This may or may not be what Missoula was waiting to hear after the first archaeological survey of its enigmatic underground, but ...

There are no critters in the basement of the Missoula Mercantile.

“We didn’t find a single spider the whole time we were down there, which we all thought was a little strange,” Nikki Manning was happy to report this week. “In this type of work you’re always looking for mouse droppings and things like that because of hantavirus. But we never found any evidence of mice at all.”

It was especially good news for Manning, who describes herself as both arachnophobic and claustrophobic.

She’s in a busy space between finishing a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Montana and tearing into her doctorate studies. With the urging of anthropology professor Kelly Dixon, Arcadia Publishing and The History Press of South Carolina, Manning turned her master’s thesis into a paperback book, “Historic Underground Missoula,” that was released Monday.

Manning will be signing her book and answering questions Saturday evening at Preserve Historic Missoula’s annual event in Heritage Hall at Fort Missoula.

She was part of all three of Dixon’s survey classes that explored and documented the basements and sidewalk vaults around eight buildings on Front and Main streets in Missoula’s historic downtown district. The first took place during fall semester of 2012, and the other two in 2013. In a foreword for the book, Dixon said roughly 50 students took part in what she called “a priceless opportunity for UM students.”

The empty Missoula Merc and the Hammond Arcade are on opposite sides of “power corner” at Higgins Avenue and Front Street. The student teams also went down West Front to look beneath the Top Hat before and after its recent restoration, Montgomery Distillery before it opened, Riverside Café before its ongoing transition into Notorious P.I.G. BBQ and MacKenzie River Pizza.

They migrated a block north to West Main to investigate the side-by-side basements of the LaFlesch Building and the head shop Piece of Mind. Longtime Missoulians may recognize the former, owned by Jay and Stephenie LaFlesch, as the bars Jay’s and Jay’s Upstairs.

“We’ve never not had cooperation” from owners and tenants of the businesses, said Manning, who grew up in Pennsylvania and came to UM in 2011 from Boston University to pursue a master's in anthropology.

Her book, which makes liberal use of black and white photos of the project, provides fascinating glimpses into Missoula’s past though not, as such, the Holy Grail.

“That’s still missing,” Manning said. “Sometimes I think maybe it doesn’t exist, and other times I think there’s something interesting here, I just don’t know what it is quite yet.”

***

It wasn’t her intention to myth bust or “to find the seedy underbelly of Missoula,” Manning added. But while it was always on their radar, the teams didn’t uncover any opium dens or underground Chinese networks, despite the prevalence of such stories in local lore.

There was certainly a Chinese community in Missoula that reached its peak, according to census reports, in the 1880s and 1890s, Manning said. It was replete with people who, like all segments of the population, ran the gamut from colorful to anonymous, and it was concentrated to an extent west of the 100 block of West Front.

“The Chinese connection was a question that we had in the beginning, but we haven’t really found anything to support the Chinese in Missoula even had a reason to run around underground to hide,” Manning said. “While it wasn’t the greatest for them anywhere in the West, Missoula doesn’t seem to have been that bad for them.”

Among the nuggets Manning and the UM teams did uncover was an extensive underground railroad system, replete with tracks, that run around and through crawl spaces in the basement of the Missoula Mercantile.

It’s accessed in just a couple of places, and only by small openings that Manning said you have to climb up into. Two students stayed after class one day in the fall of 2013 to explore the system that Kelli Casias then mapped. There is more than 630 feet of track. The longest straight stretch of 107 feet runs just inside the exterior south wall parallel to Front Street.

The light-gauge rails resemble a mining cart track, and they remain mostly intact. If they were for moving dirt or merchandise, why weren’t there more openings to the rest of the basement? Manning wondered.

“That’s the part we can’t figure out. It doesn’t really go anywhere,” she said.

***

Then there’s the graffiti in the basement of Piece of Mind, a small smoke shop at 123 W. Main. The building’s owner, Jim Caras, invited the team to take a look at it. The writing appears to be in Chinese, English and perhaps some Japanese. Remnants of a Chinese banner are also in the cellar.

Manning said she’s had six people steeped in the Chinese language examine the scratchings, which are pictured in her book. But there’s no consensus in what it says. It could be, she was told, a form of shorthand.

A local Chinese tutor made out words like “wood” and “cow” or “ox,” and the word for “ghost” appears several times. “Ghost” could mean something of a supernatural nature, Manning said, but it is also a Cantonese slang term for non-Chinese people.

“One of the Chinese studies people at the university thought that the cow/ox word along with ‘ghost” could actually mean ‘ghost demon,’ so that’s a little creepy,” Manning said.

Contrast that to a 1958 Missoulian article in which the resident expert had no problem with the translation.

“It was, like, ‘It’s great to be in America. It’s the garden of Eden. We’re happy for the opportunity,’ " Manning said. “I just thought that’s a very drastic difference, so I don’t know what to go with.”

The most puzzling part, though, is that neither of the team’s most reliable reference tools, Sanborn Insurance maps or Polk City Directories, have any mention that the building was occupied by a Chinese restaurant, as is commonly believed.

As anthropologists, Manning and her teams look for what’s usual as well as what’s not. For a better perspective on Missoula’s underground, she wants to expand her research to other cities known for their underground communities such as Havre, Butte, and Seattle.

“I don’t necessarily think we had any kind of conspiracy going on here or anything,” Manning said. “I think it was just the use of space in an urban area and how it adapts over time.”

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