The confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers, six miles east of Missoula, has been many things to many people — a dam, a Superfund site, a reservoir, an ice rink, a fishkill, a fishing pond and now, after decades of cleanup and construction, Montana’s newest state park.
To preserve an oral history of these ebbing and flowing identities, the Bonner Milltown History Center and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula have partnered to create the Milltown Memories Project, which will host a booth at the opening of the new 500-acre Milltown State Park on June 23.
Judy Matson, codirector of the History Center, recalls one recent memory:
“We floated through the confluence on a fall evening in 2014. We put in at Weigh Station. The river was lazy and we had to maneuver around some sinker logs that lined the banks. When we passed the last I-90 bridge and the rivers joined, it was amazing to realize that the project that we had been working on for 12 years was actually a reality. Strangely, we couldn’t quite remember where the dam had been as we floated by the bluff.”
The dam was built in 1908 by Butte copper king William Clark to power the nearby timber mills that kept his mine shafts buttressed, and when those mining areas flooded that same year, toxic sediment washed downriver from Silver Bow Creek and settled on the reservoir bed behind the dam. Drinking water tests discovered heavy metal contamination in the 1980s, and the Milltown Reservoir was declared part of the Clark Fork River Superfund Complex, which stretches all the way upstream to the Berkeley Pit.
Not all the memories are as toxic as the soils, and in his recorded recollection for the memory project, Jimmie Willis remembers Milltown as a good place to be a kid in the 1930s and ’40s, at least after you plowed the snow off the frozen reservoir.
“And then the river had different channels and the Hellgate River, I always call it the Hellgate, had air holes, remember those? And you’d hit them with the back of your skate and set a match and whoosh, flames’d shoot up. Yeah, the gas was in there,” Willis said.
In 2008 the Clark Fork was rerouted to drain the reservoir, and excavators clawed apart the dam and spent years scraping the soils, which were hauled upriver to the Opportunity waste repository. Then came landscaping, native plant reintroduction and trail building on the confluence’s four banks.
Since it’s bisected by rivers, the park, which is divided into six noncontiguous units, can be a little confusing to navigate. The grand opening will be held on the north bank of the Clark Fork just downriver of the confluence. There’s also a lookout point and trails in the hills on the south side of the Clark Fork, as well as trails along the north banks of both rivers.
For those looking to record their own brief anecdotes about Milltown, Matson says to look for the white tent at 7501 Juniper Drive.