Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s 1888 housing crisis left locals searching for shelter day and night

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

“The number of people looking to buy a home is at an all-time high,” said Brint Wahlberg, a Realtor with Windemere Real Estate, last Wednesday in addressing the Missoula Senior Forum. “Rates are low, so the ability to borrow money … is very easy right now, (but we have) record low supply.”

Just over a decade ago, he said, “as we got into the real estate bubble and the great recession, we stopped building homes at the rate we needed to just to meet population growth and we’ve never caught up.”

Interestingly, the housing shortage, and resulting skyrocketing prices for limited inventory in western Montana, is not a recent phenomenon.

Flash back to 1888. “People continue to hunt for vacant houses and rooms day and night.”

October 31, 1888

“Rents have been high for several years and investments in houses pay handsome profits, yet the residences are all full and the demand for more is as pressing as ever….many more should have been erected,” reported the Weekly Missoulian.

In December 1888, the Weekly Missoulian noted that “George Brooks will shortly have his new residence completed, J. L. Swaney’s big furniture store is being rushed to completion, and the Presbyterians expect to have their new edifice ready for occupancy soon after New Year’s.”

Although Missoula had no MLS database or any other such tool back in the 1880s, the local newspaper found “the actual number (of dwelling houses) built is over one hundred,” based on discussions with contractors and others.

They added, “There are fully twenty new residences situated east of the creek (presumably Rattlesnake), on the island (which no longer exists in the Clark Fork by the Wilma) and north of the track (the current MRL line).” Albert Cave was also busy “preparing to erect a couple of tenement houses.”

It was, of course, the arrival of the railroad (Northern Pacific) which spurred the population increase and resulting demand during the year 1888 – “larger growth than any previous year and larger than the growth of any other city in the west of over two thousand inhabitants.”

So, understandably, demand for homes far exceeded supply.

December 19, 1888

Commercial construction, on the other hand, was flourishing. A huge new ice house was being constructed by W. H. Yerrick. It was to be 24 by 32 feet and 38 feet tall. “The exterior wall is made of thirteen layers of finished lumber sandwiched with heavy building paper.”

Building was underway on the Florence Hotel block, as well as the Wagner & Pelikan Brewery, a carriage house, a lumber office, the Gold Dust hotel and numerous warehouses and storehouses.

The local newspaper predicted the construction trades would be even busier in 1889. “Next year there will be a boom in both residence building and in the erection of imposing blocks of brick, stone and iron.”

March 6, 1889

Indeed, preparations were being made for construction in the “big Higgins Bank block.” The Missoula Mercantile Company was preparing to construct “an additional story to their retail block, covering the boot & shoe, dry goods, hardware, grocery and liquor departments (requiring) the outlay of a large sum of money.”

Jump forward another few decades to 1920: “Missoulians are sadly in need of houses and whole families are living in hotels for lack of homes to move into,” said Chamber of Commerce President H. O. Bell (a local car dealer).

The Chamber, he said, was likely “to urge a building campaign and attempt, in conjunction with the campaign, to reduce the cost of building materials to a reasonable figure.”

Jumping ahead a couple of decades more, we find another shortage, this time in both commercial office space and in residential housing.

In 1938, “realty men” reported few available office rentals, certainly not enough to meet the demand. Housing, they said, was even worse. The shortage was the greatest they’d seen in years.

1920 Missoulian Headline

So what are the prospects for getting out of 2021’s housing crisis? Not good, says Windemere’s Brint Wahlberg.

Only a handful of listings exist in Missoula; the same for other western Montana counties. That disproportionate balance between supply and demand has caused last year’s housing prices to jump 27.7% in Missoula, pushing the average home cost to $420,000.

Ravalli County’s average home price is now $438,000 and Bozeman’s numbers have jumped to $720K.

The ability to catch up with demand hinges on available land (something in short supply in Missoula) and many, many other factors – everything from material and labor costs all the way to local government policies.

Perhaps what we need is one of W. H. Yerrick’s ice houses from the 1880s, where all of today’s concerned Missoulians might gather – with cool heads – to ponder possible solutions.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.