Big Spring Creek — Lewistown’s Lifeblood
Like a moth to a flame, or a herd of elk to a field of alfalfa, humans are attracted to water. Throughout history, people around the world — including those right here in Montana — settled near rivers and lakes. Three Forks is at the headwaters of the Missouri; Miles City is on the Yellowstone; and Lewistown — a desirable location right in the heart of Montana — sprung up around Big Spring Creek.
Native Americans hunted in this lush area long before white settlers occupied the place. Homesteaders slowly trickled into the fertile basin in the 19th century, and in by the late 1800s folks arrived in waves with the hope of striking it rich in the Moccasins or the Judith Mountains. Lewistown itself was established in 1882. The arrival of the railroad at the turn of the century solidified the town’s role as the region’s primary trading hub.
Lewistown may not be the booming mining town or bustling railroad stop of its early days, but it’s not about to dry up and blow away in the Central Montana wind. It still has the water that’s been attracting folks to the area for thousands of years. It’s this water that has seeped its way into the lifestyle, economy, and identity of this Central Montana community.
Water irrigates the fields along Highways 191 and 87. Water welcomes visitors as they enter Lewistown. And no matter where you travel throughout the town, water is just around the bend.
And when we say water, we mean Big Spring Creek. We’ll take you on a journey along this spring-fed creek, from where it bubbles up from the ground seven miles southeast of town, to where it winds through Lewistown, to where it meanders northwest for 30 miles before it meets with the Judith River.
Big Snowy Mountains
To understand Big Spring Creek and why it matters so much to the folks in Lewistown, we have to back up to where it comes from. Back up beyond the spring itself, to the Big Snowy Mountains.
The Big Snowy Mountains (or Big Snowies as they’re often called) are one of the region’s most prominent island ranges. Standing at over 8,000 feet, they tower above Lewistown and the surrounding Central Montana Plains. The mountains are a magnet for moisture. With an average annual precipitation of 34 to 60 inches per year, they get more rain than almost any other place in Central or Eastern Montana.
Some of the creeks running off of the Big Snowies hold water all year. These creeks flow down toward Lewistown before trickling into one of the town’s four reservoirs. These reservoirs were constructed in the early 1970s to control flooding, being that Lewistown sits on a giant flood plain. Three of the four reservoirs are on public land, making them popular spots for boating, picnicking, camping, and fishing for trout, northern pike, and yellow perch.
But because the Big Snowy Mountains are primarily limestone, much of the water seeps underground, leaving dry streambeds behind. The Big Snowies act as a giant sponge for rainfall and snowmelt. The mountains soak up the water, filter it underground, and dump it into the Madison Aquifer, which acts as a massive series of underground tanks stretching across parts of Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. There are multiple places where mountains recharge the aquifer, and multiple places where the water bubbles up onto the surface.
The Big Snowies are known as the recharge spot for Big Spring Creek, which emerges from underground 13 miles as the crow flies from the top of the island range.
Big Spring Creek pumps more than 50,000 gallons of pure, fresh, mineral-rich water per minute year round. That’s more than 72 million gallons of water per day, and more than 26.2 billion gallons per year. The rate may lower a bit in drought years, but for the most part, Big Spring is consistent and predictable, not to mention crisp and refreshing. It bubbles up around 52 degrees in both summer and winter, which, it turns out, is the ideal temperature for a variety of uses.
Boasting that its water is 99.9 percent pure, the City of Lewistown takes its municipal drinking water directly from the spring. Only a handful of places in the entire country have drinking water this pure. For the most part, when folks here turn on their tap, untreated water comes straight from the spring and into the mouths of the 6,000 residents who call Lewistown home.
Thanks to businesses like Big Spring Water and Big Spring Brewing, the spring reaches far beyond Lewistown. Big Spring Water came on the scene in 1966, bottling, “pristine spring water from the base of Montana’s Big Snowy Mountains.” Today, Big Spring Water ships this natural mineral water to homes and offices across the state.
For folks who like their water fermented, Big Spring Brewing opened its doors in the summer of 2018. Housed in the historic Mercantile Building, this 12 barrel brewhouse draws water directly from Big Spring Creek. And since beer is 90 to 95 percent water, you can expect Big Spring Brewing’s beer to be delicious.
It turns out, in addition to being good for drinking, crisp, pristine spring water is also great for raising fish. Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks has one of its hatcheries right at the start of Big Spring Creek. There’s a beautiful city park around the hatchery where families come to picnic and relax. The fish raised here are planted in reservoirs and lakes across the state. Big Spring enhances the recreational opportunities for all Montanans. The next time you snag a trout in Canyon Ferry, Holter Lake, Bynum, Pishkun, Deadman’s Basin, or the Helena Regional Reservoir, thank the cool, clean waters of Central Montana’s Big Spring Creek.
Upper Big Spring Creek
Once Big Spring Creek surfaces near the hatchery it flows northwest toward town, winding through private property, public parks, irrigated fields, and fishing holes for about seven miles.
The water is perfect for farmers, who are happy not to have to rely on snowmelt for their crops. It is also great for hunters, who enjoy the healthy whitetail population that thrives off of the creek’s habitat. And it makes an excellent fishing spot for anglers, who come from all over to fish here.
There are seven fishing access points along Big Spring, including the newest one right below the fish hatchery. Fish, Wildlife, and Parks purchased the land for this new fishing access site in 2013, using money from a settlement with Monsanto. Back in 1997, students taking water samples discovered PCBs in the creek. Turns out, the cancer-causing chemicals came from the white paint Monsanto used on the hatchery runways. It took a lot of time and money to clean up Big Spring Creek, but the pride of Lewistown has been restored. And now, the public can enjoy this new fishing access point right below the spring. With its cool temperatures and great vegetation, this spot is an angler’s dream.
In fact, all of Big Spring Creek is an angler’s dream. Forget A River Runs Through It. Here, a creek runs through it — and the fishing is phenomenal. Brown trout, mountain whitefish, and rainbows abound. Since the late 1960s, the average number of catchable fish per mile above town has held steady at 550. Most trout range from 10 to 14 inches in length, although reeling in a bigger one is not unheard of. And, because it’s a spring-fed creek, it rarely shuts down in the late summer for low flow or high temperatures like other rivers around the state.
Continuing along the river, the landscape opens up into Brewery Flats, a popular place for walking, swimming, floating, and, yes, more fishing.
For decades, Brewery Flats was a major industrial site. Back in 1908, the town channelized this stretch of Big Spring. They took out all the natural curves and turns and made the creek deep and straight in order to make room for the railroad. Since then, it’s served as a railyard, oil refinery, feedlot, and — as the name implies — an actual brewery in the 1920s and 1930s.
But when the Milwaukee Railroad filed for bankruptcy and left town in the early 1980s, this area emptied out like a bar at last call. There was a lot of talk about what to do with this flat, somewhat boggy land just outside of town. For the past 20 years, starting with the un-channeling of the creek in the late 1990s, a consortium of different groups have come together to turn Brewery Flats into what it is today — one of Lewistown’s premier parks.
Thanks to the efforts of passionate folks in the community, Brewery Flats features walking trails throughout the area that connect back to the town’s trail system. The area is a popular spot for folks to walk their dogs, jog, watch for birds, spend time with their families — and get out on the creek.
Once the creek flows into town, it’s tied into the town’s history and integrated into the daily lives of Lewistown residents.
To follow the creek closely is to travel back in time to the way Lewistown was in its early days. On the south end of town, a portion of the creek has been diverted and channelized into Mill Ditch. This mile-long ditch was finished in 1886. It originally powered a grain mill that has since burned down. Today, the ditch helps with flood control.
In downtown Lewistown, there’s a stretch of the creek that seems to disappear. Around World War I, folks in Lewistown channelized this section of the creek to make it easier to build up the city. For a few blocks, Big Spring Creek flows underground. While it may be temporarily out of site, it’s never out of mind.
Some folks in town dream of bringing Big Spring Creek back into the light in downtown Lewistown. They imagine cafes and restaurants popping up along the babbling creek, with residents and tourists alike enjoying the cool air coming off of the water in the summertime. But for now, as long as the concrete holds, Big Spring will continue to take this underground detour.
For those who know where to look, one bar does offer creekside seating. With a viewing hole in the corner of the building, the Montana Tavern proudly boasts that it’s the only bar in Central Montana built over Spring Creek. Its customers can peer deep down below the ground to the rushing waters and rising trout.
Luckily, there are plenty of nearby opportunities to enjoy the creek. Lewistown features an extensive trail system, much of which runs along the creek on top of old railroad tracks. Used by kids riding their bikes to school, families taking afternoon strolls, friends jogging together, and folks walking their dogs, these trails add to the quality of life in this Central Montana town.
“Trailhead Park” commemorates the town’s trail system. Opened in 2014, this commemorative park is near the confluence of Mill Ditch and Big Spring Creek, at the epicenter of much of the town’s new development. Across the street, there are plans to expand Creekside Park and build a pavilion near the town’s newest brewery and restaurant for outdoor performances.
Walking the streets of Lewistown, it doesn’t take long to realize how much the creek means to this town. Besides Big Spring Brewing and Big Spring Water, there’s a real estate company, a spa, and a market that also don the name of the town’s beloved creek. The town is also peppered with sculptures of brown trout, murals of fish, and fishing gear stores. Even the town’s logo highlights the aquatic resource!
Lower Big Spring Creek
As Big Spring makes its way out of town toward the Judith River, the number of fish sculptures may diminish, but the importance of the creek does not.
Downstream, there are still a handful of opportunities to access the creek below town. Although the water temperature at this point is higher than it is a few miles upstream, it is still low enough to foster a healthy fish population. Below town, there are said to be 1,320 fish greater than 10 inches long — and that is per mile.
There’s even a new access site in the works near the Machler stream restoration project.
Back in the 1950s, a property owner along this particular stretch of Big Spring straightened the creek to make room for development. Back then, it was common practice to channelize waterways. However, a few decades later, Big Spring showed serious signs of wear, both above and below the straightened section. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the creek eroded at a rate of 14 feet per year. Vegetation disappeared, fish populations declined, and oxbows were destroyed. The bridges below the straightened section of the creek were also at risk.
For more than a decade, a diverse group of landowners, conservation organizations, state agencies, and local residents have worked together to un-straighten the creek, replant shrubs and grasses, and create a new fishing access site at the Machler Project. Eventually, Lewistown’s trail system will link up with this area, adding another opportunity to access Big Spring below town.
Once Big Creek flows out of town, its primary use shifts from recreation to irrigation. Agriculture is Lewistown’s biggest economic driver, and Big Spring’s water is a big reason why the area’s farmers and ranchers do so well.
Fergus County is one of the top counties in the state for ag production, especially when it comes to winter wheat, alfalfa, and cattle. For folks who irrigate, this consistent, heavy-flowing water source is worth its weight in gold. Even after the snow has melted and the spring rain has stopped, Big Spring Creek continues to flow. Anyone east of the divide knows how rare and precious that is.
Big Spring fuels Lewistown’s booming ag industry and this community’s agricultural way of life. It’s hard to imagine what this fertile basin would look like without Big Spring winding through it.
Big Spring Creek is the lifeblood for the region.
Farmers, fishermen, shop owners, and several other businesses rely on the creek. It’s not surprising how many people in this community volunteer, advocate, and take care of their creek. They go out with their friends and family to clean up the reservoirs. They participate in groups that plan projects for stream restoration or trail building. They show up at meetings and make their voices heard.
Of course there are always things to improve. There are weeds to maintain, trash and debris to pick up, and drought years to plan for. But people in Lewistown pay attention to Big Spring Creek, and they keep an eye on the mountainous headwaters that keep their water flowing clean. They know as much as any Montanan, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, then get to work.
A big thanks to Clayton Dunlap and Mike Getman for taking the time to show us around Big Spring Creek. Thanks also to all the folks we’ve spoken with this past year about Big Spring Creek, including Dave Byerly, Clint Loomis, Laurie Lohrer, Clint Smith, Mark Good, John Tognetti, Wayne Green, and all the folks at the Big Spring Creek Watershed Council.