Harmon’s Histories: Missoula hopped aboard the tourism bandwagon in 1920
Here we are at the beginning of another summer season.
All across America, families are making plans for their summer camping adventures – and many are considering Montana as one of their destinations.
Camping options have certainly evolved over the last century. Today’s menu includes cabin rentals, RV parks and tents – from spartan to glamping with every imaginable amenity.
But in 1919, Missoula lagged a bit behind.
I’m sorry. That was actually an understatement of rather generous proportions – Missoula was downright unwelcoming to the coming wave of auto tourism!
The city had but one public park (Greenough), where the sign at the entrance loudly declared, “Camping Strictly Prohibited.”
Contrast that with towns in neighboring Washington which offered free camping and even threw in free firewood, city water and electric lights! The city of Spokane was developing nearly 2,000 acres of public lands into a variety of parks.
Well, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce acted to turn that around in 1920.
They established the city’s first auto camping park on Cedar Street in the Rattlesnake Valley. By the end of the first season, the Chamber touted nearly 27,000 people had used the campground (based on an estimated three people per car).
But they weren’t sure what that meant in “dollars spent” in the community. So they asked the Yellowstone Trail Association, which had studied the question.
“In the beginning of 1919,” they said, “we made a contract with the ferry at Mobridge, SD, by which they pay us ten cents for each car” from out of state “traveling the Trail and using the ferry.”
“They paid up in money June 1st to October 1st, $401.30 which shows passage of 4,013 interstate cars.
"This figure is not guessed at or estimated ... it’s based on absolute figures.” They combined that with other studies, showing tourists traveled “an average of 125 miles per day spending $12 each day.”
Missoula’s Chamber of Commerce used another, more conservative formula, based on $5 per day, to come up with a total of $90,000 spent in the area during 1920.
The president of the Missoula Trust and Savings bank, J. M. Keith, felt the number was definitely conservative, saying, “travelers’ checks to the amount of $1,000 were handled daily in the business district.” That would have totaled $120,000 for the season.
Either way, auto tourism was injecting big bucks into the local economy.
It also resulted in some standards being proposed for auto camps. The annual report of the Pacific Northwest Tourist Camp Association (Missoula was a member) advocated “a 50-cent per day charge for having standard equipment, including comfort stations, water, lights, baths, stoves with fuel, laundries, attendants with police power, and other conveniences.”
Further, they recommended signs be placed at all campgrounds, reading, “No soliciting, advertising, vending, demonstrating or public speaking should be allowed in any camp except that civic organizations be allowed to talk on northwest attractions.”
By 1924, auto tourism in Missoula had grown considerably. The Chamber’s season-ending numbers showed their auto camp had registered 12,971 guests traveling in 4,309 cars.
“The best night was August 23rd,” they said, “when 49 cars and 153 people were registered.” There were also “six nights in the month when there were more than 100 guests at the camp.”
We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years – from the days of just a single public park, where camping was strictly prohibited.
These days, tourism is a major factor in Missoula’s economy.
According to a report last summer by Martin Kidston in the Missoula Current, “Barb Neilan, executive director at Destination Missoula, said tourism accounts for $294 million in direct expenditures in Missoula each year, and $360 million in total economic impact in visitor spending.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.