*Follow current course opportunities and research related to Missoula’s Historic Underground with this Facebook link!
A Follow Up to March First Friday in Missoula!
TOPIC: “What Lies Beneath? Missoula’s Historic Underground Project
Presenters: Kelly Dixon, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Montana and Nikki Manning, graduate student in archaeology.
Location: Missoula’s historic Mercantile building, accessed from Pattee Street
Time: 5:00-8:00, free admission. Additional events to be announced!
MY JOURNEY: I don’t often get the chance to enjoy a First Friday in person, simply because of the FRIDAY part. At Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast, the weekends mean we have wonderful new people to meet and greet. However, there is nothing I love more than local history, especially when served up on a platter full of mystery. So on this particular First Friday, Brady volunteered to stay home on his own. For me, this meant treat night and time to dig up a little bit of Missoula’s past for myself. AND YES, I savored every “dish” served.
My Missoula First Friday adventure started on Front Street, where much of Missoula’s early history began. With not a hint of Chinese influence in the area now, my friend and I opted for a 21st Century ethnic option. So El Cazador it was, a very tasty and reasonably priced choice for Mexican food when you consider just how far north of the boarder we actually are!
Next, it was just a hop, skip and jump down the block to the old Missoula Mercantile building. Tonight’s First Friday “menu” offered up something very different- a taste of Missoula the way it was over one hundred years ago.
Our “multi-course meal” started with an appetizer of slides and a mini lecture. The “chefs” served up some fascinating archaeological tidbits to a group of guests that far outnumbered the expected count. The conclusion?… Missoulian’s truly hunger for those well-kept mysteries that lie deep beneath our oldest city streets.
Save the best for last is right! The final course of the evening was a real treat indeed! Yes, dessert, sweet dessert- you don’t get the opportunity to venture into the basement level of one of Missoula’s oldest buildings on just any given night!
*An 1888 Sanborn Insurance Co. map shows rows of “female boarding houses” (brothels) along Front Street above the Clark Fork River.
*Plans show steam tunnels running from the Clark Fork River to the Rail Road Depot near the X’s. Were offshoot tunnels added and used for more secretive purposes?
*Was there really a tunnel from the Merc to the Florence Hotel, specifically used by John Wayne for the purpose of privacy (the John Wayne tunnel)?
*Were the Chinese responsible for creating certain tunnel offshoots, possibly using them as opium dens?
*Were hidden tunnels once used to move money from a vault beneath the Merc?
*How many secret passages still lie beneath old Missoula buildings and streets, buried in time?
In truth, I’d say this “culinary” adventure read more like a mystery dinner, with guests dying to get their hands on secret ingredients and left over clues. But, like any good mystery, as the evening came to a close, there were many lingering questions. The sweet search for truth? -Far from over for all of us, including the “chefs” themselves!
Of course the question of who actually built and accessed Missoula’s underground more than one hundred years ago is still something which can only be revealed through additional digging!
Were the tunnels simply used for the city’s heating system, or did they act as corridors- connecting individuals to certain “forbidden fruits? Stories of Chinese opium dens, Prohibition era speakeasies, and houses of ill-repute abound.
One of the core beliefs behind this project is the importance of finding facts to back up the speculative stories that continue to float around. So you might say “the true meat and bones” of the study has involved a lot of digging both above and below ground. To decipher fact from fiction, Dixon’s fifteen person archaeology survey class did a lot of sifting through the dusty, archival history records contained in the Mansfield Library. In addition, the group successfully contacted businesses that still have hidden spaces linked directly to the mysteries of Missoula’s underground.
After five months of searching, this unique team did indeed find some intriguing evidence, including what is believed to be Chinese writing on the wall of one underground basement area.
They say they have yet to find any physical evidence of opium dens or speakeasies, but with continued digging, who knows what may be revealed. And more digging is exactly what is planned! In fact, if you have a personal story or experience that you’ve been holding onto, this is the time to share it. You never know which little tidbits of information might help solve the larger puzzle. Every great cook knows that it takes the simmering of many key, fresh ingredients to create a truly wonderful stew! The University of Montana and the city of Missoula has truly hit a gold mine. How fortunate to have associate professor Kelly Dixon’s creative vision and educational leadership. Her eagerness to include the broader community in research and hands-on experiences benefits the past and future of our city in so many ways! With the help of retired Missoula historic preservation officer- Philip Maechling, graduate student in anthropology- Nikki Manning and others, we are well on our way to uncovering some of Missoula’s most fascinating mysteries. Welcome to an all you can eat history buffet, Missoula!
As a kid, I remember walking over purple-colored glass bricks on at least one side-walk area of downtown Missoula. The original purpose of the glass was to allow light in from the streets above. During the 1980’s, various openings to the underground network were closed off because of security and safety reasons. Now, access can be found from a few basements in the business district but are not open to the public.
RESOURCES, ARTICLES AND OPPORTUNITIES RELATED TO: Missoula’s Historic Underground Project
If you would indeed like to take part in this mouth watering Missoula mystery, feel free to dig in because there are many opportunities to do so!
*If you have historical information to contribute to this project please contact Dixon or Manning by email or phone using this link.
*Additional First Fridays will offer archaeological tours, which should make the experience more intimate. The crowds were a bit overwhelming this first time for sure, but helped establish how important history experiences like this are to our community.
*A University of Montana course (4 optional credits), will open to eager summer learners; you are never too old to get your hands dirty by going underground! So, whether you are a recent high school graduate or a senior within the community, you can jump at this unique opportunity.
-We will offer discounts here at Blue Mountain Bed and Breakfast for those who mention participating in this course or other history-related activities. We are also happy to take you on a personal history tour of Missoula and the surrounding areas. If you are interested, please contact us as early as possible. If you enjoy looking for information on your own, follow the many links provided below and enjoy your wonderful journey!
*If you prefer to dig into Missoula’s underground (and above ground) history from your own living room, the following links with help you do so:
–Missoulian newspaper article “Survey begins to dig up history of Missoula’s underground”- reporter Martin Kidstom.
–The newly published, in-depth history of the Mercantile building by Minie Smith. From its log cabin beginnings through its growth as the largest department store between Minneapolis and Seattle in its hey day, the Merc has many fascinating stories.
-Learn more about the current renovation project within the Mercantile building.
-To find historic photos of Missoula, including the Mercantile please click on this link!
-Additional reading about the Merc and other Missoula beginnings from Lowell School.
-Interesting tidbits about early Missoula history from the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
-You can always take your own personal (above ground) walking tour of historic downtown Missoula.
-More about Missoula’s historic preservation of buildings.
*You may also enjoy following other archaeological projects within the state of Montana!