History of Fort Missoula

Heritage and Future Meet
Fort Missoula Regional Park and the Civilian Conservation Corps

Fort Missoula Regional Park is a 21st century project – but its traditions date from Missoula’s frontier years and the Great Depression of the 1930′s.

Fort Missoula’s origins date from 1877, when frontier soldiers of the U.S. Army constructed its first log buildings. Through the Gilded Age the small post grew into a pillar of the community as it hosted city dances, dress parade reviews, and even a visit from Mark Twain. Its location brought to Missoula figures of national military importance such as General William T. Sherman and the future World War I leader General John J. Pershing.

Commencing in 1888, the fort provided a base for the U.S. 25th Infantry Regiment’s ‘Buffalo Soldiers.’ One of four segregated African-American regiments established after the Civil War, the unit added racial and cultural diversity to the growing city of Missoula. While stationed at the fort, a select group of Buffalo Soldiers tested the practicality of the bicycle for military use. Soldiers conducted training rides to the Mission Valley, Yellowstone National Park, and in 1897 to St. Louis, Missouri. The 25th’s cycling legacy lived on when 1970′s Missoula bicycle enthusiasts founded the National Bikecentennial Organization. The Bikecentennial later honored the 25th’s ‘Bicycle Corps’ by establishing the Trans-America Bicycle Trail over their 1897 routes.

The Progressive Era left Fort Missoula its most prominent and enduring architecture. Montana Senator Joseph K. Dixon, a personal friend and later campaign manager for President Theodore Roosevelt, secured substantial funding for Fort Missoula improvements during the pre-World War I years. The log and frame structures of the frontier fort yielded to expansive barracks, officers homes and headquarters buildings constructed in Spanish Mission Revival and neoclassical styles. The U.S. Army’s desire for greater public prestige joined with the ‘City Beautiful’ movement toward more pleasing urban design, creating a legacy of architecture reflecting the arrival of the nation as a growing world power. Missoula’s “Million Dollar Post” received critical acclaim for its appearance and amenities.

The post’s busiest years arrived in tandem with the economic emergency of the 1930′s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression entailed creation of a national Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC sought to put unemployed young men to work on public land conservation projects, and in 1933 the 4th Infantry Regiment garrison at Fort Missoula received orders to host and supervise Montana’s CCC District Headquarters.

The CCC eventually employed nearly 2.5 million corpsmen in projects around the nation. Fort Missoula processed and trained over 40,000 corpsmen over the course of the Depression decade. Many 1933-42 District HQ buildings were sited on the Regional Park’s grounds. Army and civilian CCC employees, including a cadre of women clerical staff, saw to the corpsmen’s health and supply needs before dispatching them to work in Montana’s forests and prairies. Deployed in sixteen camps around the state, Montana corpsmen served the growing American belief in resource conservation by reforesting logging areas, reversing soil erosion, building wildlife refuges, and improving visitor services in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. During their service the Montana CCC men planted over 5.5 million trees, erected 500 small dams, and constructed 776 bridges.

Before their service many corpsmen ceased their schooling before or after the eighth grade, and the CCC made continued education a priority. Courses offered corpsmen a chance to earn certificates in a variety of academic and vocational subjects. Many pursued training in auto mechanics, diesel repair, interior decoration, art, geography, aeronautics, woodworking, surveying, radio maintenance, and forestry. These skills served the corpsmen well during World War II and later civilian careers.

Where young men go, sports usually follow. Organized sports were a feature of Fort Missoula life almost from the post’s inception, and soldiers played local residents in baseball matches throughout the 1890′s. Army football teams provided some of the University of Montana Grizzlies’ first opponents, aiding in the launch of another venerable Missoula tradition. The CCC gave its corpsmen a wide choice of competitive activities for their off-hours. Intramural basketball, baseball, and football joined track, tennis and boxing leagues as outlets for the corpsmen’s athletic inclinations. In 1939 the Works Progress Administration erected a large log recreation hall at Fort Missoula that offered bowling alleys and indoor games as further diversions.

The onset of World War II in 1941 caused the CCC’s disbandment as its recruits were directed to military service. Fort Missoula found use by the Immigration and Naturalization Service as an Alien Detention Center for citizens of the enemy Axis powers. Italian nationals were interned at U.S. ports and at the World’s Fair, and resident Japanese nationals detained throughout West Coast communities. The later group countered their confinement through construction of a self-designed golf course, and the Italians brought to “Camp Bella Vista” bocce ball and soccer tournaments. Montana’s soccer history likely began with establishment of the state’s first field at the Alien Detention Center. Even global conflict contributed to Fort Missoula’s sporting traditions.

Conservation, Education, and Recreation – Fort Missoula contributed directly and indirectly to instill these values in Missoula residents and visitors. After completion, Fort Missoula Regional Park will continue these benefits for coming generations in this new century and beyond.