Fly fishing

Harmon’s Histories: Missoula North Pacific Depot Featured Trout Pond

Northern Pacific Depot and fish pond in front of the depot, Missoula. (Stan Healy Photo Collection, Montana Memory Project, University of Montana)

Public art is everywhere in Missoula today: the Paxson murals in the courthouse, the Water Hook series at City Hall, ornate traffic lights, and (my favorite) the squashed cat in front of the Central Park parking lot (yes, I know, it’s actually titled “Cattin’ Around”).

Public art was also available over 100 years ago.

For example, at the spot in Circle Square where “Crossings,” artist Taäg Peterson’s depiction of railroad trestle across western Montana now resides, there was a rock statue and a fountain.

This work, completed in 1914, delighted passengers alighting from the North Coast Limited train.

Well, actually, it wasn’t the sculpture itself that caught their attention as much as the pond surrounding the artwork – a pond full of huge trout!

North Pacific board member WP Clough of Chicago, after seeing the sight, said, “If he knew where he could find a creek so well stocked with trout…he would resign immediately and spend the rest of its days along its shores.

The first 11 rainbow trout to inhabit the pond were supplied by JW Rickman from his private pond in Victor.

In November, as ice began to form on the newly constructed pond, workers rushed to complete construction of a large aquarium inside the NP depot to display trout until spring.

A local woman, passing by the frozen pond and unaware of the work going on inside, said: “It’s worse than animal cruelty to keep these helpless fish in this cold water.

His mate was heard asking, “What about fish in open streams?” to which the complaining woman said, “You know as well as I do that the fish in the rivers all go south for the winter!”

In effect! Everybody knows that!

Ike Harpster, the North Pacific bandleader who designed the fountain and pool, was tasked with feeding and caring for the fish. Missoula Mayor Andy Getchell, himself a former railroad worker, “prohibited feeding anyone else.”

A fascinating story surrounding the fountain and pool was the story of a Minnesota man named Alan Jones, who stopped in town to spend a day or two. Jones gently placed his hand in the water to attract the fish.

Observers said the biggest trout in the pond would hit their hand, pull back, and then hit again. Eventually, the trout would fight off any other fish trying to “get near Jones’ hand in the water”.

Others have tried the same trick without success. According to a story from Missulian newspaper, “the fish would pass all others who put their hands in the pool water and only respond to the Minnesotan.”

Of course, there have been some problems with the public fountain over time, especially the little boys. Apparently they would relish trying to poke the fish with sticks and poles. Soon a fence had to be built around the fountain.

Missoulian, August 29, 1929

Despite the fence, the young delinquents still managed to terrorize the fish for years. In 1929, NP Division Superintendent JH Johnson pleaded with parents to urge their children “not to throw trash in the pool or attack the fish.” Johnson noted that one of the fish had been seriously injured by a hook and line.

Ten years later, in 1939, railroad officials threatened to remove the fish altogether if “people persisted in throwing things in the water, like broken glass and tin bottle caps”.

Unfortunately, boys will be boys. In June 1940, two miners were arrested by police after snagging a large rainbow “using a fly rod and spinner”. They were paraded before a police judge and given a “long lecture on the subject of knowing where not to fish”.

Another popular story was that of an old man who passed a baited hook through his coat sleeve and dropped it into the waters of the fountain, in order to mask his illegal fishing. When he had a bite, he’d roll the trout up his sleeve…so nobody was the wiser.

Today, the rock statue is gone. The fountain has disappeared. But as you drive around the red XXXX, don’t be surprised if you feel a sudden urge to go fishing. I’m just saying.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula newscaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at [email protected] His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was”, a collection of 46 vignettes of western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.

At the spot in Circle Square where “Crossings,” artist Taäg Peterson’s depiction of railroad trestles across western Montana now resides, there was once a rock statue and fountain. (missoulapublicart.org)