Harmon’s Histories: You’re going to wish you lived on Briggs Street

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.

A reader of this column recently asked about those “overtly sounding literary (street) names (like) Defoe, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Byron, etc.” on Missoula’s northwest side.

Could it have been “a landowner with a penchant for English literature … (or) a failed poet who later turned his energy toward building neighborhoods?” 

The search for the answer takes us back to March 6, 1891.

The Montana Legislature passed “an act to provide for the selection, location, appraisal, sale and leasing of state lands.”

Based on that, the State Board of Land Commissioners announced in November 1891 that it would offer for sale a parcel of land in Missoula.

In preparation for the sale, State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Gannon platted the real estate, designating it the “School Addition,” and deciding each street should be named after 18th and 19th century writers and poets.

As the story goes, he “just picked a poet’s name out of a hat,” one by one, and jotted each down on the map.

Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne were among the names picked. So were Edward George Earl Lytton Bulwer and James Fenimore Cooper. In all, more than 20 streets were named that way.

In July 1891, the Missoula City Council accepted the “School Addition” with its newly designated street names into the official boundaries of the city.

In late December, the parcels were sold at public auction on the Missoula County Courthouse steps.

That’s just one of the dozens of stories behind the naming of Missoula streets and avenues. 

Many of the city’s roadways are named for prominent citizens. 

One of the city’s main thoroughfares bears the name of a man who was born in Boston in the spring of 1858.

As a young man, George F. Brooks headed west, finding work with the Northern Pacific Railroad and quickly being promoted to division engineer and chief draftsman in Helena.

By the late 1880s, Brooks’ interest shifted to real estate. He acquired considerable land, including a large ranch on the west side of the Bitterroot River between Florence and Stevensville.

Around 1890, he set up offices in the First National Bank block and began his career in mortgage loans, insurance and real estate sales.

“For volume of business and diversity of properties handled,” he advertised, “there is no firm in this section of the country which offers the public a more complete service than Geo. F. Brooks.”

By his death in late 1940, at age 82, Brooks was widely known as “the oldest active insurance man in Missoula.” 

Another of Missoula’s streets is named for a prominent yet infamous fellow by the name of George Briggs.

Briggs was a partner in the Mentrum-Briggs Bottling and Liquor Co. He owned a saloon near Fort Missoula and, according to some accounts, operated a “house of ill repute” as well.

George Briggs

His saloon was a notoriously raucous establishment, exemplified by an incident in 1893.

Here’s the Missoulian account: “George Briggs’ imported bourbon may be all right when taken homeopathically, but it is dangerous stuff to meddle with in quantities ad lib. At least it would appear so if one might be permitted to judge from the effect a few jolts of it had upon the ordinarily peaceful disposition of Brother Gardiner, a private in full service of Uncle Sam, who on Thursday last started out in a drunken carousel to make porous plaster of his superior officer, Sergeant Chambers.

“The row occurred at Briggs’ caravansary, a short distance from the fort grounds, and shots enough were exchanged to render both participants, hors de combat but, beyond a slight flesh wound to a bystander and a pretty well plowed up floor, no damage resulted.

“Gardiner was arrested and at his preliminary examination before Judge Evans, on Monday afternoon, was bound over in the sum of $500, to await action of the district court.”

So, there you have it – some stories to share with your passengers as you travel Missoula’s historic streets and avenues.

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.