The Clark’s Fork River and transportation through the valleys and over the Rocky Mountains lie at the core of Missoula’s early history. Captain John Mullan blazed his road through here immediately before the Civil War, and a Mullan Road marker is downtown.
White settlement first arrived in the initial territorial years and a sawmill was the first major business. As a river crossroads town, Missoula grew, and then became a permanent dot on the federal map with the arrival of Fort Missoula, established in 1877. The fort, largely neglected when I conducted my work for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, is now a regional heritage center.
But so much of that you see and experience today in downtown Missoula is shaped by the arrival of two railroads, the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883 and then the Milwaukee Road in 1908. In those 25 years, much of historic environment of present-day Missoula was built, creating a north side, south side look to the city that reflects not only the central thread of the Clark’s Fork River but also the impact of the two sets of railroad tracks.
Built in 1901, the Northern Pacific passenger station is an impressive example of Renaissance Revival style, designed by the architectural firm of Reed and Stem, and symbolized the turn of the century dominance of the railroad over the region’s transportation and the importance of Missoula to the railroad as a major train yard. The station, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, stands at the historic “top” of downtown Missoula, which at its bare bones has the classic T-plan of a railroad hub of the late 19th century. The Northern Pacific tracks and related railroad warehouses are the top of the “T” stretching in both directions with Interstate I-90 crossing the river bluffs to the northeast. Two reminders of the historic railroad traffic are adjacent to the station–a steam Northern Pacific engine and a diesel Burlington Northern engine.
From the passenger station stretching into the town itself is Higgins Street,which runs in a straight line to the river. The most important early commercial building, near the Higgins Street bridge is of course the threatened Missoula Mercantile building (discussed
in an earlier blog), which has sections dating to the 1880s. Higgins Street bridge crosses the Clark’s Fork, which on the south side became the street’s connection with the later Milwaukee Road.
The Milwaukee was not to be out-done by the Northern Pacific when it arrived in Missoula in 1908. Railroad architect J. J. Lindstrand gave the line a fashionable Misson-style passenger station and offices, which opened in 1910. It too is listed in the National Register. Like the company’s stations in Great Falls and Butte, built approximately at the same time, the station has a tall tower that commanded the city’s early 20th century skyline, and made the depot easy to find. Located dramatically along the Clark’s Fork River, the arrival of the railroad and the construction of the depot led to a new frenzy of building on South Higgins Street, and a good many of those one-story and two-story buildings remain in use today.
That is enough for now–the railroads of Missoula have been introduced. Next I will explore landmarks between the two depots of Missoula.