Harmon’s Histories: The curious tale of Campus Drive and the Madison Street Bridge

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

When you head over to the University of Montana on 6th Street, then turn right on Maurice Avenue, you’ll dead-end just past the Music Building in front of Fine Arts.

Maurice Avenue picks up again, about four blocks south, at East Beckwith.

What’s up with that? And what does that have to do with last week’s story about the Madison Street Bridge?

Patience, my friend.

There was a time that Maurice Avenue was a through street.

The story of how that changed leads us to the mid-1950s and accusations of hanky panky between the university and the city commission, a restraining order and a highly publicized court battle, then eventually to 90,000 cubic yards of fill material for the approaches to the Madison Street Bridge, through a lot of mutual back-scratching.

Our story starts in the summer of 1956, when UM was still MSU.

MSU President Carl McFarland requested the Missoula City Commission to close a four-block span of Maurice Avenue between Connell and Keith. The university had big plans and needed the space.

University of Montana before the Maurice Avenue closure.

McFarland argued the road was “dangerous to students” since it cut through the campus. Besides, he said, it was “worn out.” The city agreed, passed a resolution to that effect, and in October of 1956 ordered gravel barricades to close off the campus portion of Maurice Avenue.

But Mrs. Edna Bulen would have none of it. She, with her husband as her lawyer, obtained a restraining order, and forced a trial in the spring of 1957.

Bulen argued that Maurice Avenue was purposely allowed to crumble by the inaction of both the university and the city. She charged, “the City Commission would not patch it,” and the university had deliberately let the road fall into disrepair, “because McFarland didn’t want to pay to have the work done.”

She wasn’t alone in opposing the street closure.

Mrs. George Fox testified it would cut off the access to the Women’s Club Art Building and Planetarium. There was concern fire trucks would have trouble reaching campus buildings. Others felt their property values would be affected. Former Mayor Ralph L. Starr even reminisced to the court about his days as a street car conductor in the area.

For his part, MSU President Carl McFarland testified for three hours, outlining the university’s multi-million-dollar expansion plan, which he claimed would be jeopardized if they couldn’t close off that section of Maurice Avenue. He told the court, “We’ll just have to start it (the plan) over again.”

University lawyers asserted MSU owned the land on both sides of Maurice Avenue, extending to the center of the road, thus the university and the city had the legal authority to close the street.

That sparked “a flareup between the lawyers,” reported the Missoulian. “The university lawyer said if the plaintiff lawyer made it necessary he would go ahead and prove (it) even if it took considerable time. He had eight large deed books, weighing a total of about 100 pounds.”

Bulen, meantime, contended that if Maurice Avenue was closed through the campus, residents would be forced “to use an inadequate MSU service road on the east edge of the campus to get to the Van Buren Street Bridge.”

What’s worse, she said, that service road along the backside of campus at the base of Mount Sentinel was closed during sports events, albeit only a handful of times a year.

Then couple of curious things happened.

First, local contractor Charles Pew told the court that “Maurice Avenue very definitely should be closed,” given traffic and safety problems.

Second, the university’s maintenance engineer testified that MSU had “plans for a bypass around the east side of the campus,” which would connect with the new Madison Street Bridge.

But he wouldn’t disclose details.

The plaintiff’s lawyer found that “intriguing.” But all he could get out of the university’s maintenance engineer was a hint that MSU may have found a way to build the bypass at less expense than repairing Maurice Avenue on campus.

Why the mystery? All he would say was, “I’ll tell you all about it in a couple of weeks.”

Hmmm.

After hearing both sides, the court sided with the city and the university. Four blocks of Maurice Avenue were closed, between Connell and Keith.

University of Montana in 1969, after the Maurice Avenue closure.

As for all that mystery and intrigue, let’s fast forward one year, to late summer 1958.

It’s time for 90,000 cubic yards of fill material to be dumped in place to create the approaches for the new Madison Street Bridge (built by Pew Construction).

In what the Missoulian newspaper called, “a gigantic you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours deal,” the bridge contractors were given the fill material they needed in exchange for building the Maurice Avenue bypass to be called “Campus Drive” on the east side of the university.

The “huge slice” taken from the side of Mount Sentinel totaled 100,000 cubic yards – more than enough to create the approaches to the new bridge.

And there you have it: a tale of conflict, intrigue and mystery – a bit of Missoula history to contemplate as you drive over the newly renovated Madison Street Bridge on your way to or from campus or Griz football games this fall.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula broadcaster who writes a weekly column for Missoula Current.