As the geographic hub of five mountain valleys, the Missoula Valley was a natural travel corridor for Native Americans centuries ago. As Euro-Americans began to explore the western regions of the continent, they followed the clearly established Native American trails. The most recognized exploration party was that of Lewis and Clark who traversed Montana during their 1804-06 expedition with Meriwether Lewis spending time near present day Lolo at Travelers Rest in July 1806.
Decades later, with the signing of the Hellgate Treaty, native populations throughout western Montana were relocated onto much smaller tracts of land. Reservations in the Flathead Valley and to a lesser extent, in the Bitterroot Valley, were created. As a result of the treaties and land acquisition, building a railroad through the Missoula Valley seemed assured.
During this timeframe, Christopher P. Higgins, a young Irishman who had served as wagon master for a survey party, believed strongly in the potential of the Missoula Valley to become a major trading center. In the summer of 1860, Higgins and his business partner, Francis L. Worden, who owned a general store in Walla Walla, Washington, brought mules loaded with supplies to the Missoula Valley.
While Higgins, Worden, and their clerk Frank Woody worked to establish their store, Lieutenant John Mullan pushed ahead with construction of a military road connecting Fort Walla Walla in Washington to Fort Benton, located at the end of river traffic on the Missouri in Montana. Mullan’s Military Road followed the main Salish trail passing within feet of the Worden and Higgins trading post in the summer of 1860. Soon other buildings began to be constructed around the trading post and the cluster became known as Hell Gate Village.
Hell Gate soon grew to around a dozen buildings and in December of 1860 it became the Missoula County seat. During the next few years, Hell Gate prospered as prospectors headed through the valley for the gold fields at Gold Creek. And, as envisioned, a railroad did indeed come to Missoula in the form of the Northern Pacific Railroad. When this occurred in 1883, the village of approximately 400 boomed.
A history of Montana in 1885, 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. By the late 1880s, Missoula had established itself as the trade center of western Montana.
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, subdivisions were growing under the influence of architects such as A.J. Gibson who 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.
Another major contributor to Missoula’s growth occurred in 1893 when Missoula was selected by the Legislature to be the site of the new state university. From that point on, Missoula was respected as a center of higher education.
The effects of the national economic panic of 1893 did not reach Missoula until about 1895. Despite economic setbacks, the city continued to slowly grow outward, and as Missoula entered the new century, it boasted a population of over 4,000 residents.
During the first decade of the 1900s, Missoula boomed again, primarily as the result of railroad expansion by the Northern Pacific, a nationwide increase in the demand for lumber products, and improved agricultural methods and machinery. WWI had little economic effect on Missoula other than to increase demand for agricultural products and to make labor more expensive.
Missoula continued a slow but steady growth during the teens and the twenties. Primarily a trade center that reached out for a 150-mile radius, the city’s economy was diversified due to the the railroad, the University, lumber and flour mills, and the presence of the Forest Service and other governmental agencies. The balanced economy and the presence of governmental agencies lessened the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s on Missoula, and its economy remained solid during the World War II years.
Like most cities throughout the country, Missoula experienced a post-war residential housing boom as soldiers took advantage of the GI Bill. Enrollment at the University also increased as a result of the educational benefits related to that legislation.
Missoula has continued to grow and prosper during the 1990s and into the new century. While the lumber industry has waned and governmental staffing decreased, an increase in medical related facilities and service industries helped fill the gap. No matter the conditions imposed on it, Missoula and its residents have always found a way – and will continue to do so – to foster the treasured land and resources of “The Garden City.”