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The Lewis and Clark Center is one of Montana's top tourist destinations

Just upriver from Giant Springs State Park, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center nestles into the sandstone cliffs like a sleek cubist sculpture, blending seamlessly into the Missouri River landscape. Although it lies within the extreme northeastern boundary of Great Falls city limits, the view from the center's two-story tall windows is breathtaking, a scene of the Missouri that Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the 30 men of the Corps of Discovery had on their journey to the Exploration of the unknown west recognized.

“I consider it a privilege to call it my workplace,” said Duane Buchi, director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.

This Sunday, May 5th, marks the 26th anniversaryTh Anniversary of the opening of the Interpretive Center in 1998. The motivation for its construction was to promote the story of Lewis and Clark as a draw for tourists to Great Falls during the bicentennial of “voyage of discovery.”

“These celebrations started in 2003,” Buchi recalls. “Things were serious in this area in 2005 because that was when they came here on their first trip to the West two centuries ago.”

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Although nearly two decades have passed since these celebrations ended, the Interpretive Center remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Great Falls. It is consistently ranked as the most popular destination in Great Falls on Trip Advisor and attracts nearly 50,000 visitors annually from all corners of the world.

This April, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center was named Montana's Tourism Destination of the Year at the Montana Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation. The award honors a tourism company each year for its “outstanding achievements in promoting tourism through marketing, product development, destination events and activities.”

The 25,000-square-foot building is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and includes two floors of exhibits chronicling the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as regular multimedia presentations in its 158-seat theater, tours, and a historical research library.

Although the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is an impressive part of Great Falls today, it was almost never built. When the concept of an interpretation center first came to life in the mid-1980s, the city was going through a difficult period. The smelter was closed and the Anaconda chimney had been blown up. The population declined and Great Falls was no longer Montana's largest city. The riverfront was an industrial area and that's it, because the River's Edge Trail is still years away (it opened in 1991).

Buchi credits the center's eventual completion to a small group of community leaders who believed in the project, and one man in particular, Mike Labriola.

Labriola had just retired as an Air Force colonel and was hired as director of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce. An avid Montana history buff, he worked tirelessly to promote the idea of ​​the Interpretive Center by raising money for construction and rallying the community to support the idea.

“It all really started as a community initiative,” Buchi explained. “It was a citizens’ initiative. They tried to lobby and make the congressional delegation aware of what was happening here, why this was important, and encouraging them to better manage this place and do something with it.”

In 1987, Labriola led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to testify to the need for an interpretive center along the Missouri River in Great Falls. Almost immediately they experienced disappointment.

“It was originally thought that the National Park Service would operate this site, but they declined,” Buchi explained. “Dale Gorman, who was superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Forest at the time – he was the one who raised his hand and said we would take this over.”

The property where the Interpretive Center now sits was then owned by the state of Montana. The US Forest Service was tasked with implementing the Interpretive Center. However, the federal government offered only partial funding for the project, with the prospect of matching federal funds if the city could raise $3 million within two years.

Organizers met that funding goal on time, raising $3.1 million with the help of major donations from the Great Falls Shipping Association and $1 million from Montana Power Co. Groundbreaking for the $6.2 million Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center took place in 1996.

Buchi noted that the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls is just one of 212 different historic sites along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which stretches across 16 states and 4,900 miles from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop on the Oregon Coast. The center at Great Falls is one of the largest of these sites and is also unique in that it provides a complete overview of the expedition, from its beginning after the Purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 to its conclusion in St. Louis, Missouri thereafter a journey that lasted 28 months.

“We definitely have a focus,” he said. “(The Great Falls of the Missouri River) they spent longer than anywhere on the trail except when they wintered in North Dakota and the Pacific Coast. That's why we put special emphasis on this portage, but the whole story is told here. I think that’s what really captures the essence of the expedition.”

The Interpretive Center has also recently made some significant physical improvements to the facility. Thanks to grants from the Great American Outdoors Act and the Missouri-Madison Fund, the center was able to renovate its parking lot, install new LED lighting in the parking lot, replace a wooden bridge leading to the Rivers Edge Trail, and provide handicapped access to a broken elevator to a paved path that runs along the banks of the Missouri River.

The center is currently undergoing a three-phase project to renew and refurbish 15 exhibits in the exhibition hall.

“There are just some areas that are very popular,” Bushi noted. “We don’t want to change anything. We just want to renovate some things and improve the standard.”

“And there are two new things coming,” he added. “At the very end of the tour of the exhibition hall there will be a children's area where there will be interactive opportunities for children. They will be a place where you can take a selfie and where you can try on different clothes of the time. Then there will be a clearer thank you to all of our visitors who completed the tour, along with an appreciation for the American Indians and where they are today.”

All of this is done with a paid workforce that includes just five full-time employees and one part-time employee during the winter. Bushi said that without the time and effort of more than 40 volunteers — some of whom have donated their time to the center since it opened — the visitor experience at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center would be a shadow of what it is today.

“They have a deep passion for this place and that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by people when they walk through these doors,” he said. “You feel the energy, the passion and the excitement of sharing this place. They are the ones who make a wonderful facility an incredible experience for our visitors.”

May marks the start of the Interpretive Center's busy season, but special presentations and activities are scheduled at the facility throughout the year.

“There is always a lot going on in our auditorium, from festivals to guest speakers to presentations,” Bushi noted. “In the winter, we provide free snowshoes to the public. Once a month we go on ranger-led hikes with people and host our annual Lewis and Clark Festival. That's coming on the 22ndnd in June. It’s all free and gives us the opportunity to connect with our community.”

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is located at 4201 Giant Springs Road in Great Falls. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The rest of the year the Interpretive Center is closed on Mondays.

There is an $8 admission fee for adults. Children up to 15 years have free entry. For more information, visit the Interpretive Center or call 406-453-6248.

Anna Harden

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