By Martin Kidston
With a sweeping expanse of green grass serving as the backdrop, city and county stakeholders on Friday unveiled a life-size bronze statue mounted at the entrance of Fort Missoula Regional Park, giving a nod to the fort’s historic ties with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Nearly two years ago, Missoula County voters passed a $43 million bond to fund the park’s $37 million construction. The first phase of that work is taking shape with newly planted trees, a large pavilion and acres of turf – both real and artificial – that will soon accommodate a number of athletic tournaments.
It also includes trails and a revamped entry to the Fort Missoula Historic District off South Avenue, where a life-size statue dubbed “CCC Worker” will greet visitors to the growing athletic and museum complex.
“This represents efforts in our community to recognize the importance of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Missoula, and the rich history of this spectacular park,” said John O’Conner, who helped spearhead the park’s creation. “Much effort has been made to honor the history of the land we stand upon, and to ensure all those who visit the park recognize what a special place this truly is.”
Less than a year ago, the area was pocked by gravel pits and invasive weeds, serving as an unwelcoming entrance to Fort Missoula and its historic district. Back then, visitors who strayed this far traversed a crumbling road to arrive at a collection of remote buildings dating back to Missoula’s infancy and the creation of the CCC program.
Stan Cohen, a local historian and author, traces the district’s European history back to 1877, the year the U.S. Army established Fort Missoula to protect settlers from the perceived threat posed by Native Americans. The fort was in place when members of the CCC began arriving in 1933 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“If you joined the CCC, you came here first to get some training and a little bit of exercise while you were here,” said Cohen. “They came here to join and were processed and sent out to different camps.”
In western Montana, those camps included Lolo Creek, Haugan and Nine Mile, which once sported the largest CCC camp in the nation, according to Cohen. The remnants of past CCC camps can be found at Nine Mile, though the program’s hub at Fort Missoula remains intact.
“I defy you to find any one of the ‘Cs’ at this point, because they’re mostly all gone,” said Cohen. “The statue is symbolic of their conservation. The two main emphases in 1933 was to get young people employed and do firefighting and flood control.”
The bronze statue that remembers their presence now stands bare-chested at the park’s new entry, its muscles rippled from labor. Its boots are heavy and its ax, which rests of the ground, signifies the work the men performed nearly a century ago.
Those duties helped the nation break from the grips of the Great Depression. It set in place the foundation of Montana’s great parks, including Glacier National Park. In some ways, it also laid the foundation for what’s shaping up to be Montana’s largest multi-use urban park.
“CCC led Americans to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors,” said City Council member Michelle Cares. “Here today, almost 75 years after the close of the CCC, we see our community just as dedicated to the outdoors.”
Donna Gaukler, director of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said Phase 1 of the park’s construction is nearly 90 percent complete. The turf is laid, stretching long and green into the otherwise brown landscape of a Montana fall. The earthwork took months to complete and, on Friday, crews applied the finishing touches to a number of park attractions.
“By mid-November, our goal is to open the perimeter trails that will follow the public right-of-way,” said Guakler. “As long as we get the flat-work done over at the pavilion, we hope to open the synthetic turf to the public in November. We’ll open the whole thing, formally, on April 29 of next year.”
Phase 2, which includes a new softball complex, could begin this year and should be playable by 2018. When complete, the 156 acres that comprises the park will create the county’s newest gathering place.
“Great public spaces create a sense of community, and they create a sense that we built this together,” said Missoula County Commissioner Stacy Rye. “There will be something for everyone at this park.”
From the entrance, through the collection of athletic fields, a newly paved road extends to the fort’s historic heart, where soldiers – both black and white – gathered in the late 1800s. It also provides easy access to the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, and that has Matt Lautzenheiser, its executive director, excited.
With improved access and new amenities, Lautzenheiser believes the added traffic will boost visitation to the museum and help it grow. It’s there where the story of Fort Missoula is best told.
“When the park is complete, it will not only become a regional attraction for sports, it will also become the gateway to the Fort Missoula Historic District,” he said. “I look forward to growing as a museum by the traffic generated by the park.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org