley States will not flourish here,” said Gibson. He continued, “This has compelled us to carry on experimental work in tree-planting in order to determine what kind of deciduous trees can be grown in this climate.”[8] This experimentation required the city to create and maintain a nursery for these imported trees.[9] Given the harsh environmental conditions, namely wind and cold, the Park Commission purchased trees as saplings and let them mature in the nursery before transplanting them throughout the city­ (at its height the nursery contained some 43,000 trees).[10] And experiment the city did; by 1914 Margaret Park at the foot of Central Avenue was home to twelve species of trees alone.[11] However, by the end of the park system’s golden age no tree had become as ubiquitous as the stately elm.

Perspective Map of Great Falls, Montana, 1891, American Publishing Co. (Milwaukee, WI), Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.

Before westward expansion, the elm tree’s range covered the entire eastern United States. Prized for its beauty, not its utility, early American botanist Charles Sprague Sargent fawned over its canopy and shade coverage. For him, the elm “suggests a fountain in its manner of growth…the massive shafts bursts into a sheaf of springing boughs, which again break into a shower of branches, with a spray of twigs,” and it “produces at all seasons an architectural effect of permanent beauty by the arched interlacings of the great bending boughs.”[12] As a result, the elm became the tree for New England. By the end of the nineteenth century it was synonymous with the region in the national consciousness. As Americans migrated west, homesteaders brought (and planted) elms with them. They appeared to thrive wherever American settlers planted them. According to historian Eric Rutkow, elms were impervious to western elements: “drought, salt, ice, mild flooding, heavy foot traffic, inconsiderate horses, none of it seemed to trouble the unflappable trees.”[13] The elm was such an effective tree that Progressive Era reformers championed its use. According to one historian, by the 1930s “America’s urban regions…were bound by a great, unbroken chain of American elms, a remarkable canopy that shaded an ever-growing percentage of the nation’s populace.”[14]

The Great Falls Board of Park Commissioners used the elm tree to “park” its developing and growing boulevard system. This was a fairly straightforward process between property owners and the city. First, property owners on a particular city block petitioned the city to have its street “parked,” and then the city set it aside as an improvement district. Next, the city planted trees down the center of the boulevard, the eight-foot grass strip between the street and property owner’s yard, and then the city irrigated and tended to the trees’ maintenance at a fee of eight cents per year. This whole process cost each property owner $90 for “parking” a 50-foot lot and gave them four years to pay off this fee. Under this method Great Falls planted over 1,300 hundred trees in the spring of 1912, and by 1916 Great Falls had ten miles of parked streets throughout the city.[15] R.P. Reckards, president of the Board of Park Commissioners, believed “those who know the tendency of the elm need only let the mental vision run futureward for a few years to see a picturesque lane beneath the shade of the trees and the flowers at the center of the drive appealing to all to enjoy the pleasure of a drive through the city’s ample parkway system.”[16] This was such an effective way to spread trees throughout the city that Gibson was a consistent champion of the city’s boulevards.[17]

Over one hundred years later, the saplings the city planted have developed into a dense urban canopy. To date, the city contains approximately 58,000 trees and has created a forestry program to manage its urban canopy. The Boulevard District, which almost spans the width of the city from east to west, is home to the bulk of the city’s trees, most of which were planted during the city’s early years. These trees, the city argues, create an environment that is good for its residents’ mental health and fosters a sense of community pride and ownership, and works hard to maintain them.[18]


Troy A. Hallsell is the 341st Missile Wing Historian at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. His first book, The Overton Park Freeway Revolt: Place, Politics, and Preservation in Memphis, Tennessee, 1956-2017, is under review at the University of Tennessee Press. The opinions expressed in this post do not represent those of the 341st Missile Wing, the United States Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

Featured image (at top): Josh Rowe, Great Falls in Autumn, Looking East from West Bank Landing, visitgreatfallsmonatana.org.

[1] See for example Colin Fisher, Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[2] Richard B. Roeder, “A Settlement on the Plains: Paris Gibson and the Building of Great Falls,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 42, no. 4 (Autumn, 1992). On Hill see Michael P. Malone, James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).

[3] Troy Hallsell, “’This wealth of woodland in the desert’: Parks and Trees in Great Falls, Montana’s Early Development, 1883-1916,” under review at Montana: The Magazine of Western History.

[4] Quoted in Roeder, “A Settlement on the Plains,” 11.

[5] Page-Werner and Partners, et al, Historical and Architectural Survey of a Selected Area within the Great Falls Revitalization District (Great Falls, 1984), 3-14.

[6] Charles S. Sargent, Forests of North America (Exclusive of Mexico) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884), 564; and H.L. Shantz, “The Natural Vegetation of the Great Plains Region,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 13, no. 2 (June, 1923), 81-83, 88-91, 96-97, 105.

[7] This attempt coincided with broader efforts to grow trees on the plains. See N.H. Egleston, Arbor Day: Its History and Observance (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896); and Robert Charles Gardner, “Technological Forests: Engineering Nature with Tree Planting on the Great Plains, 1870-1944,” (PhD diss., Montana State University, 2013).

[8] “Park Commission Report, FY1897,” Apr. 30, 1897, Great Falls Collection, Cascade County Historical Society.

[9] B.B. Kelly, “A Parking System that Exemplifies a Spirit of Home Making Enterprise,” Great Falls Leader, Reclamation Edition, 1907.

[10] “First Report of the Board of Park Commissioners,” 23.

[11] Paris Gibson Notebook, 1914, Cascade County Historical Society.

[12] Quoted in Eric Rutkow, American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Scribner, 2012), 218.

[13] Ibid., 220-221.

[14] Ibid., 221. See also Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees, rev ed. (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2013), 246-254.

[15] C.H. Forbes-Lindsay, “Great Falls: The Pioneer Park City of Montana,” The Craftsman, (November 1908), 202, 207; “First Report of the Board of Park Commissioners of Great Falls, Montana from the Beginning of Parking System to December Thirty-First, Nineteen Hundred Fifteen,” (Great Falls, MT: undated.), 23, 25; “Hundreds of Trees are Planted in Boulevards,” Great Falls (MT) Daily Leader, Mar. 16, 1912; and “Park Commissioners Plan Many Great Improvements,” Great Falls (MT) Daily Leader, Apr. 9, 1912; “Trees and Boulevards Great Falls Feature,” Great Falls (MT) Daily Leader, Dec. 26, 1913.

[16] “First Report of the Board of Park Commissioners,” 25.

[17] Apr. 12, 1905, Park Board Minutes, Book 1, 1st Meeting thru July 1917, City Clerk’s Office, City of Great Falls, Montana.

[18] Rosenow to Kuntz, Apr. 14, 1982; City of Great Falls, Montana, “Benefits of Urban Trees,” https://greatfallsmt.net/recreation/benefits-urban-trees; Karl Puckett, “City taxes residents for parks, trees, street lights,” Great Falls Tribune, Aug. 7, 2019, https://www.greatfallstribune.com/story/news/2019/08/07/city-taxes-residents-parks-trees-street-lights/1944649001/. On the importance of shade in urban environments see Sam Bloch, “Shade,” Places Journal, Apr. 2019, https://placesjournal.org/article/shade-an-urban-design-mandate/.

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