In 1860, C.P. Higgins and Francis Worden built a trading post they called Hell Gate along the Mullan Road west of present-day Missoula, taking advantage of an almost empty stretch of the well-traveled route.
The post was successful and Higgins and Worden expanded a few years later, building a flour and sawmill next to the Clark Fork River in what is now downtown Missoula.
Thus began the city of Missoula 150 years ago, said Nicole Brown, the curator of collections for the Historic Museum at Fort Missoula.
“Missoula’s pretty much been a business town since its inception,” Brown said. Higgins and Worden led the town, with sharp minds for industry critically shaping Missoula’s history.
Downtown is the best example of this history, Brown said. Higgins and Worden were able to bring in big businesses to a small area, making Missoula a hub for the entire state. It remains Montana's second-largest city, behind only Billings.
Businesses like the Missoula Mercantile helped Missoula grow, along with the jobs the mills provided. Brown said this growth made further expansion possible.
“Though downtown was really the center, neighborhoods spiraled out around [it],” Brown said. “People were able to be prosperous away from downtown.”
Fort Missoula was built on the outskirts of town in 1877, after townspeople requested protection from potential Indian conflicts, according to Fort Missoula’s website. The fort brought many contracts and jobs for local residents, and was the starting point for the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps in 1888.
The fort was decommissioned in 1947 and now houses the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, as well as a military museum and the offices of various state and federal agencies.
Downtown is still a central part of the city, Brown said, which reflects the original industry-minded founding of Missoula. “I think you can still feel that today,” she said.
Full of restaurants, bars, clubs and art galleries, downtown Missoula thrives, even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.
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The Oxford Saloon was started in 1883 and has been open 24/7 for so many years that there are supposedly no longer any keys to the doors.
Worden’s Market, Missoula’s first grocery store, specializes in a diverse wine, beer and food selection, as well as a full-service deli.
Today, Missoula spirals far from downtown, reaching the South Hills and into the Rattlesnake Valley. Hundreds of acres of city parks and many trails keep recreationists comfortable in the city limits.
The locally famous “M” trail on Mount Sentinel starts on the University of Montana campus and winds its way up to the concrete emblem, put in place in 1968, though a letter first appeared on the mountainside in 1908.
Missoula is also home to the Boone and Crockett Club’s national headquarters, located in the Old Milwaukee train depot near the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
The club, founded in 1887 by future president Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist George Bird Grinnell, created the first big-game scoring and record-keeping, and is devoted to the practice of ethical, sustainable hunting, according to the club’s website. The headquarters, occupied by the club in 1993, displays a few current and former world-record bears, sheep, deer and even a yak.
For camping and larger spaces to play, the Lolo National Forest adjoins Missoula in three different places: Pattee Canyon, Blue Mountain and the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, giving outdoorsy types access to miles of trails for day hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding.
Located just 15 miles north of Missoula, the Flathead Reservation extends over 1.2 million acres. The reservation covers about half of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the West, and features Salish language translations on road signs and markers.
The lake itself is only about an hour from Missoula, making for a reasonable day trip or weekend camping.
For more information on recreation in and near Missoula, visit the Missoulian’s trail guide, Lolo National Forest’s website and the city of Missoula’s website.