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What Lies Beneath? UM Archaeology Class Digs Deep Into Missoula History

UM students explore underground Missoula

Story by Megan Petersen Photos by Todd Goodrich

 “Why would they have windows and doors leading to nowhere?”

Posed by Associate Professor Kelly Dixon, the question refers to features discovered beneath downtown Missoula. It’s one that The University of Montana Department of Anthropology is trying to answer, and one that has caught, and held, the attention of Missoulians for decades.

Local lore claims that downtown Missoula has quite the history—underground.

One of the most popular legends describes the “John Wayne Tunnel,” which the cowboy movie star allegedly used to travel between his room in the Florence Hotel and the Missoula Mercantile. That tunnel also was used to shuttle dirty linens from the Florence to a Laundromat on Front Street. Brothels, opium dens, speakeasies, and barber shops also are among the various operations speculated to have had a home in Missoula’s Underground.

Dixon and a group of archaeology students researched downtown Missoula’s fabled underground throughout fall semester in what Dixon calls an information-gathering mission. Building on research started by a graduate student working with the Missoula Historical Preservation Office in 2005, Dixon focused her regular fall archaeology field survey course on urban archaeology.

A group of fifteen graduate and undergraduate students worked to document, catalog, and photograph any information they could find about the Historic Missoula Underground. Although the course didn’t make any groundbreaking discoveries, it sparked curiosity in several people, including Nikki Manning.

UM students explore underground Missoula“This is their heritage,” Manning says of the community response. “They want to connect with that.”Manning, a graduate student in anthropology, has based her thesis on the Missoula Underground from 1870 to 1910. She is still in the initial stages of research, including scouring through archives for old maps, digging through downtown basements, and seeking firsthand or personal knowledge from the community. Manning presented her findings with the field survey class to the Missoula community at First Friday event in March. Hundreds of people attended the event, which was held in the historic Missoula Mercantile building. Manning hopes publicizing the research will encourage people to come forth with what they know about the Underground.

Jared Fischer, a senior studying archaeology, works closely with Manning and Dixon to create comprehensive maps that span Missoula’s history as his undergraduate honors project. He uses geographical information systems, which allow researchers to manipulate data to reveal relationships, patterns, or trends. Dixon explains it as stacked layers of data in a compilation of all the researchers’ maps.

Fisher uses technology to take data from several maps from the turn of the twentieth century, the 1980s, and recent years. Each GIS map outlines the building and street structures from each generation of physical maps, which are identified by different color outlines. These stacked maps can help researchers trace the changes that transformed downtown Missoula during the past 140 years.

UM students explore underground Missoula

Fischer’s project will be used by students this summer in a continuation of the Underground research. The anthropology department will team with UM’s Experience Montana program in the School of Extended and Lifelong Learning to further the Missoula Underground research with a three-week summer course June 10-28.

“With this summer course, we’re going to continue on where the fall class left off with mapping downtown,” says Bethany Campbell, project manager and summer course co-instructor.

The summer urban archaeology course will give students experience working in both field and lab settings to better understand the modern world of archaeology, which often is located in metropolitan settings. Students will learn to use modern technologies, such as Fischer’s GIS project, to map out Missoula’s Underground.

Ideally, if the students can locate an area where geophysical equipment like ground-penetrating radar will be effective, the field school will enlist the assistance of Professor Steve Sheriff of UM’s Department of Geosciences.

“The only way to know what’s really down there is to get in there or run the ground-penetrating radar,” Campbell says. “We’re going to use technology like GPR, GIS, and GPS to expose students to advanced technology in relation to archaeology and understanding how the Underground is laid out.”

Students also will use the Historic American Buildings Survey to try to paint an accurate picture of what’s been happening in downtown Missoula, according to Campbell. HABS is a U.S. National Parks Service collection that documents historic buildings throughout the country. The documentation began in 1933 as a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and has grown to be an extensive and heavily used Library of Congress collection. Summer course students will use the documents to track geologic, structural, and architectural changes in downtown Missoula.

The Missoula Historic Underground Project is just beginning, Dixon says. With increasing community interest and developing knowledge about the Underground, she and Manning hope future students will continue the research.

“If I can’t find any solid answers, I want to have done enough research and asked enough questions to prompt more research,” Manning says.

And they still don’t know what to expect.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of all that we could learn about the Missoula Underground,” Dixon says. “In archaeology, we might not answer our original questions, and often our discoveries create a whole new set of questions.”

And that’s all right with Missoula.

“It’s really cool to see all the history and all these things that we didn’t know,” says Missoula native and recent graduate of Carroll College Stephanie Peryam, who attended the Missoula Underground presentation. “It’s almost like there’s all these secrets being revealed.”

Montanan intern Megan Petersen is a student in the School of Journalism’s Class of 2014. Her work has appeared in the Montana Journalism Review and the Anaconda Leader. She is a native of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.


Note: This story will appear in the spring 2013 issue of the Montanan.

Top photo: A First Friday-goer checks out a window to nowhere in the basement of the Missoula Mercantile Building at the Missoula Historic Underground Project presentation this past March.

Middle photo: Anthropology Associate Professor Kelly Dixon, a driver of Missoula Underground research, converses with curious Missoulians.

Bottom photo: UM graduate student Nikki Manning presents her research to a full house in the Missoula Mercantile.