If there is a little-known legacy the late Stephen Ambrose would leave the America he came to love, it might be the destruction of some of America’s spillways and dams. More especially those that have obliterated the sites that awed Meriwether Lewis on June 13 and 14 of 1805. He found then what Indians back on the plains had told him he would find, the Great Falls of the Missouri. Whence Great Falls, Montana.
In Undaunted Courage, his book on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Ambrose repeats what Lewis wrote in his journal on the discovery of the first falls: “… this sublimely grand spectacle…the grandest site I ever beheld.” Lewis was seeing what Ambrose and his contemporaries cannot now see, a wall of water falling some 80 feet onto rocks and spewing a spray that reflected rainbows across the canyon of the river. In the succeeding day Lewis found four more falls, one a fifty footer stretching a quarter mile across the river. Comparing this with his first discovery, he wrote: “At length I determined between these two great rivals for glory that this was pleasingly beautiful while the other was sublimely grand.”
Ambrose dutifully recorded Meriwether Lewis’s descriptives, and then compared those words with what is available 200 years later. Four dams stretch across the brink of the falls and one of the falls is drowned completely in the bay created by the dam which obliterates “pleasingly beautiful.” The dams impound the waters that once created the spectacles and shunt the stream into hydroelectric plants downstream and at the river’s edge, releasing the water that has turned turbines that it may rush on to the next impoundment. No longer does much water go over the parapets; it dives and falls in underground chutes to spin the turbines to light the lights.
To Ambrose, who had immersed himself in the voyage of discovery to write Undaunted Courage, this was a shame. Some of the most pristine sights Lewis and Clark saw are now surmounted by concrete, blasphemed by transformers, and the free-flowing river is chained and drowned. In his later days, on the lecture circuit, Ambrose decried the chaining of the river, and wished for its release.
Arguments can be made that there are other means of creating the needed energy, but the disputations often dissolve into battles between economic pragmatists and “environmental wackoes” (if you’re an economic pragmatist).
The battle to restore the Great Falls of the Missouri has not even been joined yet. The late Ambrose sounded a lonely trumpet, unheard even in his generous obituaries. But matters are louder in another venue — California’s Yosemite Park. There environmentalists want to dismantle the 80-year-old O’Shaughnessy Dam and uncover some 1,900 acres of submerged floor in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a valley Yosemite’s patron saint John Muir once called “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” Before the coming of the dam the valley was said to look very much like the present Yosemite Valley, 15 miles distant. The problem: the dam supplies water and power to San Francisco. Advocates of the present system have a proposition on the November ballot not to destroy the dam but to improve the water delivery system to the tune of about $3.5 billion. New pipes, improved tunnels. New investment in the dam.
Those who would restore Hetch Hetchy are fighting the proposition, approval of which might doom their fight, or at least make it a lot tougher. One of Hetch Hetchy’s restoration supporters is Donald Hodel, secretary of interior under President Reagan. Other dams have been dismantled, he points out. But most have had to do with restoration of migrating fish, not beauty for its own sake.
Win or lose on the proposition the Hetch Hetchy restoration movement will continue. As more and more Americans visit the Lewis and Clark Center in Great Falls, perched above the Missouri, between the third and fourth dams, they too may come to wonder what it was really like when the falls were there, “pleasingly beautiful” and “sublimely grand.”
And they may join with Stephen Ambrose in wondering if it might not be that way once more.