Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s Northern Pacific Depot featured trout pond
Public art is everywhere in modern-day Missoula: the Paxson murals in the courthouse, the Water Hook series in City Hall, decorated traffic signal boxes, and (my favorite) the squashed cat in front of the Central Park parking garage (yes, I know, it’s actually titled “Cattin’ Around”).
Public art was also available more than 100 years ago.
For instance, in the spot in Circle Square where “Crossings,” artist Taäg Peterson’s representation of the railroad trestles across western Montana now reside there used to be a rock statue and a fountain.
That work – completed in 1914 – delighted passengers stepping off the North Coast Limited train.
Well, actually, it wasn’t the sculpture itself which drew their attention as much as the pond surrounding the art work – a pond filled with huge trout!
Northern Pacific board member, W. P. Clough from Chicago, after viewing the sight said, “if he knew where he could find a stream so well stocked with such trout ... he would resign immediately and spend the rest of his days along its banks.”
The first 11 rainbow trout to inhabit the pond were supplied by J.W. Rickman from his private pond in Victor.
By November, as ice began forming on the newly built pond, workers hurried to finish construction on a large aquarium inside the NP Depot to display the trout until spring.
A local woman, passing by the freezing pond and unaware of the work underway inside, declared, “It’s worse than cruelty to animals to keep these helpless fish in this cold water.”
Her companion was heard to ask, “How about the fish in open streams?” to which the complaining woman said, “You know as well as I do that fish in the rivers all go south for the winter!”
Indeed! Everyone knows that!
Ike Harpster, the Northern Pacific conductor who designed the fountain and pool, was put in charge of feeding and caring for the fish. Missoula Mayor Andy Getchell, a former railroader himself, “forbade feeding by anyone else.”
One fascinating bit of lore surrounding the fountain and pool was the tale of a Minnesota man by the name of Alan Jones, who had stopped in town to spend a day or two. Jones would gently place his hand in the water to attract the fish.
Observers said the biggest trout in the pond would strike his hand, retreat, then strike again. Eventually, the trout would fight off any other fish trying to “come near the hand of Jones in the water.”
Others tried the same trick with no luck. According to an account in the Missoulian newspaper, “the fish would pass up all others who dipped their hands into the water of the pool and would respond only to the Minnesotan.”
Of course, there were some problems with the public fountain over time – most notably, small boys. It seems they would delight at trying to poke the fish with sticks and poles. Soon, a fence had to be constructed around the fountain.
Despite the fence, the young delinquents still managed to terrorize the fish for years. In 1929, NP Division Superintendent J.H. Johnson pleaded with parents to admonish their children “not to throw refuse in the pool or molest the fish.” Johnson noted one of the fish was badly wounded by a fish hook and line.
Ten years later, in 1939, railroad officials threatened to remove the fish altogether if “people persist in throwing stuff in the water, such as broken glass and tin bottle caps.”
Unfortunately, boys will be boys. In June 1940, two juveniles were arrested by police after hooking a large rainbow “using a fly rod and a spinner.” They were paraded before a police judge and given a “lengthy lecture on the subject of where not to fish.”
Another popular story was of an elderly chap who would run a baited hook down the sleeve of his coat and drop it in into the fountain waters, so as to obscure his illegal fishing. When he got a bite, he’d pull the trout up his sleeve ... so no one was the wiser.
Today, the rock statue is gone. The fountain is gone. But as you drive around the red XXXXs, don’t be surprised if you experience a sudden urge to go fishing. Just sayin'.
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 new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.