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Harmon’s Histories: Downtown Missoula pool launched 101-year history of safer swimming

Photo of Missoula’s first swimming pool site, incorrectly dated 4-3-1905.

Stories similar to this week’s issue can be found in the “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.

It is a wonderful old photo dated April 3, 1905. It shows Missoula’s very first public swimming pool, east of the Higgins Avenue Bridge.

On the left, you can see the Edwin. S. Newton carpentry sign (at East Front & Clay), and on the right, the landmark “M” on Mount Sentinel. That would place the pool in the vicinity of what is today’s Holiday Inn. All that is correct. But still – there’s something wrong.

It’s the date. Missoula would not build its first public pool until 1920 – 15 years later. Somewhere along the line, the photo was mislabeled.

Back around 1905, there was little talk of a public pool, much less any fundraising campaign. Missoulians just headed to the river on a hot summer afternoon.

“Big Crowds Swim In The River,” was the Missoulian headline on July 8, 1906. Even though the water temperature barely hit 65 degrees near the shore, “men and boys have been swimming in the river at the bend east of town. The curve in the river has caused a deep pool to form which is very attractive to the stronger swimmers.”The article acknowledged the treacherous current was “so strong in places that the novice could be easily thrown off his balance and he would drown before help could reach him from the bank.”

There were a few folks talking about building a public pool – after all, Butte had one! So why not Missoula? But it was just talk. Nothing would happen for some years to come.

In 1912, Dr. J. G. Randall suggested the city should build a pool in Greenough Park. Pointing to a recent drowning death of a young boy in the river, Dr. Randall said, “It is natural for the kids to long for the water … a swimming pool in Greenough Park would be all a young boy would want to make his vacation complete.”

Still, no one took up the idea.

As late as 1915, hundreds of swimmers would routinely flock to the Bitter Root river by the Buckhouse Bridge on a Sunday afternoon.

One boy, maybe 12 years of age or so, was quite a show-off. “It is his stunt, and he is the only one who can do it,” wrote a newspaper reporter, “to stand on (the railroad bridge), fling a nickel into the stream, dive and catch it before it ever strikes the bottom.”

Many at the swimming hole said they actually preferred that location to the idea of a “steam-heated concrete pool.” It wasn’t until 1917 that a serious fundraising drive began, sparked by the drowning death of a young boy, Maurice Llafet, the son of J. E. Llafet.

By late summer 1917, reported the local press, “The swimming pool fund has been half filled. A few good jolts and work can be started on a public natatorium. With a little push the plunge can be built before the summer is over.”

The fundraising goal was set at $10,000.

Between 1917 and 1919, it seemed everyone was getting involved. The Moose lodge, the Elks club and the Missoula Woman’s club all set up fundraising campaigns. The University of Montana staged a “spectacular pageant” raising $500, and the Western Montana Fair held a big benefit dance.

But it was wartime, building materials simply weren’t available, and other war-effort fundraisers took priority.

Original plans for a fully enclosed natatorium were scrapped as too expensive and efforts were concentrated on a basic, open-air outdoor pool.

Architect Ole Bakke’s Drawing of proposed Natatorium 6-1-1918

Finally, with the end of the war near, a contract was signed on May 8, 1919 with Helmer J. Settergren, who submitted a winning bid of $12,380.

But the pool committee had only $9,500 in hand – so had much work yet to do. It ended up taking a full year and then some for the fundraising and construction to be completed.

First swimming pool in Missoula near today’s Holiday Inn, 1920

On Monday, August 9, 1920, the pool was officially dedicated and turned over to the city.

Mayor H. T. Wilkinson told the crowd of several hundred anxious swimmers, “I want to thank the citizens of Missoula … and express my appreciation to The Missoulian for (starting) the campaign for a municipal swimming pool.”

That first municipal pool lasted about 20 years. In 1937, the McCormick estate donated a large parcel of land to the city specifically to be used for parks and pools. The result was McCormick Park and pool on the riverfront off the south end of the Parkway (now Orange Street) Bridge. The Spartan pool soon followed.

As both those pools reached the end of their useful lives at the turn of the century, Missoulians approved a multi-million dollar aquatics bond in 2003.

The result was “Currents” at McCormick Park, “Splash Montana” just south of Sentinel High School, and a number of small “spraygrounds” at parks around the city – continuing the public’s 100-year-plus support for safe water sports in Missoula.

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.