MISSOULA – We don’t recommend you eat the old Civil Defense biscuits. But if you want to learn more about Missoula’s fascinating past, lace up your walking shoes for one of the “Unseen Missoula” tours this summer.
While much of our attention is on what’s going “up” during Downtown Missoula’s construction boom, for history buffs like myself the real interesting places are at street level and below.
This week I joined a group for a preview of the new “Unseen Missoula” tours called “Basements and Back Alleys.” Along with a new “River Walk”, the tours are a follow-up to a wildly successful one-time tour sponsored by the Missoula Historic Preservation Commission last September.
With support from the Downtown Missoula Partnership, regular tours will happen through the summer. And while it includes familiar Missoula landmarks, the tours dive deep.
“I’m deeply passionate about this because you can see so many details,” said Unseen Missoula tour guide Henry Curtis. “Because, even as there has been these modernization efforts and the ‘old bones’ of the city have been covered over, you can still see underneath everything that Missoula was. And there’s so much in here. It’s fascinating because once you get into it there is so much that you wouldn’t even dream is here when you’re standing on the street.”
The adventure really cranks up in the basement of the Dana Gallery as you’re led into an underground passage, believed to have been built as an all weather connection for bank employees. There’s the abandoned Civil Defense supplies from the Cold War, the bank vault, and even the old Crystal Barbershop.
“It’s really cool to see unused and unseen spaces in their former glory,” said tour guide John Sand. “And we’re really excited to share these spaces with the community of Missoula. Because it’s really an important part of our history.”
The “back alley” portion features lost landmarks and coal chutes, leading to the historic Elks Lodge. Rarely seen by the public, it’s a treasure trove of mid-50s art deco design, photos and other artifacts dating back to when the most notable men in Missoula hung out here for a cigar, a workout and sporting events.
The Hammond Arcade Building is just as fascinating. There’s a “mid-century” office, complete with velour furniture and “Selectric” typewriter. And here in the basement, a “pop up” museum showcasing the artifacts we last showed you when the Mercantile was demolished last year. There’s even the infamous political ad questioning the “Missoula Octopus”, Merc manager Andrew B. Hammond, for his extensive holdings.
The tour shows our history isn’t really buried that deep.
“It’s like whitewashing over a painting and when you take off the whitewash you see what was here a hundred years ago, or a hundred-twenty years ago,” Curtis said. “And it’s still there and it’s still present. It’s fascinating.”
The tours will be offered every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in connection with the Downtown Tonight summer series, and every Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m. during the Clark Fork Market. Tours cost $7 to $10 and are open to all ages. However, there’s a lot of stair climbing during the hour to 90-minute tours, so consider your mobility and whether to take young children.
Visit missouladowntown.com/tours/unseen-missoula for more information and to register for an Unseen Missoula tour. Please contact Kalina Wickham via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (406) 543-4238 for more information.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News