Harmon’s Histories: Come and listen to the lullaby of Missoula’s Broadway

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.

“Come on along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway.”

Mention “Broadway” and you likely picture one of the most famous streets in the world – and, hear the music: “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway,” “Give my regards to old Broadway” and many others.

As famous as it is today, Broadway wasn’t always Broadway. The renowned New York street started out as the Wickquasgeck Trail, an Algonquian term meaning “birch-bark country.”

The Dutch renamed it “Breede Weg,” which eventually morphed to Broadway. But even then, parts of the road were called Great George Street, Kingsbridge Road, Bloomingdale Road and Western Boulevard.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that the entire length of the New York span was named “Broadway.”

Missoula’s Broadway wasn’t always “Broadway” either.

In fact, for the first 60-some years of the city’s existence, it was “Cedar” Street.

From the 1860s to the 1920s, Cedar Street (and the city, for that matter) spanned roughly the area from Rattlesnake Creek (then called the Rattlesnake River) on the east, to just past St. Pat’s Hospital.

The street ended a short distance later, so folks who wanted to travel farther, would have to turn onto May Street and find their way to Toole Avenue which then connected with the roadway toward the west.

But with the advent of the automobile, there was a desire to have a single, long, broad, straight through-street linking the road east and west of Missoula.

So downtown business leaders began a petition drive in May 1928.

They wanted to extend Cedar Street to connect with the route west of town and, by the way, why not re-name it “Broadway” at the same time?

The 1928 City Council resolution (No. 767) consummating the name change makes reference to that petition from “a large majority of the property owners abutting upon Cedar Street.”

Looking along Cedar Street, aka Broadway, toward Hellgate Canyon in 1924. (University of Montana Mansfield Library Archives and Special Collections)

But we may never know why they proposed the name “Broadway.” The petition, containing the property owners’ reasoning, eludes discovery in the city’s files.

So all we know is that city leaders felt the reasons were “good and valid and that the name of said street should be changed as requested in said petition.”

The resolution, passed June 26, 1928, specified the street “lying east of North Higgins Avenue shall be known as EAST BROADWAY, and … west of North Higgins Avenue in said city, shall be known as WEST BROADWAY.”

The following day, City Clerk H. K. Powell posted notices of the change at the U.S. Post Office, City Hall, County Courthouse and the Fire Station – and the deed was done.

On July 1, 1928, the Sunday Missoulian newspaper ran a special section with the banner headline, “Hello Broadway,” inviting readers to “Get acquainted with Broadway.”

The newspaper section, featuring advertising from merchants along the newly renamed street, declared, “Cedar Street has gone – it’s now Broadway – Missoula’s new East and West thoroughfare. A tribute to Missoula’s growth.

“The business development on this highly important thoroughfare through Missoula has increased so rapidly in the last year that it deserves the name of Broadway. All east and west traffic through Missoula is over Broadway, a growing ‘Main Street’ of the Garden City.”

A few weeks later, the City Council began making another nod to the automobile, proposing Higgins Street be an “arterial highway.” The move would give the right of way to autos on Higgins, requiring cars on side streets to yield.

One member of the council added, “Creation of … an arterial highway will increase the speed of traffic on the avenue to 25 miles per hour or more!”

Of course a local gossip column called “The Oracle,” had to poke some fun at all this:

“Sir Oracle, Now that Cedar Street has become Broadway, why not name the Rattlesnake River, The Hudson? (signed) Interloper.”

Ha ha.

It may not be the “Great White Way,” but our “Broadway” is home to the world-acclaimed Missoula Community Theater (MCT) at the fashionable intersection of East Broadway and North Adams.

By the way, you’d better hurry to get your tickets: The MCT production of Disney’s “Newsies” debuts in just a few weeks!

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.