Last structure on north shore of Missouri River demolished


If you’re running, walking or biking along the River’s Edge Trail or visiting Giant Springs, you might notice a changed view these days.

The former Wilhelm house on the north shore of the Missouri River, directly across from Giant Springs State Park, has been demolished.

The demolition is part of an effort by the Lewis and Clark Foundation to preserve the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and allow for completing the River’s Edge Trail on the north bank of the river. Funding from the Atlantic Richfield Company allowed the foundation to complete the project.

The Wilhelms purchased a 27-acre parcel of land across the Missouri River from Giant Springs in the 1970s and built their home, keeping the rest of the land undeveloped.

The foundation purchased the home several years ago, along with three parcels just upstream, to preserve the viewshed from both the Interpretive Center and Giant Springs State Park. The home was the only remaining private structure on the north side for an 18-mile stretch from Black Eagle Dam to Moroney Dam, according to the foundation.

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Since the Interpretive Center opened in 1998, the foundation worked to purchase the Wilhelm properties, valued at $665,000, according to the foundation’s website.

When the Interpretive Center was built, it was designed with large windows to offer a sweeping view of the Missouri River and north shore and the facility was oriented toward the undeveloped portion of the Wilhelm property, according to the foundation.

The couple’s daughter wrote in a Facebook comment on the foundation’s post that her parents sold the house and moved to Oregon.

In 2006, the Wilhelm family completed an application and requirements for subdividing the land into three 5-acre parcels and with the land advertised for sale beginning in March 2006, “the property was at serious risk of being sold and developed at any time,” according to the foundation.

For the foundation, the project preserves the view from the Interpretive Center and keeps the north shore in its natural state, as well as preserving the L&C National Historic Trail. It also provides access for future expansion of the River’s Edge Trail along the north shore and preserves public access and opportunities for programming for the Interpretive Center.

Paul Wilhelm was a local doctor and his daughter-in-law, Pamela Nester Wilhelm, wrote in a Facebook post about the demolition that Wilhelm was “a generous, hard-working, God-fearing WWII war veteran and husband…He wrote off so many low-income people’s dental bills and have away so much of his hard work to the needy in Great Falls and asked nothing in return.”

She said her father-in-law deserves respect and that many of the rumors surrounding the house are untrue. The supposed pool in the house did not exist, but was a year-round garden, she wrote.

The Wilhelms built their house about a mile east of what was then the city dump. The couple sued the city claiming that the city had negligently operated the landfill since 1977 thereby creating a nuisance. The jury found that the Wilhelms were 90 percent negligent in choosing their home’s location while the city was 10 percent negligent and that the city had to pay the Wilhelm’s $30,000 in damages. The court ordered a new trial since there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding and the case ended up at the Montana Supreme Court, which agreed with the lower court’s decision to grant a new trial. (Documents for the new trial are not available online, but The Electric will look for those documents in city and district court records to update this portion of the history.)

A brief background of the case, according to court documents: the city had operated a dump in the same location since the 1950s and before 1969 openly burned garbage at the dump. In 1973, the Wilhelm’s purchased the land and spend about $125,000 to build their home, having visited the property a few times prior to the purchase. The Wilhelm’s acknowledged that they were aware of the dump’s proximity and had not noticed any problems caused by the dump prior to 1977.

In 1977, city employees operating the dump went on strike and during the strike, someone set fire to the dump, causing smoke and stench and triggering many subterranean fires that continued to burn for the following two years. The Wilhelm’s home suffered smoke damages since it was downwind from the dump.

After the city quit operating the garbage shredder and garbage began blowing onto the Wilhelm’s property, according to the court document. In 1981, the Wilhelm’s charged that their well water became contaminated because of the dump. The city presented evidence that the contamination could have been caused by the Wilhelm’s septic system.