Missoula’s buried past

A Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) study currently in progress has unearthed some new (and old) infrastructural oddities downtown, some of which are just plain confusing.

The area bounded by the Clark Fork River to the south and Broadway to the north, Higgins Avenue on the west side and Madison Street to the east, and including the Wilma Theatre, is what the study calls Urban Renewal District V. MRA’s study seeks to identify blighted areas for purposes of tax allocation.

Steam tunnels lined with asbestos and antique wooden water mains that may or may not be attached to buildings (old water-line maps of the area are incomplete) are buried under URDV, but the MRA already knew that.

New to the plethora of downtown’s underground mysteries is a set of concrete bunkers under Bank Street that were described at Tuesday’s MRA meeting as “honeycomb-shaped.” The bunkers’ purpose had all in attendance bewildered.

The structures were discovered when First Interstate Bank explored the idea of erecting a new building at its current location at 101 E. Front St.

Theories expressed at the meeting suggested they may have once been part of the steam tunnel system that heated downtown buildings, or maybe vaults once used by stock brokerage Piper Jaffray when the company occupied a building nearby. No one was sure.

“We are in the oldest part of downtown,” First Interstate President Mike Hickey said Monday.

The steam tunnels and wooden mains first came to the attention of the MRA board in 2000 when the basement of the Hammond Building, adjacent to the Wilma, flooded.

The study will be discussed again at the Aug. 7 MRA board meeting. If approved it will move on to City Council, and when finalized will form the basis for an urban development plan for the area.

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