What were Lewis and Clark's "Artillery of the Mountains?"

Lewis and Clark Trail National Historic Trail
Lewis and Clark Trail National Historic Trail

On the fourth of July in 1805, as the Corps of Discovery reached the Great Falls of the Missouri and began the arduous task of portaging them, the journals of the explorers report something strange.  

Lewis describes it thus: "since our arrival at the falls we have repeatedly witnessed a nois which proceeds from a direction a little to the N. of West as loud and resembling precisely the discharge of a piece of ordinance of 6 pounds at the distance of three miles. I was informed of it by the men several times before I paid any attention to it, thinking it was thunder most probably which they had mistaken[.]"

Clark corroborates, writing about "...a rumbling like Cannon at a great distance is heard to the west if us; the Cause we Can't account."

They could find no explanation for the sounds. Lewis first assumed it was water accumulating and suddenly emptying in a cavern somewhere in the nearby mountains, but then reasoned that something like that would discharge regularly. However, this noise was "sometimes heard once only and at other times, six or seven discharges in quick succession."

Great Falls Montana

Ultimately, Lewis was left to state that "I am at a loss to account for this phenomenon."

It's worth pointing out here that the six-pound ordinance compared to the sound by Lewis and Clark was a big cannon that had to be driven around on wheels, field artillery - meaning that this was a loud noise, you understand. 

Further trappers and settlers would confirm the sound, an explosive report comparable to a sonic boom. But Montana in 1805 certainly didn't have any gun big enough to make a noise like that, nor did it have anything that would repeatedly produce a sonic boom. And the area around Great Falls isn't the only place in America that hears similar noises. Some call them "mistpouffers" or "skyquakes," but they are described as being like guns nearly everywhere they are reported.   

Seneca Lake, New York has the "Seneca guns," described as being virtually identical to the Great Falls noises. And a few days later in 1805, Lewis records that some of the Native-American reported hearing the same thing, and that they were common in the Black Hills as well. 

Some scientists have attempted to explain the noises as coronal mass ejections from the sun striking our atmosphere, or gas erupting from the inside of the earth. Others think they may be big bubbles of bio gas escaping from lakes. Still others speculate they are Bigfoot pounding on trees, a crude form of long distance communication.

None of these prove satisfactory to explain what is happening in the mountains around Great Falls, however, and despite the preponderance of theories, no one has ever proven what they could be.

Have you ever heard the "artillery of the mountains?" What did it sound like?

And what do you think it could be?

MIsty Mountains

Leave a Comment Here

Tim (not verified) , Thu, 12/10/2020 - 11:36
Beavers hitting the water with their tails....
Billy Maxwell (not verified) , Thu, 12/10/2020 - 22:14
Worked at Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center as historic and cultural researcher for ten years. I have heard this many many many times at the Center, Woodland Estates, and the First People's Jump. It occurs as the Bloods told me at the mouth of the Medicine River (the Sun today). The Medicine River is called that for the great noise. People would still come down from Canada just to hear the noise. I lived at Woodland Estates for 18 years and have heard it there the most. Noise does not come from the mountains at all. Sounds just like artillery at a distance. Yes, I spent three years in artillery. It can easily be discounted as the trains cars pulling out or a sonic boom. If you are aware of it, it is very predictable from the same location and the same sound. Source of the noise is right where the Sun River dumps into the Missouri River. This is the beginning of the rise of the Sweetgrass Arch underground that reaches its highest elevation right at the railroad bridge across the Missouri River by the Tribune Building. This is a special place called Rocky Bottom Crossing by the Blackfeet because it was one of the few places the Missouri could be crossed on foot. It does have many rocks. The Sweetgrass Arch drops in elevation from there and is the firm rock base to all the falls, cascades, and dams until the mouth of Belt Creek. One does not need a windless night, but most evenings and nights are the best times to hear it. The rolling sound is relative to being a distance from the source. I have never heard the great noise at the source.
Matt (not verified) , Tue, 04/20/2021 - 13:32
Rock slides?
Boulders tumbling along in a raging river?
Thunder?
Exploding micrometeorites?
Mass hallucinations?
Michael Sol (not verified) , Sat, 09/18/2021 - 09:53
When I did a lot of wilderness hiking in my teens, at some locations these sounds (and accompanying flashes in the night sky) would/could be common. Especially if "camping in the right spot," -- and on clear nights -- the flashes and "booms" would be quite active on "some nights." They were "site specific" from the standpoint of "general location," but not in terms of any particular point of origin. There is, in fact, a form of lightning that is distinctive for NOT being associates with clouds or storms, but rather, coming from a "clear sky." If you are in the "right place" and the right time, the demonstration can be quite active, all night long. "Night" is a key part of the observation because the "light" -- lightning -- is both more easily seen and heard at night. These are very "site specific" and associated with those location but, any other 1000 square miles, rare if ever. That, I concluded, is why they are associated with a specific location, rather than an active storm process.
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