Harmon’s Histories: Early Missoula homes made way for Madison Bridge

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

Work on Missoula’s Madison Street Bridge has reached the halfway point. It’s scheduled to be finished in August, just before Griz football season and fall classes at the University of Montana.

Let me offer up a few thoughts for you to ponder as you sit in the construction delays – things like leopard skins, the gold rush, the hanging of a road agent, and the birth of a famous Missoulian.

They’re all connected with the Madison Street Bridge.

The story begins in 1872. A Missoula pioneer who became wealthy in the lumber business was awarded a contract to build a bridge. No, not this bridge – the contract was for a Higgins Avenue Bridge to connect with the growing south-side of Missoula.

Six years later, in 1878, that same bridge-builder-pioneer-lumberman built a house at 134 Madison St. The home was described by the Missoulian newspaper as “the showplace of Missoula” in its day – after all, it had the first bathtub in town.

Upstairs, rumor has it, a road agent from the gold rush days was “hanged from the rafters,” as the home was being built. While historically unlikely, it’s still an interesting story.

The homeowner was John Rankin. He was elected to the Missoula County Commission that same year, 1878. His son, Wellington D. Rankin, would become Montana’s attorney general in 1920. 

Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana-Missoula

But, it was a daughter, Jeannette Rankin, born in the 13-room home in 1880, whom you most likely remember. She became the first woman member of Congress.

By the mid-20th century, the house stood vacant and decaying. One of the last occupants, Mrs. Glenn Berger, said it still contained a room with a leopard skin wall and a painting “with real rocks and moss inside the frame.”

Ultimately, the Rankin house and a dozen others were ordered demolished – they stood in the way of progress. The bridge builder’s house had to go, to make way for another bridge.

Post-war America was in a road and bridge building frenzy. President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was well underway.

Locally, Missoulians overwhelmingly approved three bond issues in 1956 to build the Madison-Arthur Bridge, the Higgins Bridge, and the Russell-Lincoln span across the Clark Fork River, to replace the old California Street crossing.

Work on the Madison Street Bridge commenced in 1957 with a number of separate contracts. Pew Construction got the main two, for the bridge itself and the overpass of the Milwaukee Railroad.

By June of 1957, they had already poured one south pier with another in progress. The main pier in the middle of the Clark Fork River would have to wait for fall, and low water levels.

In all, the concrete work took just over a year, with the completion of the bridge and overpass in early September of 1958.

Work on the approaches from each side of the river was begun in August, 1958 by the Asphalt Construction Company.

They set up a massive rock crushing plant behind Dornblaser Field to provide the base gravel for the approaches, while other crews put a huge, 15-foot diameter steel pipe (over 250 feet long) in place to carry irrigation ditch water under the approach.

Meantime, demolition equipment was dispatched to John Rankin’s house at 134 Madison.

On Tuesday morning, September 30, 1958, “a roaring machine undid the work of the carpenters, stonemasons and other craftsmen who put together the mansard-roofed house,” wrote the Missoulian.

Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, The University of Montana-Missoula

Also coming down was the historic McWhirk home, which pre-dated the Rankin house. That home, just south of Front Street, was believed to be the first in town built of brick.

Once the homes were razed, they could build up the approaches. 90,000 cubic yards of fill was dumped in place in record time, allowing vehicle traffic across the span by late 1958.

Final paving wouldn’t happen until 1959. They needed Missoulians in their cars and trucks to compact the fill material properly.

At completion, the Madison Street Bridge came in at just over $1.1 million (in mid-century dollars).

The End.

Just kidding.

The source of that 90,000 cubic yards of fill material leads us to (as Paul Harvey would have said) “the rest of the story” – accusations of hanky panky between the university and the city commission, a restraining order and a highly publicized court battle, a street to nowhere, and a lot of mutual back-scratching.

We’ll have that story next week.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula broadcaster who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.