Missoula’s hidden history revealed in new summertime tours

Missoula historic preservation officer Emy Scherrer talks about the fire that burned down the original Hammond Arcade building in the early 1930s, and the charred remains of the original structure that remain hidden from sight today. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

As construction fills the air in downtown Missoula with the sounds of future landmarks, the city’s historic buildings quietly keep their secrets in tunnels and alleyways.

Starting Thursday, a new series of guided walking tours will give Missoula residents and visitors a peek into that secret (and until now inaccessible) history of the Garden City.

A collaboration of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, city of Missoula and the Historic Preservation Commission, the “Unseen Missoula” program will offer two different tours every Thursday and Saturday through the summer.

The Basements & Back Alleys tour will explore the basements, hidden tunnels and artifacts of Missoula’s historic downtown buildings like the Hammond Arcade, the Hellgate Elks Lodge and the Florence Hotel.

The River Walk tour will explore Missoula’s history of transportation, urban development and geology in a tour from Caras Park along the Clark Fork River to the Orange Street Bridge and the Madison Street Bridge.

According to Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, $850 million worth of development is happening in downtown Missoula, giving way to increased demand and interest for the tours.

In September, the Historic Preservation Commission held a similar event that attracted over 1,000 people.

“I think people really want to connect to Missoula and to our history and our culture and heritage,” McCarthy said. “I think what these tours are offering is sort of insider information that the general public doesn’t typically have access to.”

Starting in the Montana Building and descending a narrow staircase to the basement of the Dana Gallery, a large expanse that was once the Crystal Barber Shop is now used as storage for paintings and art pieces.

Moving deeper into the basement leads to a dark access tunnel that was likely a public bomb shelter during the Cold War in the 1950s and ’60s.

“It’s really a cool story because a lot of you were probably around or young when the duck-and-cover drills were going on. It’s something that’s generational,” tour guide Jon Sand said to the group. “There’s also a shelter in the basement of the Florence Building. These were all over town.”

A hidden basketball court lies in the basement of the Hellgate Elks Lodge, which is only accessible to the tours. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The tour also allows access to the hidden basketball court and Members Bar of the Elks Lodge, home to Hellgate Elks Lodge No. 383, or the 383rd club in the country.

Once housing bowling alleys and a shooting range, the building was completely remodeled in the 1940s. A basketball court stands in a structure that was originally built to be a swimming pool.

“I think this building more than anything on this tour really exemplifies change over time,” Missoula historic preservation officer Emy Scherrer said. “I’ve never seen such an altered building in my career.”

In the basement of the Hammond Arcade on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street, the Downtown Missoula Partnership has created several interpretive settings, hanging old photographs and exhibiting artifacts from the Missoula Mercantile and Spider’s Maverick Bar.

After a fire in the early 1930s burned down the original Hammond building, the structure that is seen today was erected in 1934. It still hides the charred stone of the original rock left behind in the basement.

A man from New Mexico donated relics from Missoula’s first bar. The Maverick Bar started operating in the 1940s, which was located on 633 Woody Street, formerly known as the Helena Hotel.

The bar was owned by James F. “Spider” McCallum, a local boxer and boxing coach who was killed during a robbery of his home in 1969. Artifacts include an old painted mountain canvas that hung behind the original bar and advertisements to see “lady wrestlers.”

Tour prices are $10 for adults and $7 for children and seniors. Tours are not ADA accessible. Register for tours at the Unseen Missoula website: https://www.missouladowntown.com/tours/unseen-missoula/. Payment is required to reserve a spot. Thursday tours are at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday tours will be at 11:30 am.