The History of Missoula: Celebrating 150 years as a city.

The first inhabitants of the Missoula area were American Indians from the Salish tribe. They called the area "Nemissoolatakoo," from which "Missoula" is derived. The word translates roughly to "river of ambush/surprise," a reflection of the inter-tribal fighting common to the area. The Indians' first encounter with whites came in 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the Missoula Valley.

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There were no permanent white settlements in the Missoula Valley until 1860, when C. P. Higgins and Francis Worden opened a trading post called the Hellgate Village on the Blackfoot River near the eastern edge of the valley. It was followed by a sawmill and a flourmill, which the settlers called "Missoula Mills". The completion of the Mullan Road connecting Fort Benton, Montana with Walla Walla, Washington and passing through the Missoula Valley meant fast growth for the burgeoning city, buoyed by the U.S. Army's establishment of Fort Missoula in 1877, and the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883. With this, Missoula became a trading center in earnest, distributing produce and grain grown in the agriculturally prosperous Bitterroot Valley. Businessmen A. B. Hammond, E. L. Bonner, and R. A. Eddy established the Missoula Mercantile Company in the early 1880s.

The city's success was aided by two other factors. First was the opening of the University of Montana in September 1895, serving as the center of public higher education for Western Montana. Then, in 1908, Missoula became a regional headquarters for the Forest Service, which began training smokejumpers in 1942. The Aerial Fire Depot was built in 1954, and big industry came to Missoula in 1956, with the groundbreaking for the first pulp mill.

Until the mid-1970s, logging was a mainstay industry with log yards throughout the city. Many ran teepee burners to dispose of waste material, contributing to the smoky haze that sometimes covered the town. The current site of Southgate Mall was once the location of the largest log-processing yard within several hundred miles. The saws could be heard over two miles away on a clear summer night. However, by the early 1990s, changes in the economic fortunes of the city had shut down all the Missoula log yards.

Missoula is located within the fly-fishing Golden Triangle and is a popular area for hunting deer, elk, bear, moose, and other game animals. This provides Missoula with an ample tourism industry based on hunting and fishing.

Historic Timeline

  • Lewis & Clark Journey Through The Missoula Valley

    Meriwether Lewis and his party passed through what is now Missoula, stopping to camp along the Blackfoot River approximately 8 miles east of Missoula.

  • Europeans Settle In The Missoula Valley

    The Washington Territorial Legislature created Missoula County, with the county seat "temporarily located at or near Worden & Co. Trading Post in Hell Gate Ronde." Hellgate was the site of the first settlement in the Missoula valley, located approximately 4 miles west of the current downtown. It was an ideal location as it was the crossroads for north-south and east-west travel.

  • Missoula Is Founded

    Worden & Co. erected a sawmill and grist mill on the river 4 miles east of Hellgate. In 1865 they moved their store to the new location called Missoula Mills (now the north end of the Higgins Avenue Bridge). The construction of the mill marked the beginning of Missoula as we now know it.

  • Emma Slack (Dickinson) Was Hired As Missoula's First Teacher

  • The University Of Montana Is Founded

    The University of Montana was opened with 50 students enrolling on the first day.

  • Jeannette Rankin Becomes The First Woman in US Congress

    "I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I wont be the last."

  • Missoula Farmers' Market is Founded

  • A Carousel For Missoula Opens

    After four years of a huge volunteer effort, the Carousel for Missoula opened its doors to the young at heart.

  • Destination Missoula is Founded

    The Destination Missoula has been formed exclusively for the promotion of tourism, the development of effective methods of attracting and hosting conventions and events for Missoula, Montana and the surrounding area, and to educate the local community of the significance of tourism as an economic driver.

To learn more about Missoula's history, visit nextexithistory.com and download the Next Exit History mobile app from the App Store or Google Play.

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