Late author-poet John Updike called Missoula, Mont., the Paris of the 1990s. A decade of so later, Missoula remains the cultural mecca of the Treasure State.
But long before authors waxed poetically about the city’s beauty, before artists, musicians and fly fishermen drew inspiration from the Clark Fork River, and even a decade or so before the big white M graced Mount Sentinel or the University of Montana was established, there was Fort Missoula.
“Fort Missoula is a real asset, and the history behind it is phenomenal,” says Barb Neilan, executive director of the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It gives people a broad view of how Missoula started and how it became what it is now.”
The museum is located on 32 acres and is home to 24 buildings, 17 of which are owned by the museum itself. Of those, nine have been preserved and include interpretive exhibits. In all, the museum has more than 25,000 items on display after a refurbishing a few years ago.
Founded in 1877, Fort Missoula hasn’t hosted active military since 1947, but many of its buildings and much of its heritage have been preserved through the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.
We used to have lots and lots of photos, but people would ask, ‘Where’s the stuff?’” says Bob Brown, the museum’s executive director. “So, we got stuff.”
The main museum building is in a renovated, 98-year-old quartermaster’s storehouse at the core of the old grounds, and houses the main exhibit space. There, one can learn about the history of the fort and the city it played a hand in building.
For special events, Brown dons a historic uniform and acts as Capt. Charles Rawn, the commanding officer when the fort was first established. In character, he shares how his men worked to stop the Nez Perce Tribe from advancing beyond Missoula. They were unsuccessful, which earned the newly created post the dubious nickname of Fort Fizzle. Those same men, however, fought valiantly in the Battle of the Big Hole against the same Nez Perce that had evaded them earlier. The museum chronicles two other important historical details of the fort’s history.
In the 1890s, Fort Missoula was home to the all-Black 25th Infantry, which became the Bicycle Corps. At the time, one theory was that the bicycle would replace the horse as the primary mode of transportation for soldiers in the West, and the corps experimented with an excursion to Yellowstone National Park and a 60-day trip to St. Louis. The bicycle never caught on with the military, but the experiment lives on in the museum display.
During World War II, Fort Missoula housed an internment camp for Italian Nationals whom the U.S. deemed as dangerous hostiles. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the camp also held 650 Japanese men who had been living in the U.S. Those men were interrogated and, in many cases, sent to join their families in relocation camps. “It’s a sadder part of our history, but much more significant,” Brown says.
The main museum building is open year-round. The other buildings in the museum complex open on Forestry Day—in late April—to late October.
The exhibits tell the story of Missoula and its fort, but the buildings surrounding the museum tell much of Western Montana’s history.
A locomotive is near the old Drummond Depot, built in 1910 in the small town of Drummond—about 60 miles southeast of Missoula. The Friends of the Historical Museum moved it to the fort grounds in 1982. The building was restored with help from the Missoula Model Railroad Club, and an exhibit there tells of Montana’s railroad history.
The Grant Creek Schoolhouse, originally in a farming area north of Missoula, gives visitors a feel for rural education in the early 20th century. The schoolhouse was moved to the Fort in 1976, the year the museum opened.
Close to the schoolhouse stands the 146-year-old St. Michael’s Church, originally built four miles west of Missoula and built by Jesuits from the St. Ignatius Mission. The church has been moved a couple of times, but now stands at the fort as an example of early religion in the West.
Other buildings include a 100-guard station once manned by fire watchers, a 110-year-old homestead cabin and barn, and a trolley barn that houses a streetcar, a fire engine and other transportation equipment.
The fort grounds are located near the intersection of South Avenue and Reserve Street. During the summer, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call 406-728-3476 or visit www.fortmissoulamuseum.org.
While the fort holds much of the area’s history, there are plenty of other attractions for cultural tourists who venture to Missoula. “Our museums are a large part of what people come to see,” Neilan says.
•Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History: A stone’s throw from the Fort Missoula Museum, this museum is housed in a 1936-built Civilian Conservation Corps administrative building. Information: 406-549-5346.
•Smokejumper Visitor Center: Located at 5765 W. Broadway, near the Missoula International Airport, this is the largest active smokejumper base in the U.S. Visitors can tour a replica lookout tower and learn more about this demanding—and often dangerous—occupation. Information: 406-329-4972.
•Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Elk Country Visitor Center: Located at 5705 Grant Creek Road, just off the Interstate 90-Reserve Street interchange, the visitor center includes a number of interactive exhibits that educate visitors on elk, elk habitat, and wildlife conservation. Information: 406-523-4545.
•Historic walking tours: Missoula has nine National Historic Districts, including the Historic Downtown District, and a number of professionally-guided and self-guided tours are available. Information: 406-728-2531.
•Travelers’ Rest State Park: Travel 20 minutes south of Missoula on U.S. 93 and go back in time to the Lewis & Clark expedition. It was at this spot where the trailblazers rested for two days before their long journey over Lolo Pass. Information: 406-273-4253.