- 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
In 1806, after a rough winter on the coast, Lewis and Clark came tramping back through Montana on their return trip. According to the journals, they bivouacked again at the hot springs south of town known as Traveler’s Rest, and there the two captains split the party, with Lewis heading northeast along the route of what the Flathead hunters called the Buffalo Road. Lewis was rafting supplies cross river at a “rapid and difficult part of it crouded [ sic ] with several small islands and willow bars” when he dumped his raft, soaking his chronometer. Arriving sopping wet on the bank, he likely continued east, down what is now Main Street, past the future site of the Union Club Bar, the Adult Entertainment Center, the Taco Bell, and the Fitness Dome, finally entering the narrow canyon later called Hell Gate, till he arrived at the Blackfoot River and a trail so prominent that, as the local tribes put it, “even a white man couldn’t miss the way.”
I think of what it must have been like to cover the incredible distances the corps did. While many of us have put in our weekends on these same rivers, the truth is, any bozo can go downstream with his raft and dogs and brewskis. But nobody paddles west against these currents. Nobody bushwhacks, pushes, poles, and drags fully loaded keelboats mile after mile through insect-ridden, rattlesnake-infested, gumbo-clotted Missouri River banks.
Today locals dote on just about anything to do with Lewis and Clark. People find these accounts inspiring for the sheer understated courage of the adventure, charming for Clark’s ingenuous spellings. But mostly, I think, people here read them because in all their naiveté and earnestness, these nineteenth-century adventurers were pretty much dumbstruck, as we all were when we first arrived here. To this day there are no better-selling books in the area than just about anything to do with Lewis and Clark, who have become namesakes of, among other things, a grade school, a taxidermy studio, and a complete line of bottom-shelf liquors, guaranteed to put you in an exploratory frame of mind.
More than 190 years past the Corps of Discovery, I stand at the ground level of my basement window and look across a back yard that was once prime terrain for the bitterroot, a lilylike flower with a tuberous root. The Flatheads mixed this root with berries, mixed it with venison and buffalo jerky, mixed it with about everything they ate. They honored the bitterroot with ritual harvests and celebrated it in ceremonies. Said to be so bitter it could induce nausea, like so many things about this place the bitterroot was definitely an acquired taste. But this nearly unpalatable plant with its gorgeous pink flower sustained the Flatheads for centuries.
If the great flood cycles of the Ice Age can be seen as an epic, a kind of geological Gone With the Wind , then the less than two hundred years of Anglo-inflicted change seem speeded up, almost superficial, like some animated feature about termites chewing away at a giant log.
The initial influx of traders and adventurers arriving in the early nineteenth century gave way to less nomadic fortune seekers: gold miners, timber barons, and the like, the vanguard of the coming flood of settlers and merchants. Missoula was an emerging town in the American outback, connected to the nation by the Northern Pacific and eventually by the Milwaukee Road too. When World War I came, Missoula’s volunteer rate was 25 percent over what was called for. Montana had the highest per capita casualty rate of any state in the Union.
By the end of the Great War, the twentieth century had come to stay, which led Jeannette Rankin, the Missoula girl who became the first woman member of the House of Representatives, to observe in an interview: “People have to conform so much today. In the old days we did what we pleased....”
Twentieth-century Missoula was first a workingman’s town, a timber town that coexisted with a large university, and this combination would give the city a certain earthy gentility. Indeed, for more than a century the timber industry seemed at the heart of Missoula, from the state-of-the-art Smoke Jumper Center at Johnson Bell Field to the annual Forester’s Ball at the University of Montana, where spirited timber beasts sometimes emptied their Colt pistols into the gymnasium ceiling. In the years following World War II, production soared. Loggers razed the western Montana mountainsides, trying to keep up with the unprecedented postwar housing boom. But by the 1970s, about the same time the great Butte copper veins were beginning to slow their output, it started to occur to foresters that while it took forty years to grow a timber tree on the coast, it took well over a hundred around here. In the recession of 1982 the timber market took a dive it would never recover from. Mills began to close. Downtown Missoula staggered. The real estate market went down hard and didn’t stir again until about 1990, when another wave of beleaguered city dwellers began to show up, this time from the West Coast. Many are successful retirees, many have brought their jobs with them, but the effect has been to boost the price of homes beyond the reach of locals who soldier along with the Missoula economy, the people who have lived here all along.