Harmon’s Histories: Missoula has argued about sidewalk shoveling since 1896

Jim Harmon

Today – a bit of historical perspective as the Missoula City Council considers increasing fines for failing to shovel snowy sidewalks.

“The slippery condition of the majority of the sidewalks is a disgrace to the city of Missoula,” proclaimed the local newspaper.

The problem, said one city alderman, is that “the people (are) too damn lazy to clean their sidewalks.”

It was January 1896.

The city ordinance requiring sidewalks to be shoveled appeared to be no more than a “dead letter on the pages of the official record of the city.”

Missoula and other Montana cities had tried other options over the years. In 1884, the sheriff in Bozeman put prisoners to work clearing the snow off downtown sidewalks.

A Butte newspaper, the Semi-Weekly Miner, reading about what Bozeman was doing, urged its sheriff to “give our officers a valuable lesson in prison economy.”

In Missoula, city Judge John Evans regularly assigned those who’d been tossed in the drunk tank to work off their fines by doing sidewalk cleanup along the main streets.

Moving into the 20thcentury, the Missoula City Council tried once again.

This time (1910), their mandate that all sidewalks be properly shoveled would be strictly enforced – under threat of arrest!

The Missoulian newspaper applauded the action, noting it would not only make the community safer, but would cut down on cursing.

“There is nothing so conducive to profanity and backsliding as to slip and slither along a block of glare ice.

“Many a man started out from home in the morning, his religious principles with him, at peace with the world and everybody in it, only to lose his footing, wave his arms in a wild search for balance and then fall hard enough to dissipate all ideas of right and wrong and the use of hard words.

“A man who would not swear under such circumstances will be in heaven three weeks before the devil knows he’s dead.”

Arthur Stone, a longtime newspaperman who would later become the dean of the university’s journalism school, chastised the city in his weekly newspaper column, “Caught on the Run about Town,” for not following its own law.

There was, he said, a “particularly bad piece of sidewalk along the city’s property on Cedar (now Broadway) and Woody street.

“The city’s neighbors cleared their walks as they should, but the city’s own walks were calculated to make a man lose all his civic pride and all his fondness for his home town.”

Stone said the city “might set a good example in the matter of shoveling snow and not the very poor example which it offered yesterday. There was a chance to make a record, but it was not made.”

Today, more than 100 years on, Missoula is still grappling with the issue.

The City Council is contemplating higher fines for scofflaws this winter. Clear your sidewalks by 9 a.m. after a snowstorm, they say, or face a potential bill of a few hundred dollars if the city is forced to contract the job done.

Council members are scheduled to vote Monday on whether to set a Dec. 17 public hearing and final vote on the fines. Maybe – this time – the effort will work.

But then again, as that city alderman said back in 1896, people might still be “too damn lazy to clean their sidewalks.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.