Harmon’s Histories: Higgins Avenue Bridge ‘most complex enterprise ever undertaken’

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.

The Montana Department of Transportation will launch a major rehab of Missoula’s Higgins Avenue Bridge in a few months.

The current span was built 60 years ago – and at the time was an absolute godsend, finally fixing a 50-year-long traffic bottleneck.

Back when the historic floods of 1908 wiped out the Higgins crossing, there was no rush to reconstruct the bridge. There had been so many floods and so many bridge wash-outs in past decades that some folks debated whether the span even should be rebuilt, and if so at what cost.

Finally, “everyone agreed (in 1909), after being without a crossing at Higgins Avenue for a year, that a new bridge was necessary,” said Robert E. Jones, the chairman of the county bridges committee in 1956. 

“The argument (back then) was whether (the bridge) should be street width or narrowed down to save money. The economy-minded won and from that day on have been cursed by many a citizen,” said Jones.

The bottleneck created near the Wilma Theater, where motorists were forced to merge into a single lane snarled traffic through the first half of the 20th century.

The aftermath of the 1908 flood.

Finally, on June 5, 1956, voters approved three separate bridge bond issues – for the Madison, Russell-Lincoln and Higgins spans.

The Russell bridge would be built first, the Madison second and the Higgins third, pushing the Higgins project into the early 1960s.

It was an “immense undertaking,” according to John Toole, who in 1960 chaired the citizens bridge commission.

In a guest editorial in the Missoula Sentinel, Toole wrote “A state highway official has made the statement that this is the most complex enterprise ever undertaken by the Highway Commission. A review of the problems already overcome and those yet ahead bear witness to the truth of his remarks.”

First, it was no small matter to eliminate the island in the river by filling in the north channel (creating new land where Caras Park is today) and widening the south channel to accommodate the resulting increased flow of water.

For decades, the Higgins Avenue Bridge was one lane.

The Orchard Homes weir and intake near the Milwaukee Depot had to be extended 170 feet. The change also triggered “intricate legal matters on (the) property abutting the island.”

With the elimination of the island, a tall radio transmission tower located there had to be moved. Station KQTE (I wonder if it was referred to as “Cutey?”) wrangled back and forth with Toole’s citizen committee. The city council finally agreed on a price of $8,405 plus land for the relocation.

Ultimately though, it was MDT that acquired the radio transmission tower for $8,800 in March 1962, resulting in KQTE (today’s KYLT, 1340) suspending broadcasting for a year.

Once all that was addressed, said Toole, there was still the question of what to do about a major water line attached to the existing structure and how to deal with “the sanitary sewers which pour raw sewage into the (to-be-eliminated) north channel.” It was hoped a proposed $2 million sewage treatment plant would solve the waste issue.

“Immense undertaking,” indeed!

Finally everything came together in late September 1961. 

The Montana Highway Commission awarded the construction contract to Sletten Construction Company of Great Falls, which submitted a bid of $988,381. The county’s share of construction costs would be $261,000.

Sub-zero weather in January 1962 halted construction, but things were back on track by February. In March, the Missoula Women’s Club packed a Highway Commission meeting demanding handrails on the pedestrian walkway. They didn’t leave until the commission gave in.

Construction hit the halfway mark in late May 1962. The last of the concrete was poured by late September.

With dignitaries on hand from the state highway department, the county, the Milwaukee railroad and more, Governor Tim Babcock cut the ribbon opening the bridge on November 20, 1962, to the cheers of hundreds of Missoulians who weathered a rain and wind storm to witness the event.

Spectators tore off pieces of the golden ribbon as souvenirs.

In the hours following the dedication, an estimated 2,000 cars an hour traveled back and forth across the new four-lane bridge. By 19 o’clock that night, the highway department’s roadway “tape device” had recorded something in excess of 18,000 trips across the span.

End of story? Not quite. Within a month, the County Superintendent of Schools, Robert Watt, wrote to the county commissioners concerned about the hazards for bicyclists.

“Fortunately, the roadway on the new bridge seems completely adequate for (painted bike lanes), and I feel that this safety measure deserves very careful consideration.”

Today, according to a Montana Department of Transportation press release, “The Higgins Avenue Bridge provides access to the heart of downtown for students, residents and visitors to the Garden City … (and) is a key connector for all modes of transportation (although it) carries far more bicyclists and pedestrians than can be comfortably accommodated.”

MDT says the rehab of the bridge will make it “a safer and more spacious bridge for everyone.”

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.