KPAX Archive: The great Missoula flood of 1908

Posted at 10:14 AM, May 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-14 12:14:53-04

MISSOULA – Flooding, like we’re seeing now, often draws comparisons to past disasters — in this case, the big flood of 1908.

Back then, the water ripped through Missoula, it destroyed bridges and buildings and cut the town in two. We went back though the KPAX Archives and found a story we first air 16 years ago — showcasing one of the town’s worst disasters on record.

It was the 100-year flood. Back in 1908 it rained and rained for 33 days and the Clark Fork River started to rise.

"Floods everywhere, you know, it just hit Missoula on…early June and it began to knock out the different bridges and eventually it knocked out everything, said Bob Brown, the former director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.

It was devastating, houses were torn away from their foundations and floated away. The neighborhood is where the Holiday Inn Parkside is now located was underwater. And bridges everywhere collapsed under the force of the water and debris.

Early in the disaster, the Higgins Avenue Bridge was holding on. In June of 1908, watching the flooding was a spectator sport. People would stand on the bridge to watch the roaring river and debris sweeps past.

But one day, the city engineer told everyone to get off because he didn’t feel it was safe anymore. And just one hour later, the middle section of the bridge fell into the river — all but one section which stood alone in the middle of the Clark Fork River.

"Could have been disastrous. could have been absolutely disastrous," Brown recalled.

It was the last bridge standing and then Missoula was literally cut in half. No phone lines, no way across the river. The Missoulian used a bow and arrow to fire its papers across the river to reach the south side of town.

During the flooding, the former Milltown Dam — then known as the Bonner Dam — took a beating. Logs slammed into it, churning and twisting against the structure. What would happen if it gave way?

"They seriously thought the dam would go and if the dam had gone, all of Missoula at that point would have been underwater. I mean, forget it! It would have been wiped away," Brown said.

Back then, the Clark Fork River changed its flow according to the weather but it became a little too unpredictable.

Finally in the 1960’s, after another devastating flood in the 1940’s,  the US Army Corps of Engineers dug out deep channels to keep the river’s flow deeper and more consistent which helped create the river we know today.

Back in 1908, the Clark Fork River crested at just over 17 feet. There have been other big floods since and this one will no doubt join that list.