Old Missoula

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City's Streets Have Long, Stormy Story by John H. Kuenning

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City’s Streets Have Long, Stormy History


By John H. Kuenning

“Could you direct me to this address?” a stranger asks on entering Missoula.

“Yes, mister, I could. Lucky, I’m from that part o’ town, myself, or I probably wouldn’t know how ta steer ya there. I don’t even know the names of most of the streets, the layout of this town is so mixed up. Let’s see, you go down this street --.”

After angling diagonally, changing his course several times and going off on what seems to him a tangent, the stranger finally arrives at his destination. He wonders why Missoula is plotted as it is, or more probably, if Missoula was plotted. What is the history behind it?

Maybe you are a long-time resident like a local librarian, who says, “There isn’t any history to the plot of Missoula. The streets were laid out without any system, and there they are.”

Dig through musty county records dated 1892 and you may agree with the librarian. But talk to a few old-timers, pioneers. You discover stories of death, flood, fire, murder and destruction; stories of fortunes won and fortunes lost – all linked with the mapping of Missoula’s streets. Books could be written about the subject – comedy, tragedy, romance.


No Single Purpose

Yes, it’s a long story, that of Missoula’s streets, how they were originally laid to follow the course of the river, then in other additions laid by the compass to correspond with the survey of the township, how the city grew by additions which were villages in themselves and thus disrupted any planning of streets, how duplications in naming the streets arose out of this scramble.

Since this is no book, why not content ourselves for the present with a portion of the interesting story of Higgins avenue?

When you are out automobiling some Sunday afternoon, drive southward across the new bridge on U. S. highway No. 93. About six blocks south of the bridge the highway curves to the southwest on Stephens avenue. Notice how wide this street is.

Because a faction aspired to make this the main street of Missoula and the most important outlet to the fort and to the valley on the south, Stephens is today a wide street, twice as broad as any of equal importance in the city.

In the early history of Missoula the “straight bridge” advocates wanted a bridge at the site of the present Higgins avenue structure, while those battling for the “crooked bridge” insisted that it be built diagonally across the island with the south end about three-fourths of a block west of where it is. Then, according to the “crooked bridge” supporters, the street should be extended straight to join Stephens avenue.

Climax in 1892

The bitter fight reached a climax in 1892 when, in a city election, the “straight bridgers” defeated their opponents. This made Higgins avenue the main street.

The question was reopened when the flood of 1908 swept away the wooden structure. The straight bridge was rebuilt.

Now the new Parkway bridge spanning the Missoula river joins Orange and McCormick streets. Orange street is linked with Stephens, so it is probable that Stephens may yet become something near to what its aspirations were many years ago.

Another major feud which pioneers associate with Higgins avenue is recalled in an account in The Daily Missoulian. This took place Sunday, July 12, 1896:

“Fire! The passenger station is on fire!” And although most of the fire department was attending the baseball game across the river, the call for the fire fighters was not long unanswered, but the Northern Pacific depot was destroyed.

“. . . It was a long battle, that unsuccessful attempt of the North side property holders to stop the closing of the avenue (Higgins). Vilification of the city council, cries of ‘heartless corporations,’ attempts to bother the contractors, all played their parts.

“ . . . The building of the Northern Pacific passenger station caused most of the trouble in the city council. It seems that residents of the North side objected to this construction, on the grounds that it did away with their crossing to the business district of town, necessitating a walk four blocks longer.”

The article tells of the petition submitted to the city council to prevent the building of the Northern Pacific depot on the present location. J. M. Keith was then mayor of the town. A. J. Urlin appeared before the council to plead against construction of the building.

“Opposition to the new station grew, because construction was pushed,” the article continues. “The Higgins brothers had the contract for erecting the station, and went ahead regardless of public opinion, as expressed by the residents of Urlin addition. The Northern Pacific company backed them in their undertaking.

“Then came ‘Der Tag.” The whole town was at the baseball game played between Spokane and the Missoula teams.

“As nearly as can be learned, the cause of the fire was the dastardly work of some fiends,” comments The Daily Missoulian of July 14, 1896. “When the fire first broke out, the odor of coal oil could be distinctly discerned. The dark smoke at the beginning of the fire was another indication, for there was no material in the building to cause it. Other things which point to the work of a fire bug are numerous other fires which have been set during the past few weeks. By some it is claimed that a man was seen in the building a few minutes before the fire; if so no one can be found who is willing to come forward and point that man out . . .”

The building was being constructed at a cost of $30,000. There was no insurance on the building which was later rebuilt by the Northern Pacific company.

Thus were two important battles waged over the mapping of a single street in Missoula, so you see, it’s a long story, that of the city’s streets.


Last Updated on Saturday, 29 December 2012 16:47