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"Higgins Family Tragedy" Part 2 - Frank Higgins Vs. Alfred J. Urlin / Fire Again

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Frank Higgins vs. Alfred J. Urlin

With the murder of Maurice, the Higgins family suffered the terrible loss of another one of their children. Their grief was felt citywide. Maurice’s funeral was a memorable event with carriages stretched out for a mile as they followed his body to its burial. The capture and hanging of the culprit responsible for his death hardly salved the family’s grief, but it did provide a sense of closure. They had now lost 3 of their number as well as the patriarch, Captain C. P., yet the Higgins family tried to remain strong and resolute. Frank was still the scion of Missoula’s most important family - the first son of the city’s most respected leader, and he would not relent, even in the face of events that were out of his hands.

Captain Higgins was considered one of the two founding fathers of the city of Missoula and had a long list of Missoula firsts. One of these was the first commercial bank founded in Missoula, (and the territory) variously titled as the Higgins National Bank, the Missoula National Bank and the First National Bank of Missoula. This bank survived the panic of 1873 but could not weather the interference of Missoula’s most hated tycoon, A. B. Hammond, who in 1887, forced Higgins out of the bank in a long and contentious battle of the bank’s directors, alleging that Higgins was an incompetent fool. Higgins had a penchant for making questionable loans, evidence of his deep roots in the grubstake era of Montana when just one bonanza could reap large rewards. The victorious Hammond and his Missoula Mercantile soon dominated the commerce not only in Missoula, but in almost all of Western Montana. Cap Higgins lost that battle but he was still regarded as one of Missoula’s most beloved citizens.

Somehow, he found the resources to commission the beautiful new C. P. Higgins Western Bank at the corner of Main St. and Higgins Avenue, which was completed in 1889.  This 100x90 foot three-story bank featured materials and workmanship that were unheard of in the small city, including expansive granite floors and walls and a magnificent copper domed tower supported by two polished granite pillars. Sadly, he did not live to see the bank finished, passing away only months before it was done. This beautiful new bank opened with three Higgins sons in charge; Frank, as president, John and George as cashiers, but it lasted only 4 more years when the panic of 1893 struck and forced it to close. Montana soon went into a recession with the cessation of silver mining in 1893 which brutally affected Montana’s mining industry. Thousands of Montana silver miners and their attendant businesses were thrown out of work with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act. Saddled with failing businesses and rising unemployment the Montana economy fell into a depression that lasted for an estimated 4 years.

Unlike business tycoon A. B. Hammond, Frank Higgins was well educated, attending Phillips Exeter Academy and then graduating in law from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1886. He quickly began practicing law in Missoula, joining a law firm with William J. Stephens and William M. Bickford. The highly-regarded Stephens was a Montana pioneer in his own right, arriving at Gold Creek / Bear town in 1866 after mining in California and practicing law for a short time in Nevada and Idaho City, Idaho. Stephens had a very successful Missoula law practice. Bickford eventually staked his career in the deep pockets of copper king W. A. Clark and had a financially successful stake in many Missoula businesses.

Frank Higgins was the first Montana-born attorney admitted to the Montana Bar and the first Montana-born to be elected to the Montana State Legislature.  Elected mayor of Missoula in 1892, he wielded political influence in the local Democratic party organization and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that year. He also served two terms in the Montana State Legislature as the Democratic house member from Missoula County, and is credited with introducing the legislative bill that designated Missoula as the site of the State University. He may have gotten into political trouble in 1892 when he initially came out for Butte in the state capital battle between Marcus Daly and W. A. Clark. Neither of the Copper Kings supported Butte for the capital city despite their mining investments there. Higgins later changed his support to Marcus Daly and Anaconda in the 1894 capital runoff election.

The Higgins family had displayed an uncommon generosity in Missoula’s history. Captain Higgins, along with some others, donated local land to the Northern Pacific Railroad as an incentive to entice the N. P. railroad to the city as well as to locate their depot and division headquarters there. The Higgins family also later donated acreage to the Southside site that eventually became the campus for the University of Montana. While the citizens surely recognized that the Higgins family benefitted when Missoula’s economy grew, they remained largely supportive. Not so with the dynamo A. B. Hammond who incurred the wrath of Missoula citizens regularly, and by 1890 found himself an object of ridicule by many Missoulians, including the newspapers.

While awarded the contract to supply the building materials for the N. P. track as it moved through Western Montana, Hammond & associates acted the part of suppliers, contractors, labor negotiators, real estate agents, and anything else that was required, all the while managing the Missoula Mercantile. After importing numerous relatives and friends from New Brunswick, Canada to work for him, Hammond was now perceived as an influence peddling viper, who had gained too much control of the city and its commerce. Perceived as all business and possessing none of the warmth that characterized Cap Higgins, Hammond had no patience for fools, or anyone that disagreed with him. By 1890 Hammond was being caricatured locally as an Octopus with 27 tentacles which found their way into the business of every citizen of the county - from groceries to graves (and the Higgins estate).

The Hammond / Higgins rivalry finally peaked when the local question of where to locate the new Higgins bridge was submitted to Missoula’s citizenry in a special local election in September of 1891. Higgins proponents advocated the current North-South orientation while Hammond (as well as Stephens & Bickford) supporters argued for a diagonal bridge that aligned with the Bitter Root Spur railroad and with the new Hammond backed South Missoula slant Subdivision. Voters supported Frank Higgins and gave Missoula its current unwieldy street layout. Shortly after that imbroglio, voters spurned Hammond further and Frank was elected Missoula’s new mayor in 1892.

Unlike most Montana banks, Hammond’s 1st National Bank of Missoula amazingly weathered the crash of 1893, although not without plenty of maneuvering on Hammond’s part. He called in every favor and chit that was ever owed him, or to his Missoula Mercantile empire, and even then, he had to cut ties with his best political friend, S. T. Hauser of Helena, the former territorial governor and eminent banker. Hauser still held stock in the First National Bank of Missoula and had been its largest stockholder at one time, but he could not offer Hammond any financial help in this crisis.

Hauser’s own 1st National Bank of Helena failed in 1893. Thousands of Montanans were now broke and out of work. This spelled the beginning of Montana’s experiment with populism, the free silver movement, and William Jennings Bryant. Not long after this, A. B. Hammond abandoned his Montana empire and moved on to bigger things in Oregon. His Montana legacy however lived on through his capstone enterprise, The Missoula Mercantile, and it would last for decades, even beyond his death in 1934. One thing that didn’t last was Hammond Street in Missoula’s University district. Missoula councilmen later stripped the Hammond name and replaced it with that of another Higgins son, Gerald.

Still, the Higgins family was far from done with tragedy. Maurice’s death did not insulate them from misfortune and the catastrophic effects of more fires. Next, they would encounter the wrath of Missoula’s North Side residents as one of them took his revenge for what North Siders believed was the intolerable arrogance of Frank Higgins and burned down his partially completed (and uninsured) new N. P. Depot building in 1896. The perpetrator was never caught.  This little-known story starts with another one of Missoula’s pioneers who had almost as much to do with early Missoula growth as the Higgins family.

Alfred J. Urlin was one of 4 Missoulians particularly responsible for enticing the N. P. Railroad to locate its depot in Missoula. He is an interesting Montana pioneer who was involved in many things, including inventing and patenting devices that fascinated him. Nineteen-year-old Urlin went to Cariboo, B. C. in 1862 as an ‘overlander’ who came west from Eastern Canada to the new mining region with his father. He is the subject of a recent film by a historian, Richard Wright, of the B. C. area, who presents Urlin’s career in some detail.[1] Urlin then moved to Bannack and Virginia City Montana in 1863, was elected a Treasurer of Beaverhead County, and sat on the Montana Legislative Council in 1869 as a clerk.

Urlin later spent some time at Montana’s last big gold strike (1870) at Cedar Creek near Superior, Mt., and when that played out he followed many others to the little berg of Missoula. Beginning in 1870, he worked as a clerk for Higgins and Worden at their Missoula mills for several years. He later went on to become an important Missoula citizen.

Urlin became an early investor in Missoula property when he filed a patent on a quarter section of land on Missoula’s north side in 1876. He also developed a large nursery business and allegedly stocked it with 1,000 trees, along with a farming business that provided the city with poultry and eggs. Yet, in 1879 he left Missoula, moving to the silver mining bonanza at Glendale, Mt., near Dillon, where he joined in a hardware business with noted Beaverhead pioneer, Henry Smith Pond. The two may have crossed paths early on in Bannack, Mt., when they both mined there. Another early Montana pioneer, Pond first came to Montana in 1862 and wound up in American Fork near Gold Creek where he built a store for Frank Worden and briefly clerked there. By the following year Pond had moved on to Bannack where he later engaged in the carpenter trade.

By 1878 Pond moved his business to Glendale, Mt., and Urlin joined him there in 1880. They became partners in a hardware store. But by 1882, Urlin was back in Missoula and began preparing for the arrival of the N.P. railroad to Western Montana. Plans for the new railroad showed that it would run near “a point in front of the A. J. Urlin ranch and cross over the prairie below town."

Coinciding with the arrival of the N. P. railroad in 1883, Urlin platted his own addition in north Missoula and even built a sawmill which provided stock that was used to build many of Missoula’s new homes. His saw mill was located on a corner of what is now N. Orange St and N 2nd Street. N. Orange St. at the time was known as Urlin St. Along with C. P, Higgins, Frank Worden, and Washington J. McCormick, Urlin donated “several hundred” lots to the N.P. project to entice the railroad to come through Missoula with its attendant depot and yards.

Much of what became Missoula’s North side area was encompassed by Urlin’s property. Soon after his property was subdivided in 1883 Urlin mortgaged a portion of it with J. M. Tiernan, resulting in a deal that netted him a $30,000 profit which he deposited in the Missoula National Bank. Tiernan was a professional geologist who had been employed by the N. P. Railroad for several years performing field work along the route the railroad planned to follow.

One of the key issues for Missoula’s North Side residents was, and still is, poor access to the rest of the city, since the N.P. Railway sliced the North end of Missoula away from the rest of the town. Access in the early days was directly south using Higgins Avenue. After the N.P. tracks were first put in, access to downtown Missoula using Higgins Avenue was still available over a street level crossing. The original N.P. depot was located well to the west, at the “head of Harris” street (now Orange); about 3 hundred yards west from where it is now located. This was soon to change with the new depot to be built by the Higgins brothers since it would block Higgins Ave access for North siders.

As was pointed out in the Northside Missoula Railroad Historic District document prepared by Allan Mathews,[2] Alfred Urlin fought this project with a vengeance. Urlin recognized that access to downtown Missoula would become an annoying hardship for Northside residents and gave voice to his concerns in city council meetings and the local newspaper. He contended that the city was about to break its long-held promise to the people of Missoula's Northside.

Mathews quoted Urlin’s comments made in the Missoula Evening Republican of June 18, 1895:

"The proposed building of the new depot, lying across and east of Higgins avenue, is a direct violation of the contract made years ago, which is still in full force and effect.

"Aside from this, it must be apparent to any one acquainted with the situation that the council is a rank injustice to a large number who live on this side of the tracks. There is no proper crossing from Higgins avenue east to the Rattlesnake, and those who wish to cross at a safe place must hereafter go to Woody street, entailing great loss of time and working serious inconvenience, not only to all our people, but to residents of other parts of the city who may have to visit the north side."...

"Much of the land on this side of the track has been purchased and homes erected thereon, with the distinct understanding that Higgins avenue should always remain open, and to close it now is to make many of our best citizens the victims of misplaced confidence."...

The bitterness came home to roost on July 9, 1896 when a fire burned a Missoula Mercantile warehouse located close to the new depot building. Arson was found to be the direct cause. Three days later the depot burned in another tragic fire that was also believed to be arson caused.

The July 13, 1896 Anaconda Standard printed a good description of this latest Higgins fire:


The New Northern Pacific Depot at Missoula a Total Loss.


There Was No Insurance and the Loss Falls on Contractor Higgins as He Had Not Turned the Building Over.

Special Dispatch to the Standard.

Missoula, July 12. – The foul work of an incendiary has laid low the new Northern Pacific depot that was in course of construction and that so narrowly escaped destruction in the fire last week. To-night the entire wood work of the structure is destroyed and the handsome brick walls are ruined as far down as the first story coping. The walls have already begun to fall in and will all go as soon as there is a high wind. The fire was discovered shortly before 4 o’clock and in less than three minutes afterward the building was a seething mass of flames. Clouds of black smoke rolled upward and those who were first on the scene say there was oil scattered all through the building.

The fire department made a splendid run, the buckskin team dashing through the flames at the west end of the building to get to a hydrant. Driver Fox had his face blistered in the dash and the varnish on the wagon is raised from the heat. All of the water of Niagara could not have saved the building, however, and it was in ruins in half an hour. The loss is $10,000 and falls upon Frank G. Higgins, the contractor, as the building had not been turned over to the railroad company.

The theory that the building caught from smoldering sparks from Thursday evening’s incident is exploded by the fact that the building was thoroughly examined from roof to basement. There are all sorts of rumors afloat about men having been seen in the building just before the fire, but none of them are reliable.

There is one clew (sic) that may lead to something. A man, who was recognized, was seen running from the building and the police are now looking for him. It now looks as if the warehouse fire Thursday night was started for the purpose of burning the depot, and that this fire was the work of the same fiends. The loss is total, as there was no insurance.

Another Anaconda Standard article about the Depot fire appeared on July 14, 1896:


There Is No Doubt That It Was of Incendiary Origin


Several Men Express Gratification Over the Calamity for Some Reason – The Dangerous Standing Walls Are Torn Down.

Missoula, July 13. – No more disastrous calamity has visited this city in years than the destruction by fire of the partially completed depot building of the Northern Pacific at this place. That the fire was the dastardly work of incendiaries there is no longer any doubt. Within five minutes preceding the discovery of the fire there were at least four men who saw the building and all of them state that there was no fire there then. The building was in a condition where an ordinary fire would not have burned quickly. The heavy rain of the forenoon and the thorough wetting that it received at the time of the warehouse fire Thursday night would make it difficult for a fire that was not started deliberately and with preparation to make any rapid headway. Thursday night when the roof caught fire, the blaze made slow progress. Had it burned with half the energy that the fire of yesterday afternoon did, the building would have been destroyed at that time. As it was, the firemen had time to get it out before any damage was done and that when the building was dryer than it was yesterday. There is but one conclusion to be drawn from this and that is that some miscreant did the work and did it deliberately and thoroughly. That he made a good job of it there is no doubt in the mind of any one who has seen the ruins or who saw the blaze. It was the hottest and quickest blaze that the local department ever had anything to do with. It was absolutely impossible to save it. The whole building in less than two minutes was all in flames that were mounting hundreds of feet in the air. No fire that had no combustibles other than wood to feed upon could have burned as this one did.

As to the motive that any man could have had for such a deed there is no clue. It may have been one who had a grudge against the contractor, whose loss is so serious, or it may develop that the deed was inspired by some other motive. When the fire the other night was in progress there was more than one man in the crowd who expressed the hope that the depot would burn at that time. As is well known, there has been a great deal of feeling in some quarters about the removal of the depot from its present site and it may have been hinted that the fire may have resulted from this feeling, but it is unreasonable to think that any of the men who opposed the change would attempt to find revenge in a manner so vile. The real cause of the fie and the motive of the incendiary probably will never be known. One thing is certain, there are some characters in Missoula who must be driven out of the city if it is possible. A man who will do any such despicable deed as this is not fit to live in a civilized community. He is not a safe man to have around. The police and other officers ought to spare no effort to ferret out the mystery of the fire and to bring him to a speedy punishment.

The fire has cast a gloom over the whole community and has aroused the people to a realization of the serious danger that they are in with such a desperate character in the city. No place is safe from his deadly work and if it is possible to find him, no expense or time ought to be spared to bring him to justice. There is some detective work now going on and it is probable there will be other and private detectives on the case. It is necessary that there shall be speedy justice meted out to him if he is found that an example may be made of him. The new depot promised to be an ornament to the city. It was the handsomest depot on the line of the road, except the ones at the terminals. The people were looking forward to its completion with pleasure and there had been many plans made to make the building of real benefit to the city. That is all over now and if the man is found it will go hard with him.

There have been no new developments in the case to-day. It is not probable that the railroad company will put any detectives on the case. There is no doubt whatever that the case was incendiary origin, as the nature of the blaze was such that it could not have originated from other sources. In the city there are many men, however, who have to-day expressed gratification over the dire calamity, even though it is one of the severest blows that has fallen upon the city in all its history. There has been some talk of rebuilding the depot by popular subscription. It is not likely that this plan will meet with support enough to make it practicable. In another week the work of completing the building would have commenced and the railroad company was preparing to start on the work of rearranging the yards.

G. W. Dickinson, general manager of the west end of the Northern Pacific, who is in town to-day, said this morning to a Standard reporter; “The railroad company had planned to spend about $8,000 on the new yards, which were to be arranged to conform with the new arrangement of the buildings. It is not probable that this will be done now. I am very sorry that the fire occurred, as the depot would have been a benefit to the town.”

The standing walls of the burned depot have nearly all fallen as far down as the first story. Some of the dangerous portions that remained and the tall chimney were knocked down to-day by the firemen.

Sad as this event was, it would not be the last one that the Higgins family would have to deal with. The next tragic fire was even more striking in that involved the death another innocent young victim.

Last Updated on Thursday, 12 October 2017 14:45