Old Sawmill developers begin $80K upgrade to stretch of Milwaukee Trail

Work on the Milwaukee Trail through the Old Sawmill District has begun and should be completed in the next few weeks. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

What began last year as a discussion about emergency access to the Old Sawmill District has evolved into an $80,000 expansion and resurfacing of the Milwaukee Trail, a popular nonmotorized corridor undergoing a makeover at a number of locations.

In collaboration with the city, developers of the Old Sawmill District are funding upgrades to nearly 800 feet of the trail, increasing its width by several feet and covering it with a new layer of asphalt.

“We’ve spent the last 15 years turning the abandoned and blighted sawmill site into what’s now Missoula’s newest neighborhood,” said Ed Wetherbee, one of the project’s developers. “Creating a connection from the Milwaukee Trail throughout the former industrial site was really important to us.”

Creation of the Milwaukee Trail dates back to the 1970s when a stretch of rail line on the south side of the Clark Fork River was abandoned. The city of Missoula converted the former route to a nonmotorized trail that now stretches from the University of Montana campus to areas west of Reserve Street.

Given its age, portions of the trail showed signs of deterioration. Construction of the Old Sawmill District, once a sprawling lumber mill, presented an opportunity to address some of the work in partnership with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

“The city design team needed to ensure that fire and other emergency vehicles could access buildings adjacent to the Milwaukee Trail,” said Jeremy Keene, an engineer with WGM Group. “Rather than building a separate emergency access road, the team worked with Parks and Recreation, the fire department and Development Services to craft a multi-use design.”

Wetherbee said work on the trail through the Old Sawmill District should be finished next month. The trail remains closed during construction.

Less than a mile to the west, a separate project on the Milwaukee Trail is also underway, though it will take longer to complete.

There, the Montana Department of Transportation has begun a two-year project to widen Russell Street to four lanes. As part of that project, the Milwaukee Trail’s old surface crossing will vanish and pass under the new roadway in a new tunnel.

Out past Reserve Street, a newly acquired piece of open space will also enable the city to extend the Milwaukee Trail further west. At some point, it will cross the Clark Fork River and connect with Mullan Road, though that project will require additional funding.

“The Milwaukee Trail represents years of work,” Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space acquisitions attorney, said recently. “The long-term goal would be to connect this trail all the way west to Idaho. The immediate vision is to at least get it to Mullan (Road). I like to think about little projects like this in this much larger regional context.”