042711 historic places
A “Wobbly” is hauled off the soapbox by police during the re-enactment of the scene from 1909. "Free speech corner" near the Florence Building in downtown Missoula was added to the National Register of Historic places. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian KURT WILSON/Missoulian

The old Ceretana Grain Elevator on Sherwood Street towers over it.

Two railroads central to Missoula's development help define it.

There are yet more reminders of the old Missoula Mercantile Co.'s omnipresence a century ago, and of the powerful Anaconda Co.'s influence.

Missoula's ambling downtown historic district was stretched another several blocks to the northwest in mid-April with formal recognition by the National Park Service, which added the West Side Railroad District to the National Register of Historic Places.

It's the second amendment to the National Register's Missoula Downtown Historic District, which was approved in September 2009 after six years of work.

On Feb. 7, the Park Service added Free Speech Corner at the foot of the Florence Building, at Higgins Avenue and West Front Street.

The railroad district addition is tucked into a convoluted A-shaped region west of Orange Street.

"Fundamentally what happened was we had a certain amount of money to do the downtown historic district," said Philip Maechling, preservation officer in the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants. "We didn't have enough to contract it to do all the way to essentially the northwest corner of the railroad tracks, the Bitterroot Branch, so we ended up drawing a line down the middle of Railroad Street and Toole Avenue."

When another $6,000 became available from the historic preservation budget, Maechling went ahead and did the documentation work for the new districts.

The West Side Railroad District addition extends the original downtown district into parts or all of eight blocks - 18 acres worth - and includes 41 properties and 34 contributing resources.

Maechling's nomination hails the Ceretana grain elevator, built in 1929, as the new area's signature landmark. The elevator was originally part of the Missoula Merc's business empire, as were brick warehouses on Milton Street. The main Merc building itself, which rose in prominence in the 1880s, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1990.

The Ceretana, of late an art gallery, "is one of the last complete grain elevators in western Montana, and the only remaining railroad grain elevator in Missoula County," the nomination states. "Its two towers, each more than 50 feet in height, form a distinct geometric mass on the cityscape of Missoula's downtown historic district."

Also of note is a 25-foot wooden gateway into the old Anaconda Co. lumber yard at 506 Toole, "a well-worn relic of this early industrial period," according to the nomination.

The two railroads - the original Northern Pacific mainline along the north border and the NP's Bitterroot Branch on the west - are still in use and operated by Montana Rail Link.

***

Free Speech Corner was added to the National Register earlier this year as a contributing site to the downtown historic district, at the same time St. Francis Xavier School was removed. The school was demolished last year.

The genesis of Free Speech Corner began in September 1909, a time of widespread labor abuse and unrest. The fledgling Industrial Workers of the World were intent on organizing timber, lumber and mining workers to fight for their rights as one worldwide union.

They staged the first free speech battle at the busy Missoula corner, filling city jails to overflowing and ultimately forcing city leaders to abolish an ordinance against disruptive speaking on public streets. The IWW used similar tactics to carry on the free speech fight for nearly a decade.

The "Wobblies" were led in Missoula by a pregnant Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who would become a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union; Gurley Flynn's husband Jack Jones; and Frank Little, whose lynching in 1917 in Butte was perhaps the most notorious event of the IWW's early history.

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