1805, Meriwether Lewis named the Black Eagle Falls while on his expectant cross-country expedition. Here, in 1880, Paris Gibson envisioned the area’s potential as an industrial center with hydroelectric power. Here, in 1888, “Little Chicago”
and other hamlets were formed, with immigrants from Italy, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and elsewhere journeying great distances in hopes of a better life.
Here, today, many have seen these hopes realized. Though the smelter is no more, the families who built Black Eagle have preserved that fundamental sense of optimism and continued to make it a community worth living in.
“Black Eagle is where many of us have lived our whole lives,” says Mark Grasseschi, owner of the 3D Restaurant. “It’s home.”
The 3D opened in 1946, but like so many Black Eagle establishments, its story truly begins in the late 1800s. In 1896, at five years old, Arturo “Poppy” Grasseschi traveled to the New World with his family. He was Italian-born (from Lucca specifically), and his father was one of many who settled at “Little Milwaukee,” looking for work at the Anaconda Company’s Boston & Montana Smelter.
In 1906, at age 16, Poppy too went to work at the smelter. He was first an office boy, then a timekeeper and manager of the Little Chicago Water Company (positions which he held until his retirement in 1959).
In 1912, Poppy and his sweetheart, Mary (Porro), met under the 14th Street Bridge en route to Helena to elope. It was across that same bridge that Poppy hauled gravel by horse and wagon to build the foundation for their lifelong home.
Poppy and Mary had three children, daughters Minnie and Marian, and a son—Tommy.
Tommy Grasseschi grew up in Black Eagle (which by 1917 had officially been designated as such with the establishment of the Black Eagle Post Office). An incredible athlete, he was invited to the MLB’s spring training and was on his way when he decided to turn back; the onset of the Great Depression rerouted him home to help his family, putting an end to any baseball aspirations. But the doors opened on a brand new dream.
In 1946, Tommy and his wife, Dorothy (Nicholson), opened the 3D Club.
“The 3D name refers to the original slogan—drink, dine, and dance,” Mark explains.
Established in a former butcher shop and saloon on Smelter Avenue, the 3D quickly became a go-to for fine dining and fun times. As it grew in popularity, so too did it grow in size. The club has gone through a series of expansions throughout its existence, with remodeling additions in 1948, 1958, 1975, 1988, and 1997.
The earliest of these modifications allowed the 3D to seat more diners and serve more drinkers, with ample space left for dancing. The three Ds drew in visitors near and far, not to mention the best in entertainment.
Mark naturally has fond recollections of his lifetime at the 3D. “I remember the entertainers,” he says warmly.
He was a young lad when he was introduced to the likes of Billy Ward and the Dominoes, the Commodores, and the Four Knights. His father brought in large variety shows like the Royal Tahitians and the Weekend in Havana Review. For a period in the Sixties, the club even housed its own indoor ice rink for various ice reviews.
“I loved the Sunday afternoon shows, private parties, and holiday gatherings,” Mark remembers. “If entertainers came for the holidays, we would have them over at our house. One time Ford & Reynolds stayed at our house for Christmas.”
From a star-struck dishwasher in the Sixties to the manager of the business today, Mark has seen—and orchestrated—many phases in the 3D’s development. For one, live entertainment is no longer pivotal to the supper club experience. While the 3D’s early patrons were enthralled by live singers, comedians, and bands, the prevalence of television has diminished the luster of all but the most celebrated stars. With this in mind, Mark has spent a great deal of effort retooling the business to focus on exceptional cuisine, unique and flavorful menu items from around the world.
“We introduced the first Mongolian grill to Montana in 1996,” says Mark. “We serve steaks, seafood, Italian has been here since the beginning… We offer variety. We don’t go stale.”
As any good business owner knows, longevity does not come without change. You have to adapt to the times.
For decades, the Big Stack was Black Eagle’s most iconic structure. The towering smokestack protruded high above the rest of the skyline and served as a visual marker for Montana’s industrial empire on the Missouri.
When Atlantic Richfield Company acquired the Anaconda Company in 1977, and subsequently halted operations at Black Eagle in 1980, many feared that the small town (and much of Great Falls) would not survive. On September 18, 1982, with two explosive blasts, the Big Stack—Black Eagle’s preeminent landmark—was blown out of the skyline. Its demolition was a visual metaphor for the blow economically dealt to the community.
But unlike the Big Stack, Black Eagle could not be destroyed.
“We were all real sad about it,” says Mark, who was part of the movement to preserve the stack, “but we moved on.”
Thirty-six years later and the community is resilient, in no small part to local business. When the smelter collapsed, community leaders stepped up to shoulder as much of the burden as they could. In time, the town stabilized and found a new path forward together.
“We’re a close-knit community,” says Mark. “We always have new activities going on in town. We celebrate the Fourth of July with a big parade and celebration. People like it here.”
Since 1951, 3D’s enormous neon sign has cast its glow across the Missouri, welcoming visitors to see what Black Eagle is all about. It may not be as mighty as the Big Stack, but it serves as a symbol— shining proof that Black Eagle is here to stay.
For more on this and other Black Eagle stories, buy In the Shadow of the Big Stack, available for sale at the 3D Restaurant, 1825 Smelter Avenue in Black Eagle. For more information, call (406) 453-6561.