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County documentation project revealing, mapping Missoula’s history

The Worden and Co. Flouring Mill Located at the base of the Higgin’s Street Bridge (Circa 1890)

When Tin Cup Joe was accused of killing horse in 1862, Baron O’Keeffe took him to court in Bolte’s saloon and sought to recover the cost of his horse – a sum placed at $40.

As history tells it, chaos ensued and punches were thrown but in the end, the Hell Gate jury ordered O’Keeffe – not Tin Cup Joe – to pay the $40 fine, along with the cost of the $50 trial.

And so went the first lawsuit ever filed in the Missoula Valley.

The story and others like it are part of a new documentation effort under way at the Missoula County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. While a portion of the project is dedicated to property information and streamlining the development process, the historical anecdotes uncovered along the way were too good to pass up.

“We’re mapping all historical documents and on top of that, we’re just creating a platform to house historical data and historical information to give places a broader audience than they would have otherwise,” said Sam Scott with the recorder’s office. “Between the historical components and tech reporting side, we’re starting to see a complete picture of Missoula from 1865 to today.”

The project, called Waypoints, represents a collection of historical narratives about Missoula County. It blends the interpretation of local history with an archive of resources held in Map Missoula – another piece of the project that pinpoints certain histories.

Patrick Swart, a technician at the recorder’s office and a recent University of Montana graduate, has helped author the project.

“Those Sandborn maps are pretty interesting,” Swart said of the old city maps. “They’re the old fire maps usually from the late 1800s early 1900s that show block by block what was there. It’s a cool thing to add to this mapping feature.”

Frank Woody and E. S. Paxon standing in from of the original Worden & Co. Store in Hell Gate (Date Unknown)

The Waypoints project also tells the story of the first trading post established in the valley by Frank Worden and Christopher Higgins. The two followed the Mullan Road west to the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork River in the 1860s, where they established the Worden & Co. trading post and other ventures.

“For the next decade, Worden and Higgins dominated the local Missoula economy with their grist mill being ‘the greatest feature of the new town,’” the excerpt reads. “But competition was not far behind and soon other stores established a presence in the budding frontier town.”

Over the past three months, the team at the recorder’s office has already mapped nearly 20,000 documents. While it accounts for only 3% of the available documentation, it has already provided “proof of concept” and helped achieve what the team set out to accomplish.

While that includes the more expeditious review of new housing projects, it also compiles a central archive of history sometimes used in the review process. They also plan to establish an internship with UM to help with the documentation effort.

“I’m currently working on a piece for the Missoula Street Railway Co. that is exploring the relations between technology and the changes in the built environment,” said Swart. “Our goal is to post new waypoints on a monthly basis. We see this as part of our offices public engagement efforts.”