Harmon’s Histories: What would you do if you could reinvent Missoula?

Jim Harmon

OK, here’s your chance.

If you could wave your magic wand and reinvent the city of Missoula from scratch, how fast could you pull it together? Who would you choose as your leaders? What would be your very first municipal ordinances?

For background, here’s how it first went down.

March 1, 1883: The Northern Pacific is about to complete its track-laying, and Missoula will soon become a railroad town – but, wait, it isn’t yet an “official” town.

So House Bill 105 (the act of incorporation) is being debated in the legislature. The main argument is over who will be allowed to vote: property owning taxpayers or just taxpayers.

The Helena Weekly Herald reported Representative Allen, speaking in opposition to the property qualification, “told a little story of the voter who rode to the polls upon a jackass worth one hundred dollars, the price of a property qualification in Kentucky.”

A year later, the jackass had died, so he had to walk to the polls. When he “was refused his vote, (he) asked the judge this pertinent question: ‘Say, Judge, was it my jackass that voted a year ago or was it me?’”

In the end, the House decided voters would simply be Missoula taxpayers who have been residents for at least six months. The bill was quickly passed and went on to the governor for his signature.

The legislation created the section east of Pattee Street as the first ward, and the area west of Pattee as the second ward. Voting in the first ward would be held at the schoolhouse; the second ward, at the courthouse.

The charter election was held Monday, March 19, 1883, with 63 voters casting ballots for incorporation, five against.

Everything happened so quickly, Duane J. Armstrong, the Missoulian editor, wrote, “The whole charter affair was sprung up so quickly, and the election followed so fast upon its heels, that we had no time to form decided positions either pro or con. And, now that we have got our elephant, what are we going to do with it?”

As outlined in the charter, there needed to be “one mayor, two aldermen for each ward, one police magistrate, one town attorney and ex-officio town treasurer and collector, and one town marshal,” and the election was supposed to happen in two weeks!

A series of local citizens’ meetings were held, a ticket was put together, and on Monday, April 9, 1883, Missoula’s taxpaying residents overwhelmingly made Frank Woody the newly incorporated town’s first mayor, with a majority vote of 86.

Frank Worden, R. A. Eddy, W. C. Murphy and S. T. Arthur were elected to the aldermen slots and H. C. Myers became the city marshal. Almost all the candidates were unopposed.

Just 10 days later, Thursday, April 19, 1883, the first meeting of Missoula’s city council convened in Frank Woody’s downtown office.

The Missoula reporter for the New North-West newspaper in Deer Lodge said, “Our city fathers … concocted a lot of ordinances, bearing on every subject in the Decalogue.

“The ordinances haven’t been posted yet, nor has the marshal filed his bond, so the boys can run the town for a few days according to their own sweet will.”

What would you suppose one of the very first laws to be? Certainly it would reflect the highest priority of the new, officially-incorporated town, right?

It was a noise ordinance. It seems the good people of Missoula couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep for all the racket in the Garden City.

The reviews were swift in coming.

From the Dillon Tribune: “The city council of Missoula has dealt a death blow to the brass band of that town by passing an ordinance prohibiting noises at night.”

From the New North-West: “A fellow now can’t even serenade his best girl … without becoming liable to a fine and imprisonment.”

The new city fathers also passed “a dog law, a hog law, a petty larceny law, and a law to punish vagrants,” according to the Missoulian.

The town’s new police officers, Keyes and Nugent (no relation, says current City Attorney Jim Nugent), went to work straight away gathering up vagrants caught drunk or begging or both.

But where to put them? Aldermen Worden and Eddy approached the county commissioners on May 4, 1883 to ask for help.

The commissioners agreed to allow a temporary jail to be constructed on the courthouse yard, with the provision that it could be ordered removed at any time by the county.

All of this new law enforcement had a downside. Between the noise ordinance and the vagrancy laws, local saloon keepers (initially among those who supported raising Missoula “to the dignity of an incorporated town”) began “bucking and kicking,” according to the New North-West newspaper accounts.

Before incorporation a fellow could come to town and “get on a hurrah (and) spend his money freely.” Now, “he has to walk easy. One misstep and the Argus-eyed guardians of public peace” toss him in the cooler, fine him, and give him second thoughts about ever coming into town again.

Alright. That was 1883. Now, it’s your turn.

In 2019, how would you go about setting up a newly incorporated town of Missoula? Who would be your leaders? What would be your very first laws? 

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.