The effects of a national recession and the lack of a railroad to transport goods teamed to keep Missoula’s growth slow during the rest of the 1870s and into the early 1880s. However, with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883, the village of approximately 400 boomed. In March of 1883 Territorial Governor, Benjamin Franklin Potts, approved a charter for the Town of Missoula. Businessmen C.P. Higgins, Francis Worden, and Washington J. McCormick owned most of the land to the west and north of the mill site. Together with A.J. Urlin, who owned property north of those businessmen’s holdings, they enticed the Northern Pacific into setting up its shops and division headquarters in Missoula by giving the railroad choice lots throughout the town site. Though the owners of Eddy, Hammond and Company had not given the Northern Pacific any property, their skillful political lobbying gained them the contract to supply ties and bridge timbers for the railroad, assuring financial security for the firm in the near future. Under the direction of Hammond, crews cut massive amounts of timber around Missoula, especially up the Blackfoot River corridor. Hammond, Eddy and Bonner joined other wealthy investors, including Marcus Daly of the Anaconda Company and principals in the Northern Pacific Railroad, in forming the Montana Improvement Company. That company built an enormous sawmill along the Blackfoot River a few miles northeast of Missoula at a site named for Bonner. Supplying timbers for the construction of railroad bridges such as the Marent Trestle in 1883, a huge structure located near present-day Evero, and for the rapacious Butte mines, brought incredible wealth to those involved.
When the federal government initiated legal action to prosecute the investors for the illegal cutting of trees on public lands, Hammond and Eddy moved to protect their personal fortunes by incorporating the Missoula Mercantile Company to take the place of Eddy, Hammond and Company. Legal proceedings did little to slow the incredible pace of the timber harvest of the late 1880s. The timber industry in western Montana continued to grow as railroad branch lines extended into the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys. Charges against Hammond and the others were eventually dropped, and Missoula’s economy benefited directly from Hammond’s use of the city as his base of operations.
Copper King Marcus Daly also had business dealings in Missoula and at first joined with Hammond in such endeavors as the Montana Improvement Company, the First National Bank of Missoula, and the South Missoula Land Company, which intended to develop properties on the south side of the Clark Fork River. However, after a political falling out in 1889 Daly declared war on Hammond and his business enterprises, threatening to “make grass grow in the streets of Missoula.” Daly divested his interests in Hammond related projects and brought D.J. Hennessey’s department store to Missoula to compete with the Missoula Mercantile. After his attempts to thwart Hammond’s power in Missoula proper failed, Daly built a competing sawmill up the Bitterroot and turned his attention to the founding of Hamilton and the construction of a mansion and stock farm outside of that town.
The Northern Pacific Railroad’s arrival in Missoula in 1883 set off a frenzy of economic activity and population growth. A construction boom ensued and by the end of the decade grand commercial buildings such as the First National Bank and the Higgins Block created a big-city-like urban streetscape in the downtown. The railroad and its repair shops, located on the northern edge of the downtown, employed a large work crew and spurred the development of working class neighborhoods north of the tracks. This in turn, fueled a building boom of more upscale housing throughout other sections surrounding the commercial city center. As the businesses prospered, mansions appeared on the scene, especially along the streets of the newly platted areas south of the Clark Fork River. The Frances Worden family gained neighbors in their formerly rural feeling blocks along East Pine Street, just east of Higgins Avenue.
The commercial center of the downtown radiated from the intersection of Front Street and Higgins Avenue, the site of the Missoula Mercantile, the towering First National Bank, the castle-like Hammond Building and the Florence Hotel, all controlled by A. B. Hammond. Residential dwellings were scattered throughout the blocks to the east and west of that intersection with the highest concentration appearing to the east between Higgins and Rattlesnake Creek. As travelers entered Missoula along East Front Street, they passed by the lush gardens of Cyrus and William McWhirk. In 1885 a history of Montana referred to Missoula as “the very garden of all Montana.” Later, city boosters adopted the slogan of “The Garden City,” a name that has stuck since that time and appears on the official seal of the city.
As the decade of the 1880s waned, C.P. Higgins began construction of a bank building that would rival that of the First National Bank, owned by his business and political nemesis, A.B. Hammond. Hiring the highly respected architectural firm of Paulsen and McConnell from Helena to design the building, Higgins spared no expense in creating his monument. The result was a majestic mix of classical Richardsonian Romanesque and commercial Queen Anne styling that became a Missoula landmark that remains today. Overall the Higgins Block appeared as two buildings, with the corner bank building featuring gray granite, beautiful Romanesque-arched windows, brown terra cotta banding and a copper clad domed turret. The section to the north, which became the home of the D.J. Hennessy Mercantile Company, shared a common wall with the bank building but contrasted distinctly due to its polychrome red brick exterior, Italianate style balconies, and a squared tower with a tent shaped roof. Missoula had never seen such a dazzling building. In 1889 C.P. Higgins fell ill and died before the doors opened on his gift to Missoula’s downtown.
By the late 1880s there was no doubt that Missoula had established itself as the trade center of western Montana. Led by A.B. Hammond, the Missoula Mercantile dominated mercantile trade throughout a huge area of influence, with satellite stores springing up from the Bitterroot Valley to the shores of Flathead Lake. The Missoula Mercantile Company became one of the largest mercantile enterprises between Minneapolis and Seattle. The political power that flowed from such a business loomed over Missoula for decades.
With the construction of bridges over the Clark Fork River, Missoula developers began to look to the south of the river for building sites. In 1889 only a few houses existed there, but within a couple of years two subdivisions, South Missoula and the Knowles Addition had been platted. In direct conflict with each other in the directional alignment of their streets, these two subdivisions created a confusing and frustrating clash that confounds and irritates both visitors and residents of the city to this day.
Architects such as A.J. Gibson arrived on the Missoula scene in the late 1880s. The general prosperity, attributed mostly to the railroad, gave Gibson the opportunity to design hospitals, office buildings, mansions and average-to-small size houses. Brick from three local brickyards provided building materials to replace structures lost during two major fires that swept through the heart of the business district in 1884 and 1892. Missoula was transforming itself from a town to a city.