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The view from the bluff: Lives and games played out around Milltown Dam for a century

The view from the bluff: Lives and games played out around Milltown Dam for a century

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Cars, SUVs, trucks and buses lined both sides of Deer Creek Road for most of a mile on March 28, 2008.

A tailgate atmosphere prevailed on the snowy, windy overlook above as some 750 adults and children gathered to watch the breaching of Milltown Dam.

On the riverbank below, a hundred invited public figures were on hand when Gov. Brian Schweitzer commanded, “Let 'er run.”

Up on the bluff, people opened picnic lunches, and dogs in bandannas ran around. One man fired up a grill. Only the lucky or pushy ones in front could see the memorable moment at 11:30 a.m. on a Friday when a backhoe lifted the last plug of dirt that held the river back.

It was a scene reminiscent of another time, same bluff, 75 years earlier.

A bonfire kept the early evening chill away. The University of Montana’s Forestry School’s annual spring picnic of 1933 had gone co-ed a couple of years earlier, so budding foresters, engineers and their dates did their best to keep warm.

That Sunday afternoon had been one of beer and baseball, horseshoes, and a horse-packing contest in which Howard Welton “easily took the honors,” according to Lloyd Hague’s account in the 1934 Forestry Kaimin. Hague reported that more than 30 boys had donned corked boots and stagged shirts for a log-rolling contest on the pond at the east base of the bluff.

“The twisting log proved to be too much for the boys, but it did prove that the School is turning out better swimmers, if not log-rollers, every year,” Hague remarked.

The aroma of roasted meat and coffee beckoned the cavorters. When camp cook “Dad” DeJarnette of the regional Forest Service office called “Let 'er go,” the hungry foresters and friends dug in.

Afterward, the campfire was stoked and the singing began. Arthur Stone, dean of the School of Journalism and good friend of the Forestry School, was called upon for a story. He talked of the historical events that had passed through the valley below the picnic grounds — the centuries of travel to and from tribal hunting grounds, Meriwether Lewis’ ride up the Blackfoot in 1806, John Mullan’s winter camp at Milltown, perhaps even Charles Lindbergh’s spin over Bonner in the Spirit of St. Louis six years before.

Hague’s account paid no notice to the power dam that had been churning out electricity to the city of Missoula for a quarter of a century.

Nobody ever paid much attention to Milltown Dam itself, except in 1908 when it first went in, when it went out in high water a few months later, and when it was removed 100 years after that.

By 1900, Missoula had its railroad and its university, but lagged years behind Great Falls, Helena and Butte in electrical capacity. The idea of a hydroelectric dam on the Clark Fork River that could power streetcars around town had been bandied about by city fathers for at least a decade. It took a Butte man, copper and railroad magnate William A. Clark, to get it done.

In the middle of his lone six-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, Clark bought the Missoula Light and Power Co. and some 600 acres at and above the confluence of the Blackfoot and Missoula rivers, and in 1905 set his forces to work.

“The completion of the plant means much for Missoula and the surrounding country, as it is our intention to shortly construct a street railway system in your beautiful town,” Clark’s longtime lieutenant in Butte, Arthur Wethey, told the Daily Missoulian three years later.

The flood of the century in June of 1908 set back the timetable for Missoula’s streetcar system, which wasn’t launched until May 1910. It also piled up sediment containing heavy metals like arsenic, copper and cadmium behind Clark’s dam, setting the stage for its demise a century later.

***

Rita Thibodeau Lavoie (1905-1999) could have shown those UM forestry students of the 1930s a thing or two about rolling a log.

Lavoie was the first girl born in Milltown, which was first called Riverside and was nicknamed “Finntown.”

Her father, Fred Thibodeau, was a river man from New Brunswick. Young Rita grew up birling (rolling) logs on the Blackfoot spur of the reservoir, where Clark’s mill held them to be conveyed up a slip to the saws.

Lavoie was asked in a Montanans At Work oral history interview in 1981 to explain how you birled a log.

“Well, you’d just stand on them and get your feet going, make the log roll in the water. Go a pretty good speed. And then all of a sudden, why, you’d plant your feet on either side of the log real quick and throw your opponent off,” she said.

Most “river pigs” wore the caulked shoes of a logger, but Lavoie said she rolled barefoot.

“I didn’t know any different,” she told interviewer Mary Melcher.

She learned her rolling chops goofing around with the older boys in Milltown. In 1928 her proud father wanted to enter 15-year-old Rita in Missoula against a couple of men.

“My mother wouldn’t allow it, because I was too old,” Lavoie said with a laugh. “Wasn’t proper for girls to do things like that. You know, the frills and the bows and all that stuff — I couldn’t stand myself.”

Fred and Rita were “just sick” when they watched the two men birl.

“It wouldn’t have been anything to throw them off,” Lavoie said.

***

Riverside Park was going to be grander than Butte’s Columbia Gardens. That was the vision of W.A. Clark, who created both, as he moved his Western Lumber Co. mill to the west bank of the Blackfoot in 1911.

On a soft June Sunday that year, hundreds of Missoulians rode the street car to the new pleasure park near Clark's dam.

"Riverside Park is its name and the location — with a beautiful river on one side and a lake for boating on another, and so easily accessible from Missoula by street car — makes it doubly desirable," the next day's paper read.

The park had a good water supply and was to include "several miles of fine roadways," superintendent J. Bickenbach said. There were swings, a dance pavilion and a new baseball field. Riverside Park was dedicated the following Sunday at the statewide St. John's Day celebration.

It never rivaled the grandeur of Columbia Gardens, but for several years Riverside Park played host to picnics, band concerts, Indian powwows and the occasional Ku Klux Klan meeting. In 1913 the park served as the take-off point for Walter Beck's first airplane flight into Missoula.

***

The Montana Power Co. acquired Clark’s dam and associated companies in 1929 to add to its growing grid. The dam’s singular importance to Missoula diminished, but it still served as an active and important player on MPC’s system for decades to come.

Clark’s mill, located on the site occupied now by a Town Pump Truck Plaza and the River City Grill, was absorbed by the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. mill on the opposite side of the Blackfoot River. It sawed its last log in 1932, the same year Missoula’s electric streetcar system was supplanted by buses.

The reservoir and its banks were already becoming an unparalleled all-season play area.

“The Blackfoot River from below the Bonner mill, under the three bridges, on around the point and along the Clark Fork power pond up to the covered bridge was all skating territory,” the late Mildred Dufresne wrote in 1976.

Dufresne, who taught school in Bonner for 40 years and lived in Milltown, helped write the 1976 history book “A Grass Roots Tribute: The Story of Bonner, Montana.” She said in winters when there was an early cold snap and no snow, the skating route was “wonderfully clear.”

“If there was much snow, the skaters cleared the area near the bridges. Bonfires were built for warmth and for night skating. On Sundays many people from Missoula came on the streetcar to skate.”

Hockey teams from Fort Missoula, the university and the Missoula Falcons and Ice Kings came to play on a rink between the Blackfoot bridges in the early 1930s. Milltown’s team was largely populated by young Thibodeaus — Albert, Buzz, Ed, Fritz, Pat and Percy.

Willie Bateman, 89, has lived in the same house in Turah, 5½ miles up the Clark Fork, for most of his life. But there was a time as a young boy when he lived in Milltown, on the banks of the reservoir.

In his memoirs, Bateman wrote of the sledding run on McCormick Hill that ended down on the reservoir. It was an abandoned road built by Mullan in the desperately cold winter of 1861-62, when the Army lieutenant supervised construction of the first bridge over the Blackfoot. Interstate 90 supplanted the run in the 1960s.

“Boy, what a sledding hill,” Bateman wrote. “Some of the bigger kids would stomp the snow down, then carry water up in buckets and pour it on the trail. Then when it froze it would be solid ice all the way. You’d go out on the ice and go halfway across the river.”

Some of those whose homes lined the banks of the Blackfoot built docks and tied rowboats or motor boats to them. Fishing and pleasures excursions were common around the point to the maze of channels on the Clark Fork side. Removal of the dam left the docks high and dry, and ended those casual excursions.

Come summer the lower Blackfoot used to be a magnet for swimmers. The county’s “Black Bridge” is the uppermost of five that span the last mile of the river. A deep pool beneath it attracted daredevil jumpers and divers for much of the 20th century and beyond.

Romance, of course, always mixed with healthy, pungent doses of reality.

Those divers splashed into the cold river unmindful of pollution caused not by the heavy metals of upstream mines and smelters but raw sewage, waste and runoff from the Bonner mill and Milltown homes.

“Where we lived on the south side of the railroad, there was always the smell of garbage,” Batemen wrote. “The people that lived right along the river bank all had tin-lined chutes from the top of the river bank down to the shore line. It was easy to step out the back door, walk over to the chute and dump the garbage in it.”

In low water, he added, the garbage wouldn’t always make it to the reservoir.

“It would sit there until high water took it out in the spring,” Bateman wrote. “In those days there were no environmental regulations and people could do that. Nobody said or thought anything about it.”

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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