Brief History of Missoula
Physiographic Features and Background to Initial Euro-American Activities in Western Montana and Particularly, in the MissoulaValley
The Missoula Valley’s geologic features display evidence of Glacial Lake Missoula, a huge body of water stretching past Garrison, some 60 plus miles to the east, south past Hamilton, north to the shores of Flathead Lake and west hundreds of miles to Lake Pend d’Oreille in Idaho, where the lake narrowed and was dammed by an ice jam. After a climate change brought a long period of warming, the natural ice dam gave way and an immense volume of water and rock exploded across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River to the sea, ripping miles and miles of earth into what became known as the “scab lands,” and nearly emptying the Missoula Valley of its lake waters. Over the following centuries as glaciers continued to melt and move southward, the ice dams formed again at the narrows of Lake Pend d’ Oreille. Glacial Lake Missoula again filled with a volume of water approximating half of that in Lake Michigan and covering at times up to 2,900 square miles. This process of draining and filling repeated itself over and over with dynamic floods changing the landscape dramatically with each event. Traces of glacial lake shorelines mark the hillsides of the east entrance to the Missoula valley, displaying horizontal lines across the face of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.
As the geographic hub of five mountain valleys, the Missoula Valley became a natural travel corridor for Native Americans from the Pacific Slope, the Columbia Plateau and the intertwined mountain ranges of western Montana and Idaho on their journeys to hunt the vast herds of buffalo grazing on the plains west of the Continental Divide. These hunting expeditions by the Nez Perce, Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’ Oreille, Shoshone, Coeur d’ Alene, Spokane and others, brought them into direct conflict with the Blackfeet and their allies the Gros Ventres. The tight canyon at the east entrance to the Missoula Valley often became the site of bloody confrontations over the buffalo hunt. The Missoula Valley also served as an important area from which to harvest bitterroot, a plant whose roots were used as a food source, medicinally, and as seasoning. The spring gathering of the bitterroot became an annual event for the Salish who wintered in the mountain valley to the south, which took on the name Bitterroot.
As Euro-Americans began to explore the western regions of the continent, they followed the clearly established Native American trails. In July of 1806 Meriwether Lewis and his party, guided by Nez Perce and Salish, left Travelers’ Rest near Lolo, crossed the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers and set up a campsite near Grant Creek. The following day, July 4th, Lewis bid farewell to his Native American guides and proceeded to follow the “Road to the Buffalo,” called the "Cokalarishkit”, east through the Missoula Valley and into the Blackfoot Valley. With the Blackfoot River as a landmark, Lewis headed for his rendezvous with William Clark, eventually meeting him near the mouth of the Yellowstone River.
Less than a decade later, trapper and explorer for the Hudson Bay Company, David Thompson, followed the main north-south trail (which would later be known as the Jocko to Fort Owen Road) entering the Missoula Valley and climbed Mount Jumbo. Looking down at the Missoula Valley, he sketched a map on which he labeled the wide expanse as NEMISSOOLATAKOO, a name that Father Palladino, founder of St. Patrick’s Hospital, believed incorporated Salish references to “cold or chilly waters.” Thompson’s visit coincided with the growing fur trade industry, which was already dramatically impacting the region’s natural resources and the native cultures. The origin of the shortening of the name to Missoula and its meaning is still debated. Paul C. Phillips, editor of Forty Years on the Frontier, the autobiographical book by legendary miner, rancher, trader, politician and merchant, Granville Stuart, wrote the following:
"One of these daughters (referring to Captain Richard Grant’s daughter, Julia) married C.P. Higgins of Hell Gate and Missoula. Angus MacDonald, a son of the old trader at Fort Connah, believes that Mrs. C. P. Higgins made the contraction of an Indian sentence meaning, 'where the waters flow from opposite directions' to form the word Missoula. On the other hand his half-brother Duncan MacDonald asserts that Missoula came from the Indian expression In May soo let que meaning Quaking River. Father Palladino gives still another meaning. He believes that the expression Im-i-sul-e meaning 'by the cold chilling waters,' is the origin of the word (Phillips, 1977:126)."
French trappers, observing human bones strewn on the valley floor at the eastern canyon entrance, had a reminder of the bloody ambushes there. They started referring to the site as “Porte d’ Enfer,” translated as Hell’s Gate. The trappers claimed that it was “safer to enter the gates of hell than pass through this narrow confine.” The name Hell Gate would remain from that time on and be used to designate both the larger valley area where trading parties gathered, known as Hell Gate Ronde, and Hell Gate Village, the predecessor of the city of Missoula.
In the 1840s Catholic missionaries led by Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet brought the first wheeled vehicle through Hell Gate Canyon on their way to St. Mary’s Mission, located south in the Bitterroot Valley near present-day Stevensville. Father Anthony Ravalli carried on Father DeSmet’s work throughout western Montana and Idaho. When the Jesuits abandoned St. Mary’s for a short time, John Owen bought the facilities, established a trading post, and renamed it Fort Owen. That fort became a focal point for trade along the main trail into the Missoula Valley.
During the 1850s Congress directed Isaac I. Stevens, governor of Washington Territory, to survey western lands for development of a transcontinental rail route. Assisted by Lieutenant John Mullan, Stevens’ mission included negotiating a series of treaties with Native American tribes with the goal of providing peaceful access for the railroad and title to the land over which it was to be built. In July of 1855 Isaac I. Stevens met with leaders of the Salish, Kootenai and Upper Pend d’Oreille at Council Grove, located a few miles west of present-day Missoula. After several days of discussion, the Hellgate Treaty was signed by all of the representatives including Victor as “Chief” of the Salish (“Flathead”), Alexander as “Chief” of the Upper Pend d’Oreille (“Upper Pend’ Oreilles”), and Michelle as “Chief” of the Kootenai (“Kootenays”). The treaty established the Flathead Indian Reservation, and contained a clause providing that Victor and his people could remain in the Bitterroot Valley. Isaac I. Stevens designated that the Salish (“Flathead”), Kootenai (“Kootenays”), and the Upper Pend d’Oreille (“Upper Pend’ Oreilles”) would combine to form the “Flathead Nation” and that Chief Victor would be “Head Chief” of this Flathead Nation. Isaac I. Stevens appointed Victor “Head Chief” of the entire Flathead Nation during the treaty-making process so that the government could deal with a “Head Chief” instead of many “chiefs” and head men. Victor and his followers remained in the Bitterroot and Victor lived the rest of his life there. His son, Charlo, and his followers were forced out of the Bitterroot Valley in 1891. In November of that year, Missoulians gathered to watch Chief Charlo lead his people across the Clark Fork River on their way to the Flathead Reservation. That event is commemorated in a mural painted by Edgar Paxson, which hangs in the Missoula County Courthouse, located in the heart of the downtown.
The Hell GateVillage Era and Initial Euro-American Settlement of the MissoulaValley (1860-1865)
With the signing of the Hellgate Treaty, and others across the West in the mid-1800s, native populations throughout western Montana were promised financial rewards, modern schools and services in exchange for vast amounts of land and agreements to relocate onto much smaller tracts of land. Reservations in the Flathead Valley and, to a lesser extent, in the Bitterroot Valley resulted. However, the latter became coveted by white settlers and in 1891, after years of deprivation resulting from broken promises of food, shelter and educational facilities, the Salish were forced from the Bitterroot Valley to relocate and settle onto the northern Flathead Reservation.
Christopher P. Higgins, a young Irishman who had served as wagon master for the Stevens’ survey party, and who had been present at the Hellgate Treaty signing, believed strongly in the potential of the Missoula Valley to become a major trading center. In the summer of 1860 Higgins and his business partner, Francis L. Worden, who owned a general store in Walla Walla, Washington, brought some six-dozen mules loaded with supplies to the Missoula Valley. There they built a trading post just to the east of Council Grove near a Native American river crossing and the Jocko Trail. While Higgins, Worden, and their clerk Frank Woody worked to establish the store, Lieutenant John Mullan pushed ahead with construction of a military road connecting Fort Walla Walla in Washington to Fort Benton, located at the end of river traffic on the Missouri in Montana. Mullan’s Military Road followed the main Salish trail passing within feet of the Worden and Higgins trading post in that same summer of 1860. Soon other buildings began to be constructed around the trading post and the cluster became known as Hell Gate Village. Hell Gate soon grew to around a dozen buildings and in December of 1860 it became the Missoula County seat.
During the next few years Hell Gate prospered as prospectors headed through the valley for the gold fields at Gold Creek to the east and later up to strikes at the Kootenai mines northwest of Hell Gate. It was a rough and dangerous place. During Hell Gate’s first five years of existence, all ten of the deaths that occurred there were the result of acts of violence. In January of 1864, a group of 21 men, known as the Vigilante Committee, left Virginia City on horseback in search of persons involved in a gang of road agents and thugs who had terrorized the people of that town and nearby Bannack. Their journey led them to Hell Gate Village, where, with great expedience, they apprehended, tried and hanged Cyrus Skinner, Aleck Carter and Johnny Cooper, three suspected outlaws. Shortly thereafter, the Vigilantes tracked down two more suspects in the vicinity by the names of Bob Zachary and George Shears, both of whom were tried and hanged. Leaving Hell Gate Village, the Vigilantes rode south to the Bitterroot Valley and Fort Owen. There they caught up with Bill Graves, better known as “Whiskey Bill,” and dispensed the usual brand of justice with a swift trial and hanging. The Vigilantes were both judge and jury. A defendant’s claim of “I’m innocent” was thought to be the secret code word of the road agents, and therefore just another piece of condemning evidence.
Missoula Mills and the Early Development of Missoula (1864-1883)
By 1864 it became evident to Higgins and Worden that the need existed for a lumber and flourmill to supply building materials and food for the increasing number of settlers arriving in the Missoula Valley. Looking for a water source to power the gristmill, the entrepreneurs first considered nearby Grant Creek, but soon realized that its summer flow would be inadequate. The next obvious power source was Rattlesnake Creek, some four miles to the east. Because the land immediately adjacent to that creek was already owned, Higgins and Worden, with a third partner by the name of David Pattee, constructed a grist mill and lumber mill near where the Mullan Road intersected with present day Higgins Avenue. To bring the necessary waterpower, the businessmen dug a race from Rattlesnake Creek, effectively channeling the water to the gristmill. Physical evidence of that first mill race can be found in the basement of the National Register listed Missoula Mercantile Warehouse, where brick arches that allowed the water to flow under that site still exist. The construction of the mills began in 1865 and continued into 1866. Worden and Higgins also built a frame structure for their business about a block west of the mill site.
Soon other businesses appeared along Front Street, which roughly followed the east-west route of the Mullan Military Road. During 1866 and the years immediately following, Missoula, whichwas called Missoula Mills for a time, grew in a haphazard manner with settlers choosing sites primarily for the convenience of water rights. For the most part, however, buildings generally followed the contours of the Clark Fork River, whose banks were just a few yards south of Front Street.
As Missoula grew, Hell Gate Village diminished. Governmental and trade activities moved to Missoula and by 1866 Hell Gate had lost its county seat status to Missoula. Gold discoveries occurring both east and west during the latter years of the 1860s brought fortune seekers and others through Missoula by way of the Mullan Military Road, which was the only major transportation link between the Missouri River at Fort Benton and the Columbia River. In 1869 a gold strike west of Missoula at Cedar Creek, near present day Superior, brought thousands to the area. When claims soon played out many of the Cedar Creek miners came to Missoula. However, most moved on following the rushes to newly discovered gold strikes. As a result, Missoula never boomed the way true gold rush towns like Helena did. The population of Missoula in 1869 was around 100.
By 1872 there were 66 occupied buildings in Missoula with half of them having been constructed during the previous three years. By that time, Higgins & Worden had moved their business, which was now known as Worden and Company, a block north and a block east of Front Street to the northwest corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue. The following year Higgins organized the Montana National Bank and located it in the new brick Worden & Company Store. Higgins and Worden faced growing competition from the firm of Bonner and Welch, established by Richard Eddy, Edward Bonner and David Welch. By 1876 the company had welcomed Andrew Hammond, an enterprising young salesman from New Brunswick, Canada, into management and the store became known as Eddy, Hammond and Company. In 1877 that company began constructing a new building at the northeast corner of Front Street and Higgins Avenue. That building would evolve through the years and the company would become the most powerful business entity in western Montana under the name of the Missoula Mercantile Company. The store, greatly expanded through the years, still stands today and is listed in the National Register.
The expansion of Hammond’s business coincided with the hasty establishment of Fort Missoula, which was built in reaction to the threat of hostilities between Native Americans and white settlers. That fort came about primarily because of a general atmosphere of fear generated by the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which had taken place the previous summer, and the Nez Perce War of 1877, which brought the Nez Perce to within a few miles of Missoula. As word of their approach spread panic, some Missoulians hid in the half finished Missoula Mercantile building while others volunteered to join the forty-five soldiers who were sent out to confront the feared Nez Perce. When the Nez Perce, led by the War Chief, Looking Glass, simply avoided the soldiers who were encamped at a location southwest of present day Lolo, that site became known as Fort Fizzle. Still, Missoula had its new fort and the soldiers stationed there would help the local economy by, among other things, frequenting the row of “honkytonks” that began to appear along West Front Street.
The Arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Incorporation of Missoula and the Resultant Boom (1883-1893)
Opportunities for building a railroad through the Missoula Valley were a direct result of the Hellgate Treaty of 1855. The treaty provided for the building of roads, to include railroads, on the Flathead Reservation as well. However, the effects of a national recession and the lack of a railroad to transport goods teamed to keep Missoula’s growth slow during the rest of the 1870s and into the early 1880s. With the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883, the village of approximately 400 boomed. In March of 1883 Territorial Governor, Benjamin Franklin Potts, approved a charter for the Town of Missoula.
Businessmen C.P. Higgins, Francis Worden, and Washington J. McCormick owned most of the land to the west and north of the mill site. Together with A.J. Urlin, who owned property north of those businessmen’s holdings, they enticed the Northern Pacific into setting up its shops and division headquarters in Missoula by giving the railroad choice lots throughout the town site. Though the owners of Eddy, Hammond and Company had not given the Northern Pacific any property, their skillful political lobbying gained them the contract to supply ties and bridge timbers for the railroad, assuring financial security for the firm in the near future. Under the direction of Hammond, crews cut massive amounts of timber around Missoula, especially up the Blackfoot River corridor. Hammond, Eddy and Bonner joined other wealthy investors, including Marcus Daly of the Anaconda Company and principals in the Northern Pacific Railroad, in forming the Montana Improvement Company. That company built an enormous sawmill along the Blackfoot River a few miles northeast of Missoula at a site named for Bonner. Supplying timbers for the construction of railroad bridges, such as the Marent Trestle in 1883, a huge structure located near present-day Evaro, and for the rapacious Butte mines, brought incredible wealth to those involved. When the federal government initiated legal action to prosecute the investors for the illegal cutting of trees on public lands, Hammond and Eddy moved to protect their personal fortunes by incorporating the Missoula Mercantile Company to take the place of Eddy, Hammond and Company. Legal proceedings did little to slow the incredible pace of the timber harvest of the late 1880s. The timber industry in western Montana continued to grow as railroad branch lines extended into the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys. Charges against Hammond and the others were eventually dropped, and Missoula’s economy benefited directly from Hammond’s use of the city as his base of operations.
Copper King Marcus Daly also had business dealings in Missoula and at first joined with Hammond in such endeavors as the Montana Improvement Company, the First National Bank of Missoula, and the South Missoula Land Company, which intended to develop properties on the south side of the Clark Fork River. However, after a political falling out in 1889, Daly declared war on Hammond and his business enterprises, threatening to “make grass grow in the streets of Missoula.” Daly divested his interests in Hammond related projects and brought D.J. Hennessey’s department store to Missoula to compete with the Missoula Mercantile. After his attempts to thwart Hammond’s power in Missoula proper failed, Daly built a competing sawmill up the Bitterroot and turned his attention to the founding of Hamilton and the construction of a mansion and stock farm outside of that town.
The Northern Pacific Railroad’s arrival in Missoula in 1883 set off a frenzy of economic activity and population growth. A construction boom ensued and by the end of the decade grand commercial buildings such as the First National Bank and the Higgins Block created a big-city-like urban streetscape in the downtown. The railroad and its repair shops, located on the northern edge of the downtown, employed a large work crew and spurred the development of working class neighborhoods north of the tracks. This in turn, fueled a building boom of more upscale housing throughout other sections surrounding the commercial city center. As the businesses prospered, mansions appeared on the scene, especially along the streets of the newly platted areas south of the Clark Fork River. The Frances Worden family gained neighbors in their formerly rural-feeling blocks along East Pine Street, just east of Higgins Avenue.
The commercial center of the downtown radiated from the intersection of Front Street and Higgins Avenue, the site of the Missoula Mercantile, the towering First National Bank, the castle-like Hammond Building and the Florence Hotel, all controlled by A. B. Hammond. Residential dwellings were scattered throughout the blocks to the east and west of that intersection with the highest concentration appearing to the east between Higgins and Rattlesnake Creek. As travelers entered Missoula along East Front Street, they passed by the lush gardens of Cyrus and William McWhirk. In 1885 a history of Montana referred to Missoula as “the very garden of all Montana.” Later, city boosters adopted the slogan of “The Garden City,” a name that has stuck since that time and appears on the official seal of the city.
As the decade of the 1880s waned, C.P. Higgins began construction of a bank building that would rival that of the First National Bank, owned by his business and political nemesis, A.B. Hammond. Hiring the highly respected architectural firm of Paulsen and McConnell from Helena to design the building, Higgins spared no expense in creating his monument. The result was a majestic mix of classical Richardsonian Romanesque and commercial Queen Anne styling that became a Missoula landmark that remains today.
Overall the Higgins Block appeared as two buildings, with the corner bank building featuring gray granite, beautiful Romanesque-arched windows, brown terra cotta banding and a copper clad domed turret. The section to the north, which became the home of the D.J. Hennessy Mercantile Company, shared a common wall with the bank building but contrasted distinctly due to its polychrome red brick exterior, Italianate style balconies, and a squared tower with a tent shaped roof. Missoula had never seen such a dazzling building. In 1889 C.P. Higgins fell ill and died before the doors opened on his gift to Missoula’s downtown.
By the late 1880s there was no doubt that Missoula had established itself as the trade center of western Montana. Led by A.B. Hammond, the Missoula Mercantile dominated mercantile trade throughout a huge area of influence, with satellite stores springing up from the Bitterroot Valley to the shores of Flathead Lake. The Missoula Mercantile Company became one of the largest mercantile enterprises between Minneapolis and Seattle. The political power that flowed from such a business loomed over Missoula for decades. With the construction of bridges over the Clark Fork River, Missoula developers began to look to the south of the river for building sites. In 1889 only a few houses existed there, but within a couple of years two subdivisions, South Missoula and the Knowles Addition, had been platted. In direct conflict with each other in the directional alignment of their streets, these two subdivisions created a confusing and frustrating clash that confounds and irritates both visitors and residents of the city to this day.
Architects such as A.J. Gibson arrived on the Missoula scene in the late 1880s. The general prosperity, attributed mostly to the railroad, gave Gibson the opportunity to design hospitals, office buildings, mansions and average-to-small size houses. Brick from three local brickyards provided building materials to replace structures lost during two major fires that swept through the heart of the business district in 1884 and 1892. Missoula was transforming itself from a town to a city.
A Business Recession, but Slow and Steady Growth (1893-1900)
The effects of the national economic panic of 1893 did not reach Missoula until about 1895. At that time most of the banks were hit hard and closed their doors. The exception, the A.B. Hammond-controlled First National Bank, backed with the resources of the Missoula Mercantile, survived the crises. Development south of the river stalled when capital dried up, but a rumor that the Great Northern Railroad might run a line through that part of town fueled speculation for lots. Despite economic setbacks, the city continued to slowly grow outward from the mill site north, toward the Northern Pacific tracks. Residents began to build on the blocks of East Pine Street adjacent to the downtown businesses, providing neighbors for the Francis Worden family who had escaped the clamor of the Front Street area by building in that isolated area in the mid 1870s. After forming an alliance with representatives from Helena, with a mutual agreement to support that city over Anaconda in its bid to become the state capital, Missoula won the vote to be the site of the new state university from the 1893 legislature. From that point on, Missoula donned the mantel of sophistication associated with a center of higher education. Classes were temporarily held at Willard School while plans for a campus progressed. As the university population grew, so did the economic and cultural benefits to the city. The South Missoula Land Company, owned by Hammond, Eddy and Marcus Daly joined with the Higgins family in donating land for the new campus. In June of 1898 the cornerstone for A.J. Gibson designed University Hall was laid and Missoula became “the University City.”
By that time the city had recovered from the economic downturn and was beginning a new construction boom that would take it well into the 20th Century. The downtown entered a phase in which buildings lost to a devastating fire in 1892 began to be replaced by brick structures. During this period A.J. Gibson, advertising himself as an “Architect and Practical Builder,” designed some of his most grand early works which include: University Hall; University Science Center; the Garden City Commercial College (Bab’s Apartments); the T.S. Greenough Mansion; and scores of exceptionally elegant row houses and small homes throughout Missoula’s growing neighborhoods. Gibson’s creations dominated the new downtown streetscape. (See Missoula Historic Downtown.)
Moving Into a New Century (1898-1920)
As Missoula entered the new century, it boasted a population of 4,356, an increase of one-third during the 1890s. While West Front Street was still the “badlands,” with twenty-five saloons, numerous gambling establishments and houses of prostitution lining the two blocks west of Ryman Street, the city also offered dozens of restaurants, theaters, opera houses and of course, churches, schools and fraternal organizations. The Missoula Mercantile remained at the top of the retail food chain and the lumber industry began to consolidate into larger operations. An increased demand for lumber from the burgeoning copper mines of Butte assisted in reviving the timber industry from its previous doldrums. With his timber holdings, A.B. Hammond enjoyed the accumulation of a seemingly ever-increasing source of wealth.
During the first decade of the new century and into the teens, Missoula boomed again, primarily as the result of railroad expansion by the Northern Pacific, a nationwide increase in the demand for lumber products and improved agricultural methods and machinery. Lots on the North Side and in the Lower Rattlesnake area became building sites for homes needed by the new railroad workers who were hired for the westward expansion of the Northern Pacific lines. Part of that increased investment can be attributed to the expected competition from the rival Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad that reached Missoula in 1908. The construction of a beautiful new brick depot for the Northern Pacific at the northern end of Higgins Avenue in 1901 attracted more businesses to that area of the downtown. It also led to the construction of almost a dozen hotels within a five-block radius of the depot. An equally impressive Milwaukee depot was built just south of the Clark Fork River and became an anchor for both commercial and residential development on the immediate South Side.
The opportunities for investment that Missoula offered in the late 1890s and the years immediately following attracted the attention of Butte Copper magnate William A. Clark. Always looking for a way to compete with Marcus Daly, who had Missoula holdings, Clark first concentrated on lumber and mining to the west of Missoula in the Nine Mile area. However, he soon acquired the lumber mill at Bonner and in 1906 directed a 150-man work crew to build a dam at the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot River. Completed in 1908, just in time to face a ferocious June flood that damaged the structure, Clark’s dam was repaired and in use again by the following year. In 1910 Clark incorporated the Missoula Street Railway Company, which began operating two years later with streetcars that ran throughout the city and into outlying areas. The system remained in place until the 1930s, when buses replaced the streetcars.
Missoula saw many of its most impressive downtown buildings constructed during the period of 1908 to 1912. This coincided with the expansion of the Northern Pacific and the establishment of passenger service by the Milwaukee Railroad. In 1908 A.J. Gibson designed the classically elegant Missoula County Courthouse. Taking three years to complete, the majestic sandstone structure rivaled any courthouse in the state and was considered by most people to be Gibson’s crowning achievement. Five years prior to his courthouse project, Gibson had designed the Carnegie Library on the corner of East Pine and Pattee Street. Gibson-designed-buildingsbegan to appear throughout the downtown after the Carnegie Library was built, and he continued as Missoula’s premier architect during the period. While other out of town architects such as Link and Haire left their mark with large ornate fraternal buildings including the Masonic Lodge and the Elks Lodge, it was Gibson that was most prolific and revered by Missoulians during this boom period.
With the development of the fruit growing industry in the Bitterroot Valley in the late 1890s, Missoula became a shipping center for produce. As a result, produce-related businesses grew along Woody and Railroad Streets because of that area’s close proximity to the railroad. Large warehouses were built just north of the tracks from the Woody and Railroad corner, and to the west along the Bitterroot spur line of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Orchard Homes subdivision, platted on the city’s western edge consisted of five acre parcels and boasted of sixteen thousand fruit trees, which supplied much of the fruit for local consumption.
The timber industry remained an important player in the Missoula economy and national policy toward the public forests directly affected the city. The creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 led to the designation of the Hellgate, Missoula and Lolo Forests. In 1908 Missoula became the district headquarters for Forest Service Operations in the Idaho-Montana District and later became regional headquarters for the Rocky Mountain District. From that point on, Missoula benefited from the substantial payroll and regional recognition that went along with that designation. An impressive sandstone headquarters building was constructed for the Forest Service on the corner of Pattee and East Pine Street in 1936 and still serves in that capacity.
Transition Years: WWI and Its Aftermath (1917-1930)
WWI had little economic effect on Missoula other than to increase demand for agricultural products and to make labor more expensive. Missoula continued a slow but steady growth during the teens and the twenties. Primarily a trade center that reached out for a 150-mile radius, the railroad shops, the university, lumber, flourmills, and the presence of the Forest Service and other governmental agencies diversified the city’s economy. Missoula was never a manufacturing center, with the exception of a brief experiment with a sugar beet factory from 1915 to 1918.
The WWI years and after saw a slowdown in the economy for a time, but neighborhoods south of the river saw steady growth. The University area neighborhood continued to spread from the campus to the west and south, filling in the lots from the Clark Fork River, to McLeod and from Arthur at the University’s edge, to Higgins Avenue. The popularity of large California style bungalows and more diminutive Craftsmen bungalows provided a counterpoint for the huge mansions along Gerald Avenue and the towering Queen Anne style houses along the more northern streets of the University area neighborhood. A similar development of vacant lots occurred to the west of the University neighborhood across Higgins and in other areas of the city. Building space in the downtown was nearly nonexistent, so there was little activity as far as large-scale commercial construction.
From the Great Depression into Another Century (1930-2005)
The balanced economy and the presence of governmental agencies lessened the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on Missoula. As federal relief and construction programs came into being, the city benefited. Fort Missoula became the site of the Civilian Conservation Corp District Headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Region. With its pacific front weather patterns, agricultural resources were hardly affected by the drought that ravaged much of the rest of the state. The local economy gained an unexpected boost in construction jobs when three major fires involving significant buildings that were insured provided the capital to fund rebuilding in the downtown.
Missoula captured fourteen Civil Works Administration (CWA) projects during the 1930s, including the huge Missoula County Airport construction project that cost over a million dollars. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded the building of the Parkway (Orange Street) Bridge across the Clark Fork, the new Central School, an addition to Lowell School, and improvements and construction of numerous parks and playgrounds. The University campus saw construction of four major buildings, all funded by the WPA. The most noticeable of the WPA projects in downtown Missoula was the northern addition to the United States Post Office in 1936.
Missoula’s economy remained solid during the World War II years. In fact, two major building projects in the heart of the downtown started just before the United States became directly affected by the war. They were the seven-story Florence Hotel located across from the Missoula Mercantile, and the six-story Savoy Hotel, built as a companion building to the 1909 Palace Hotel at the corner of Ryman and Broadway streets, near the Missoula County Courthouse.
Like most cities throughout the country, Missoula experienced a post-war residential housing boom as soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill. Enrollment at the University also increased as a result of the educational benefits related to that legislation. After the war, the faces of many of the downtown businesses changed as modern construction materials were utilized to “modernize” the facades. This alteration of historic building stock continued, reaching a fever pitch during the 1960s. The First National Bank Building, a grand monument of granite and brick and located across the street to the south from the Missoula Mercantile, was demolished in 1962 to make way for a modern bank building of steel, glass and stucco. During this same period a minimalist modern addition was attached to the classically elegant Missoula County Courthouse. Despite these and many other changes, Missoula did not experience the massive loss of historic buildings that many cities, such as Helena, did under a federal program known as “Urban Renewal.” It was the backlash from that program that triggered the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act and the creation of state and local preservation programs throughout the nation. It took over twenty years for Missoula to create a local preservation ordinance and join the Certified Local Government program overseen by the State Historic Preservation Office. During those interim two decades, business fled the downtown to take their place along the automobile dominated business strips and malls. As a result, the downtown suffered a business recession with buildings partially or totally empty. Many of the businesses that remained attempted to compete with the malls by applying modern materials to the facades of historic buildings. However, the formation of the historic preservation program, and funding assistance managed by the newly created Missoula Redevelopment Agency, began to convince business owners that the historic architecture was a valuable and unique asset in attracting customers back to the downtown. Educational efforts by the preservation office, and the monetary incentives offered to those owners of buildings listed in the National Register, led to the restoration of dozens of downtown historic buildings.
Missoula continued to grow and prosper during the 1990s and into the new century. While the lumber industry has waned and governmental staffing decreased, an increase in medical related facilities and service industries has taken up the slack.
Historic surveys have continued and are supported by the downtown and neighborhoods that realize the value of historic architecture for both aesthetics and economics. One of the fastest growing cities in the state, with accompanying sprawling commercial strips on its periphery, Missoula has come to embrace the idea of historic preservation in its downtown and older residential neighborhoods.
(Across the street, looking north, from Lowell.)
Lowell School History Main Page
Lowell School History
Lowell School Home Page
Missoula Historic Downtown
Missoula Chamber of Commerce
MCPS HOME PAGE
United States Department of the Interior National Park Service.
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.
NPS Form 10-900(Rev. Oct. 1990) OMB No. 1024-0018
http://www.his.state.mt.us/shpo/register/MissoulaDwntwnHD.pdf 2/5/07:Google; ed. A. Phillip, 2007.