Christopher P. Higgins came to the Missoula Valley in the mid-1950s as wagon master for the Stevens survey. Isaac Stevens, governor of WashingtonTerritory, directed the survey of the Bitterroot and MissoulaValleys, assisted by John Mullan, who commanded the survey during winter 1853-54. The mapping was required for the planned construction of a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The construction of the railroad and the promotion of western resource development also required that the United States gain clear title to what was then the unceded territory of various Indian tribes. Initiated by Stevens, the treaty intended to combine the three tribes onto a single reservation and cede the remainder of tribe territories to the United States. The Hellgate Treaty, witnessed by Higgins, was signed July 15, 1855.
Higgins applied to operate a trading post in the MissoulaValley area because of the opportunities offered by the prospect of Missoula's central location among the trails and roads that would surely follow the railroad. By 1860, Higgins and his partner Francis L. Worden, owner of a general merchandise store in Walla Walla, Washington Territory, and a young clerk, Frank Woody, arrived along with six dozen mules loaded with supplies.
Mullan led the construction of a military road from FortWalla Walla east to Fort Benton, Montana Territory. Mullan's Military Road reached the MissoulaValley in summer 1860. Its route influenced the location of Higgins and Worden's trading post, which was about four miles west of present-day Higgins Avenue along the Mullan Road. The general area known for years as Hellgate Ronde soon became the village of Hellgate. Hellgate never grew beyond a dozen buildings during its short existence, but it represented the beginning of prosperity for Higgins and Worden.
Higgins and Worden recognized the need for mills to provide construction-grade lumber and to grind into flour the grain beginning to be harvested in the Missoula and BitterrootValleys. Joined by millwright David Pattee, Worden and Higgins first built a sawmill and then a gristmill a few hundred yards east of where the HigginsAvenueBridge stands today. Along with the mill construction in winter 1865-66, Worden and Company also built a structure along Front Street (currently Front Street and Ryman Street corner) for their business. Soon other businesses appeared on Front Street and the community of Missoula Mills was on its way.