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Historic discovery uncovered at Top Hat bar

By Faith Smith, KECI Reporter, fcronin@keci.com
Published On: Nov 27 2012 10:28:20 PM MST
Updated On: Nov 27 2012 10:44:51 PM MST
MISSOULA, Mont. -

In the 1870s buildings like the Missoula Mercantile and the Florence Hotel rose above the dusty streets.

“This area of town is really old,” said Missoula resident Robert Steale.  “It doesn't surprise me at all that there's a bunch of secret little compartments, areas and tunnels.”

Now people like Steale are finding out more about a hidden world beneath the pavement, thanks in part to a new discovery at a historic restaurant where workers uncovered a secret door tucked beneath Missoula's Top Hat bar.

“It's crazy and it's definitely pretty cool!” said Steale. 

“There is a basement. When that basement actually was the original street line that's where the street was and as it gradually built up it was vaulted over and a lot of it was filled in,” said historian Bob Brown, who works at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. 

Brown points to an 1890s map of the downtown to explain what might be beneath the Top Hat.  A secret underground liquor chamber is shown roughly 120 years ago at the back of a saloon, a building that matches the current location of the Top Hat.

“This is the same old facade that Hammond would have been walking by,” said Brown.  “He would not feel uncomfortable walking downtown today, he would recognize a lot of it.”

For Brown the discovery is proof of what he's long known, Missoula's pioneers, Higgins and Hammond, carved an intricate history into Missoula's soul.

The Top Hat secret chamber had a few old horse shoes and old cans inside.

“Back in the day it was pretty secretive,” said Steale.  “You always had to hide this or hide that.” 

It's just one small peek back into Missoula's rich history, now with more mystery than answers.