- Historic Sites
Nourished by powerful rivers and an equally powerful sense of its past, a town of cowhands and poets and bikers and professors distills the whole history of the American West—its hope and rapacity, its calamities and triumphs. Fred Haefele makes clear why our third annual American Heritage Great American Place Award goes to…
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Fifteen thousand years ago my study here on the Missoula valley floor in Montana was seriously underwater. The peaks surrounding me—today the launch pads for hang gliders—were a string of islands, an archipelago in Glacial Lake Missoula. Two hundred miles downstream, in Idaho, the river we now call the Clark Fork was blocked by glaciers, and when it swelled to about the size of Lake Ontario, the ice dam ruptured, releasing what has been described as “the greatest flood of known geologic record.” A two-thousand-foot wall of water ripped west all the way to the Columbia River, blasting millions of acres of silt hundreds of miles downstream. In the waning centuries of the Ice Age, the dam re-formed, the lake bed refilled, and it happened all over again. This valley filled and emptied at least thirty-six times, and with a dusting of snow, striations of old shoreline pop out on the west face of Mount Sentinel like the whorls on a topographical map.
Even today, the hydrodynamics that shaped the place color our lives, dreams, and literature.
It is as if there was something here that needed purging. The writer John Hutchens describes growing up in Missoula with “the feeling of big events, in the past or to come. Nature, huge and sometimes ominous, was just outside the door.” Perhaps it gave the Salish Indians a similar feeling, for they called this place In Mis sou let ka, “the rivers of awe.” In any case, I believe the relentless hydrodynamics that shaped this place—the scores of buildings up and burstings forth—have long been part of the collective unconscious of its inhabitants, that even today the dream of flood trickles into our lives, dreams, and literature.
At the end of the century, the Missoulians who are happiest here, I venture, are the people who live to be outdoors. If all the Subarus with their ski racks fail to convince you of this, then check out some of the vanity plates, with their cryptic allusions to the licensees’ particular enthusiasms: ELKSKR, HOOKNEM, SNOJONZ, O2BHIKIN .
With the Rattlesnake wilderness ten minutes north of town, there are hundreds of miles of hiking and hiking trails available at the drop of a suggestion. Fishermen from around the world make the pilgrimage to nearby Rock Creek, and the great rivers that course through town are irresistible to boaters, from the spring white-water season into the summer, when overnight canoe trips are for many an annual excursion.
In autumn, hunting season opens the door to a more serious kind of outdoor experience, and the question around town becomes: “Did you get your elk yet?” With a quarter-million acres of roadless area to pack into, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, only ninety minutes away, is a mecca for hunters, horseback riders, and outdoor types of every stripe.
When winter arrives, Missoula’s Snow Bowl is a first-rate ski area, just twenty minutes out of town. Then there are the larger ski areas like Big Mountain, a two- to three-hour drive north, and Big Sky, a four-hour drive southeast. The historical sites along the way include ghost towns, segments of the Lewis and Clark Trail, and, if you drive a bit farther, the battlefields at Big Hole and the Little Bighorn.
Must a Missoulian recreate constantly to make it all seem worthwhile? Well, no. My family and I ski sometimes and canoe when we can. But I can’t tell you what it does for the spirit just to know that it’s all right there.
In 1865 Missoula was established at the confluence of three rivers: the Clark Fork, the Bitterroot, and the Big Blackfoot. A flour mill was built along the Clark Fork’s north bank, and soon the little town was on its way. The plentiful timber and the unceasing demand for it by the railroad and mining industries eventually made Missoula a thriving lumber town.
By the end of the century the dirt streets had been paved, and buildings like the Palace Hotel, which still provides a kind of high-water mark for Missoula’s economic prospects, were erected. Electric trolleys ran the length of Higgins Avenue, and as the cars were routinely vandalized, it became clear that Missoula had entered the twentieth century. As if to underscore this, Fort Missoula, the old frontier garrison west of town, mustered a unit unlike any other before it. Made up entirely of black men, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps rode all the way to St. Louis before shipping out for the Spanish-American War.