In the dark, damp depths of the Hammond Arcade building on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street, Emy Scherrer directs attention to a shrine to one of the most notorious bars to blemish the streets of Missoula.
A poster announces the upcoming women wrestlers is on one wall behind a bar that's a relic from Spider’s Maverick Bar on Woody Street, and photographs of the shady James “Spider” McCullum line a pillar on the opposite side. With the glee of a historic preservation officer who recently found buried treasure, Scherrer explains how a few months ago a man in New Mexico contacted her after going through his garage and finding the relics of the old Missoula bar, which was torn down in 1994.
The treasures are now part of a downtown Missoula “Unseen Underground” walking tour, a collaboration among Downtown Missoula Partnership, the City of Missoula, and the Historic Preservation Commission. The weekly historical walking tour is one of two offered; the other is the River Walk tour, which will show Missoula’s history through three general influences — geology, transportation and urban development.
“Last September, we put together this tour,” Scherrer said as she started the Unseen Underground walk on Tuesday. “We thought we’d get 40 people, maybe 100, and had over 1,000 show up. It was really successful and really showed people in Missoula are interested and there is a need for this, for heritage tours to discover our past.”
She noted that it’s especially important to keep the historical and cultural legacies alive as new business construction rolls through the downtown area. The mix is readily apparent as tour leader John Sand with the Downtown Missoula Partnership heads north on the Higgins Avenue bridge, shouting at times over the hum of construction of a new Marriott Hotel at the former site of the historic Mercantile building.
The tour starts off with a discussion about the various exterior facades before walking past the modern art on the walls of the Dana Gallery and descending a narrow stairway into the basement, where thousands of paintings reside until they’re rotated through the gallery. To the west is a tunnel-turned-fallout shelter, which still holds boxes of crackers and long-forgotten documents.
“Stuff was stockpiled here in the '50s and '60s during the Cold War,” Sand said.
To the north is a bank vault with foot-thick walls and a “vault ventilation” system that provides fresh air if someone is trapped inside. North of that is the old Crystal Barbershop with tiled floors. Sand pauses and points to the ceiling, noting where the old steps used to rise up to the Broadway Street sidewalk.
As the tour heads through the alley behind the gallery, Sand relays the tale of a landowner north of the railroad depot on Higgins who — rumor has it — burned down the wooden structure while the entire town was at a ball game on the south side of the Clark Fork River. Christopher Higgins erected the depot because he thought it would present a beautiful end to his “grand boulevard.”
“The landowner to the north wanted connectivity to Higgins, and he couldn’t have that with the depot there,” Sand said. “They just rebuilt it.”
At the end of the alley, the juxtaposition of the old and the new is readily apparent where part of the Radio Central Building’s 1940s metal façade has been stripped away, revealing the original brick and wood molding, as well as columns from the 1890s on both sides of the main door.
The tour then moves into the Elks Lodge, which officially opened on New Year’s Day in 1912. Scherrer says to pay close attention to the number 11, a nod to the 11 p.m. toasts made to former members.
“This building, more than anything on the tour, exemplifies change over time,” Scherrer adds. “I have never seen such an altered building. It was completely remodeled in the 1940s and reopened in the '50s as a thoroughly modern building.”
Gone today are the barrel ceilings, as well as the original bar. But gasps arise as she flicks on the lights in the main hall, where seven red velvet seats sit atop a raised platform, and gold stars dot the ceilings.
“I can imaging evening gowns and music playing Frank Sinatra, while people dance underneath the gold stars,” said Aubrey Nilsen, who used to play in the basement gym as a child. “This is definitely full of things of importance that were done here.”
About an hour later, the tour ends in the basement of the Hammond Arcade, at Spider’s Maverick Bar. A sign on the bar notes that he wasn’t a “chap worth crossing,” a wrestler known as “a hard knock wife beater” who was bludgeoned to death with the blunt end of an ax in his own home. His body wasn’t discovered for a week.
Sand points out soot on the rock and brick walls of the lower level of the Hammond Arcade, a visual testimony to the 1933 fire that destroyed the original 1890-era four-story structure. Another favorite in the basement here is the old steam tunnel that shows how the area was heated historically, and through which John Wayne or Gary Cooper may have passed to escape from crowds.
Two large photographs, one of the original structure and one of the fire that took it down, hang on the walls. Also on display are items — a pre-1924 store catalog, a 44-star flag, a box for ladies’ nylons — found during the disassembling of the Mercantile building, as well as political cartoons and advertisements.
“I highly recommend the tour,” Nilsen said.
The tours will be offered Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. Prices range from $7 to $10 dollars and are open to people of all ages, but are not handicap-accessible.
Registration is open to the public at missouladowntown.com/tours/unseen-missoula.