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Advocates look to rename Higgins Avenue bridge in consultation with Salish

If the bidding process goes well, city officials believe reconstruction of the Higgins Avenue bridge could begin this fall and be finished by the same time next year.

And as the project gears up, Missoula County will make an effort to rename the renovated structure in honor of the Native American people who were marched across it in 1891 en route to the Flathead reservation.

“A previous version of the bridge in 1891 was the bridge over which the final band of Bitterroot Salish were forcibly relocated by the U.S. military up to the Flathead reservation,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“In light of the fact that we’re reconstructing the bridge right now, maybe it’s time that a piece of our transportation infrastructure in Missoula be named for someone other than a European descendant.”

The bridge and the avenue it carries over the Clark Fork River is named after Christopher Higgins, an Army captain and businessman who founded the Hellgate Trading Post in 1860 and the city of Missoula.

The Missoula Valley had served as the ancestral home of the Salish people before European settlement and the U.S. Army forced them out. Since then, the city’s streets, buildings and landmarks have been named after white Europeans and mostly men, from presidents to early city founders.

Strohmaier would like to see the bridge recognize the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The tribes would be consulted in the naming process.

“Reaching out to the tribes is important, both the cultural committee and the tribal council,” Strohmaier said. “I want us to avoid, yet again, presuming what is culturally significant in terms of the person it was dedicated after.”

While Higgins Avenue itself couldn’t be renamed, Strohmaier believes renaming the bridge would serve its function by giving recognition to those who lived on the land before there ever was a bridge.

“If we (renamed) a street, there’s impacts. All the businesses would need a new address,” he said. “But not so much with a bridge.”

Barring any delays, the Montana Department of Transportation plans to rebid the Higgins Avenue bridge project this spring and begin construction in the fall. The project was intended to start construction sooner, though it netted just one bid last year and at $37.7 million, it was well over the $16.6 million budget.

Missoula Mayor John Engen believes work could begin in October.

“Assuming rebid goes well, and MDT believes it will, they would begin construction on the west side in October of this year,” he said. “That construction would likely go to May. At the end of May, east side construction would begin. They’d like to be done by fall of 2021.”

As work gears up and the bidding process begins, Missoula County will work with the tribes on the process of renaming the structure. Strohmaier said the process could take several routes, some less challenging than others.

“One would be the Legislature naming it, which is fraught with challenges related to politicizing the whole thing,” he said. “The other route, and the one that would be my preference and certainly is the tribe’s preference, is to bring a proposal forward to the transportation commission. They have the authority to name a piece of state infrastructure.”