Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s First National Bank had the state abuzz in 1890

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 tower atop the building was “a thing of beauty,” rising “one hundred feet above the sidewalk.” The attic space surrounding the tower was “fitted up for a photographer’s studio … said to be the finest in the state, and for light and convenience of detail it is unexcelled.”

The building itself, proclaimed the Missoula Weekly Gazette, would “rival if not excel anything heretofore erected in the state in beauty of design, solidity of construction and the convenient arrangement” of the interior.

It was 1890. The new home of the First National Bank (the city’s first bank, dating back to 1873), had just been completed at the southeast corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street, opposite the Missoula Mercantile.

Now, if you’re having trouble visualizing it in today’s cityscape, it’s because that 19th century “thing of beauty” no longer exists – having given way to more modern designs in the mid-20th century and again in the early 21st century. Today, the corner is occupied by the First Interstate Bank, a rather striking building itself, completed in 2009.

The 1890 design by N. W. McConnell, the “leading architect of the state,” was described as “modern,” with “Norman Gothic” influences in its roof gables, tower and entrance.

McConnell, wrote the Gazette, was “a young man, enthusiastic in his profession, with dreams of greatness, as every true artist has, and is consistently striving after that excellence only obtained by the hardest labor.” The First National Bank building, predicted the newspaper, would “be an enduring monument to his genius.” 

The basement and first story of the structure were built of granite, followed by “Chicago pressed brick, terra cotta, steel, copper and slate.” Breaking up the brick exterior were “belt courses of rock-faced granite (engirdling) the building at regular intervals in its height, embellishing its looks and at the same time adding materially to its strength.”

Architectural drawing, First National Bank, Missoula, 1890.

The banking room and all the street-level storefronts were finished out with polished white oak. The copper gates to the banking vestibule were said to have cost $1,100.

A rooftop skylight illuminated the large halls and individual offices designed for tenants on the second floor. The wood finish was tamarack with bronze and copper hardware.

The building was wired for “electric incandescent lighting,” and each floor was “provided with toilet rooms for both sexes, while the offices all have marble-topped wash basins, elegantly fitted up with silver plated fixtures.”

Because fire was so feared in the late 19th century (there had been so many catastrophic blazes in Missoula and across the country), “fire escapes extend(ed) from the roof to the ground,” and fire plugs were “stationed in each story with the necessary complement of hose.”

There were some construction accidents along the way. George Burton and Jack Woolrich were hauling a heavy timber up to the second story when their rope slipped, throwing the pair off balance and off the beam they were standing on. 

In their fall to the floor below, both were badly dazed, bruised and sprained, taking some days to recover.

The money men behind the bank included A. B. Hammond, A. G. England, Thomas Greenough and E. L. Bonner. Hammond’s nephew, John Martin Keith, who had been managing the Mercantile, was the cashier/manager. (Keith, by the way, was elected mayor the following year – the first of three non-consecutive terms).

At the time the new facility opened, First National had capital estimated at $150,000, “with a surplus of $265,000” and plans to increase its stock to $500,000.

Two decades earlier, Frank L. Worden had but a fraction of that amount ($50,000) when he petitioned officials in Washington, D.C., in late 1872 for authorization to create the national bank in Missoula. Worden’s backers included Captain C. P. Higgins, Hiram Knowles and A. G. England.

The bank, originally named Missoula National Bank, was opened in August 1873, operating out of temporary headquarters in “the ample rooms” of Worden & Company’s store. 

A.B. Hammond

In the 1880s, A. B. Hammond began buying up stock in the bank, eventually forcing Higgins out. By the time he finally succeeded in 1888, he and Captain Higgins were bitter rivals.

Higgins immediately began construction of his own rival institution, the Western Bank, but died before seeing its completion (that 131-year-old building still stands, on the northeast corner of Higgins and Main).

Hammond’s new bank building, given its size, architecture and importance in the community, certainly deserved its front-page coverage by the Missoula Weekly Gazette, despite the fact that Hammond himself had become anything but widely loved in the community. 

He was characterized by the Butte Inter-Mountain newspaper as a slimy beast “whose tentacles reach out and envelop nearly” everything. Similarly, the Missoulian newspaper called him the “Missoula Octopus.” Andrew Hammond owned much of downtown Missoula: the Merc, the bank, the Hammond building and the Florence Hotel. 

Over the years, Missoula’s first and oldest bank changed names many times. From Worden and Higgins’ original Missoula National Bank in 1873 to Hammond’s First National Bank of Missoula in 1889, it became First National Montana Bank of Missoula in 1976 and First Interstate Bank in 1986, according to bank records stored in University of Montana Archives & Special Collections.

The structure itself changed, too. In early 1962, First National Bank executives announced Hammond’s 72-year-old building would be coming down, making way for a modern facility resembling the Federal Science Building at the Seattle World’s Fair. The new facility opened in the spring 1964 with a nod to the past: “Montana’s oldest bank – Montana’s most modern bank … since 1873.”

That mid-century structure gave way to the current building at Front and Higgins in 2009.

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.