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Harmon’s Histories: Milwaukee Depot delighted Missoulians at 1911 debut

The_Missoulian,  April 10, 1910, Drawing of the Milwaukee Station

It was an impressive sight from Missoula’s Higgins Avenue Bridge. “Everywhere there were lights and everywhere were there people.” It was Saturday night, February 18, 1911.

Nearly 350 people crowded into the “new passenger station of the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railroad” for the Red Apple Banquet.

Among them were 63 members of the state legislature, “the greatest turnout of members that the legislature has ever sent to a Red Apple Banquet,” according to accounts in the Missoulian newspaper.

The station’s waiting room wasn’t large enough to hold all the celebrants. “Tables overflowed into the smoking room … (and) into the ticket office.”

The newspaper reporter (there were no bylines back then) extolled the aesthetics of the building and the sumptuousness of the feast.

“The tables were dressed in good taste … the service excellent and the menu more than that.”

Former Missoula mayor, Col. Thomas C. Marshall, served as the toastmaster. His speech was praised as clever and witty. No one, including Marshall himself, could know that it would be one of his final such appearances.

Thomas C. Marshall. In 1883, he and Frank H. Woody formed the law firm Woody and Marshall.

Marshall, a former law partner of Frank Woody and lawyer to Andrew Hammond, would die just two months later on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Other speakers that night included Missoula County Attorney Edward C. Mulroney and Lt. Gov. W. R. Allen.

But it was the building (and the progress it reflected) that drew them all there.

The site for the structure was originally a city park, named after its donor, Judge Hiram Knowles. But no sooner had trees, flowers and grass been planted than Puget Sound Railroad surveyors declared the best route for the rail line was straight through the middle of the park.

Mother Nature had much to say about those plans by mere mortals. The June 1908 flood washed away any sign of human improvements, leaving “not enough soil on the whole area … to properly plant a birdseed,” according to one newspaper account.

So it was not unexpected that more than a few Missoulians, standing on the Higgins bridge watching the construction of the depot, might “laugh up their sleeves and call the company a fool.”

Thousands of boulders had to be excavated with a big steam shovel at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon and hauled by dump cars to fill in the “washed out hole” by the bridge. “It was built up from the bottom to withstand floods and it was raised several feet above the high water mark.”

By the end of construction even the naysayers had to admit the modern building was architecturally distinct and a welcome addition to the Garden City. The surrounding landscaping was termed “admirable.”

“A blanket of green lawn” was spread over the two-acre site and “an iron fence with concrete posts” was constructed along the driveway.

1908 Flood – Archives & Special Collections, University of Montana, Missoula

Those remembering the ’08 flood, and laughing at all the grass seeding, were quieted as soon as they were able to see the finished work: “the way in which the location and the lay of the ground had been used to admirable advantage in working out a scheme of landscape gardening throughout the grounds surrounding the building.”

Outside of the depot, on the celebratory evening, throngs of college students danced and sung around a huge bonfire. The blaze “threw red upon the flushed faces of the happy collegians – the picture was a pretty one.”

As the partying progressed, “the first train to pass the newly opened station whistled its greeting,” causing a huge cheer by the crowds inside and outside the depot.

In the years that followed, the Milwaukee Railroad made a number of improvements, including electrifying the section between Harlowton, Montana and Avery, Idaho, as well as introducing those incredible 100-mph Hiawatha trains.

But by the 1970s, the Milwaukee was in financial trouble and by the early 1980s trains ceased to run on the line.

For a short time, the combined depot and baggage buildings were converted into a series of restaurants, then in the mid-1990s became headquarters for the Boone & Crockett Club and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the club leases part of the Milwaukee Depot to the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

With the tracks removed (replaced by a riverside trail system), we won’t be seeing a return of passenger rail service on the south-side of the river, but the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is still hopeful, especially now that the “Burlington Northern Sante Fe has joined the authority as an ex-officio member,” according to recent reporting in the Missoula Current.

Should that actually come to pass, it’s likely a boisterous crowd, rivaling that of February 18, 1911, would turn out for a modern version of a Red Apple Banquet.

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.