The railroad tracks have been gone for decades on the south banks of the Clark Fork through the heart of downtown Missoula, where nature trails, sports fields and open space now dominate the scene just upriver from the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
All that remains of the bygone era is a 100-year-old brick building. Once a bustling meatpacking warehouse, the building is now disguised outside in part by lush native plant landscaping and a fresh coat of paint. Its gaping loading docks on both ends are covered with windows so tenants can enjoy the open riverfront space all around it.
The historic Swift Building was the first and only structure in what railroad executives in the late 1890s hoped would turn into a grand waterfront warehouse district in downtown Missoula.
Instead, the building has survived to become a nonprofit hub where dozens of people go to work each day. While the days of the railroad seem distant in most ways, the Swift’s centenarian status will be celebrated this week by current owner, the Ecology Project International, or EPI, with a First Friday art show and party.
“We definitely feel like caretakers of the building, not just owners,” said Scott Pankratz, EPI executive director.
EPI purchased the building from sisters Judy and Lin Smith in 2009. The Smiths rescued and began renovating the abandoned brick building in 1980, helping to secure national historic register status and the open space around it. EPI has kept dusting off pieces of history inside it since the purchase, and now it and four other tenants call the Swift Building home.
Pankratz credits the Smiths for recognizing, renovating and preserving the piece of history that is the Swift Building, officially located at 315 S. Fourth St. E. At one point, neighborhood kids were dared to even walk past the abandoned brick mess, which they knew was once home to a tombstone maker. Its roof was caving in and no one was sure who owned it.
The Smiths tracked down the owners – the Milwaukee Railroad – and started to bring it back to life.
“Everything was in their hands. They just put so much love and care into the building,” Pankratz said, who bikes down the Kim Williams trail each day to work. “Now, it’s kind of the center of downtown.”
Although the railroad business came and left and the rest of the area broke down, the building itself remained unfailingly sturdy.
According to its national historic register plaque, the Swift Building was named for one of its first tenants, a national meat processor, the Swift Co.
Swift had perfected the refrigerated freight car and the Milwaukee Road rail company set up the Missoula Swift Building along the rail line spur running next to the Clark Fork River. The Milwaukee’s warehouse and freight yard sat directly next to the Higgins bridge.
The heavy timber used in the building is still visible throughout the interior, including 3-inch-thick fir beams that run through the three floors. The rebar-reinforced brick walls remain exposed inside the office space.
Both the timber and brick helped the building bear the massive weight from the heavy loads of meat and other products shipped there.
The building was occupied by Blair Transfer and Storage from 1927 through the 1960s. It then stood empty for many years until the Smiths decided to buy it from the Milwaukee Road. The sisters added interior wall in the building and when they sold it to Ecology Project International in 2009, the agreement stipulated that the nonprofit would continue to foster the spirit of historical preservation.
Since 2009, EPI has dubbed the space the Swift Center for Conservation Education and Environmental Collaboration. Five tenants share the space, and more importantly, a common goal and core values focusing on environmental conservation education, said Julie Osborn, EPI advancement director.
EPI is a nonprofit, educational organization that writes field courses and runs educational programs to help connect students with the outdoors by forming partnerships between local experts. Its Montana program takes students from across the state to Yellowstone National Park for an upclose experience with the land.
Organizations like the Watershed Education Network and Wild Rockies Field Institute rent space there. EPI has performed extensive remodels on the building in the past three years to help grow the center.
“The idea is to have a nonprofit center with the like-minded resources. ... We’re all working for a common goal, we’re small groups who can work together,” Osborn said. The top floor – which tenant Joan Scheffer calls “the nest” – was once the elevator shaft and possibly the warehouse’s offices.
Scheffer is a manager for Aerie Backcountry Medicine, which has long been a Swift tenant but only recently moved upstairs as more renovations took place. The windows in the Aerie offices give just a peek at the Clark Fork to the north, and open wide to the east and west.
Pankratz hopes one day to open “the nest” up further, adding a deck and conference room where the views are even better.
“We’ve got big ideas for this place,” he said.
EPI recently opened a community meeting space on the second floor. The room is dominated by the original brick walls of the warehouse, and is open for rent for any community groups searching for a place to meet. Recently, EPI has been hosting a roundtable for nonprofits to help further spur conversation about how their organizations can benefit Missoula.
Pankratz gets regular inquiries about open tenant space in the Swift Building. For now, it’s full.
“It’s an inspirational place that carries a lot of history,” Pankratz said. “You feel that when you’re working.”