Harmon’s Histories: Whither the Missoula River, gone but not forgotten

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.

We just call it the Clark Fork – the river that runs through Missoula. But for more years than not, it was known by other names. 

Its history can be traced back 20,000 years, according to the experts.

As giant ice age dams broke apart, flood waters scoured out a huge valley all the way from what had been “Lake Missoula” through what is now Idaho, and into Oregon.

The river that runs through that valley from Silver Bow Creek in Butte to Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho has had many names through the years. Sections of it have been referred to as the Saleesh river, and (in the Missoula area) the Place of the Big Bull Trout by Native Americans.  

Members of the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1806, on the return leg of their Corps of Discovery, christened the river Clark’s Fork of the Columbia. In modern times, the apostrophe has been dropped.

But during the gold rush period of the mid-19th century, portions of the waterway acquired localized names which stuck for a long time.

In 1889, the Butte Daily Miner newspaper (in describing Missoula County) reported, “Deer Lodge river enters the county at its southeastern boundary, and after running through Hell Gate canyon takes the name of Missoula river.”

In fact, from Missoula’s inception in the mid-1860s well into the 20th century, the section of the river near Missoula was commonly called the “Missoula river,” not the Clark’s Fork or Clark Fork.

In late May 1894, a newspaper account called it “the raging Missoula” as it rose “6 inches in 8 hours, and … 26 inches since” the previous day.

References to the “Missoula river” can be found in legal documents and newspaper stories at the same time other sources were using the “Clark Fork” name, well into the 1930s and 1940s.

The dueling names lasted as late as the 1960s, when veteran Missoulian newspaper reporter and Executive Editor Ed Erlandson tackled the subject in his column, “Hell Gate Breezes.”

It seems someone had noticed a sign on the Orange street bridge “labeling the stream” the “Missoula River,” and wondering why?

Erlandson explained the varied names over the decades and centuries, noting that the “Missoula river” reference began to be dropped “more and more” after World War II.

But during its time as the “Missoula River,” he noted, it was also “known as the shortest river in the world … because it runs only from Milltown to Grass Valley, a distance of not more than 10 miles, and it’s probably the only river in existence that changes its name in mid-stream twice in such a short distance.”

Interestingly, Erlandson made an aside about the city’s riverbank in his 1965 column: “Some day, perhaps, after all the dikes are constructed, the river bank can be landscaped through the town. It’s a beautiful natural resource and we certainly haven’t taken full advantage of it.”

Perhaps because of his article, certainly for many other reasons, there was an awakening to that “beautiful natural resource” in the 1980s when community leaders began envisioning projects like Caras Park, the trail system, the Holiday Inn development, the Milwaukee station renovation and so much more.

Erlandson, in a final nod to the river, concluded his 1965 article, “Meanwhile, the old Clark Fork continues meandering through town, rather rambunctious in May and June and rather restful the rest of the year. And why not? If you’d been running as long as Mr. C. F. you’d need a rest too.”

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.