The Old Fire Tower, called Guardian of the Gulch, is an official city landmark. This twenty-five foot fire tower was built in 1876 after a huge fire destroyed the downtown area. The octagonal cab was added in 1886 and last used in 1931. The Guardian of the Gulch was manned around the clock to keep watch over the city. If a fire was spotted, the alarm was sounded to alert the town to begin fighting a fire. The Guardian is the last remaining tower of the many that once existed in Helena. In fact it is one of only five of its kind left standing in the United States.
A hiking trail up to the tower is found off Cruse Avenue just across Broadway. A number of planting projects and weed control programs have created a hillside park for picnicking. The view from the hill encompasses Helena and the surrounding Scapegoat, Little Belt, and Sleeping Giant mountain ranges. The ‘Guardian of the Gulch’, Helena’s Fire Tower, is located south of the downtown area in Helena.
Pennsylvania brick mason Louis Reeder came to Helena in 1867 to practice his trade. Reeder invested in real estate and among his properties were these lots along the steep hillside of West Cutler Street. Between 1875 and 1884 Reeder constructed a series of apartments and bunkhouses offering single miners a comfortable alternative to log cabin accommodations. The simple masonry provided permanence and resistance to fire, a menace that plagued the early community. The complex included some thirty-five housing units in a collection of stone and brick buildings, including an existing log cabin Reeder ingeniously incorporated into the largest structure. The area was already known as Reeder’s Alley when Reeder died after a fall in 1884. The miners moved on, but over the years tenants remained mostly single and male. Twenty-three pensioners lived at Reeder’s Alley in 1961 when these buildings were rescued from demolition and rehabilitation begun. The narrow alleyway and closely spaced buildings nestled against the slope of Mount Helena today comprise the town’s most complete remaining block of the territorial period. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
Today, Reeder’s Alley is home to two great restaurants, a shop with restored antiques, a number of offices, non-profit organizations, and the Helena offices of the Montana Heritage Commission–stop in and say hello when you’re here. In December 2000, Darrell and Kathy Gustin, then owners of Reeder’s Alley, donated the Reeder’s Alley properties to the Montana Heritage Commission. The Montana Heritage Commission and the State of Montana are very grateful to the Gustins for their generous gift, and for their wish to preserve historic Reeder’s Alley into the future. The buildings in Reeder’s Alley are designated as an historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places with the National Park Service. Information obtained at www.reedersalley.com.
Pioneer Cabin (212 South Park Avenue)
In the fall of 1864, a miner named Wilson Butts staked his claim along Last Chance Gulch by building the snug cabin with large glass windows, the first large glass windows in Helena. Butts added a room when his brother and sister-in-law (Jonas and Luanna) arrived with their three daughters to live with him. The creek which drew Butts and other miners to Helena no longer flows, having been stopped by an earthquake in the 1930s. Before it disappeared, the creek produced over $60 million in gold.
Today the cabin is furnished to reflect the first three families who lived there; visitors can tour the cabin during the summer. When the cabin is closed, visitors can view the interior through the windows. Tours can be arranged/requested for the time you are in Helena. The Pioneer Cabin stands as one of the last remaining structures that represents early Helena. It is the only one of its kind in the state of Montana. It also serves as the gateway to Reeder’s Alley, the oldest part of Helena. The garden next to the cabin is available for weddings and parties. Please contact the caretaker to make arrangements. Please call and make an appointment to tour the Pioneer Cabin. Group tours available by appointment 24-hour notice preferred. (Print courtesy of http://visitmt.com/listing/categories_NET/MoreInfo.aspx?IDRRecordID=389&SiteID=1)
Caretaker’s Cabin (212 S. Park Avenue)
According to reminiscences of the Butts family, builders of the Pioneer Cabin next door, two cabins stood on this lot in 1865. William Davenport likely built one for his family and the William H. Parkinsons occupied the other. Sallie Davenport, later Mrs. A. J. Davidson, was eight when her family arrived from Missouri. She recalled that her cabin’s dirt roof “dripped for days” after a good rain. Twenty-year-old Jeannette Parkinson kept house in the other cabin. Her husband, a longtime steamboat pilot, was then fifty-three. Captain Parkinson turned to freighting and mining when he brought his young wife to Montana. The two tiny cabins served as interim housing and by 1875 had been incorporated into this single residence. Portions of the original log walls are still visible beneath the clapboard. By the mid-1880s, the dwelling marked the southern edge of Helena’s low-rent red light district, where a motley assortment of cabins and cribs stretched from here north to Wall Street. The former house of ill repute was rehabilitated for the caretaker of the Pioneer Cabin. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
Today, The Caretaker’s Cabin serves as a restaurant open for lunch Monday-Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and open for dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 5:00 to around 10:30 p.m. Call 449-6848 for more information.
Bluestone House (Orignally 34½ Wood St., now 80 South Warren • Built 1889-90)
Because of the Bluestone House’s singular appearance, it has been long misidentified as “The Castle”, which was an early Helena brothel south of the Bluestone House. “The Castle” is long gone. The true history of the Bluestone House is a mysterious one. It was built as a private residence by architect James. F. Stanahan, but it appears from records that none of the various owners of the house ever actually lived in it. The Bluestone House was badly damaged by the 1935 earthquakes. The 1970s saw the building reconstructed with grant money obtained by the Urban Renewal Historic Preservation Committee. Additional federal funding was allocated in 1983. Historian Ellen Baumler’s 1996 Independent Record article about the building tells the curious tale of this distinctive structure. Information obtained at http://www.helenahistory.org/bluestone_house.htm.
The fanciful façade of this nineteenth-century showcase was intended to convey a powerful message. Completed in 1889 for the insurance company of Samuel J. Jones at a cost of $40,000, the vivid imagery is an advertisement, showing how insurance offered protection against the ever-present danger of fire. Stylized flames on a metal cornice lap at the top of the building while salamanders, mythical creatures believed to be immune to fire, cavort above the flames. The central figure of Atlas holds the weight of the building on his shoulders. Originally there were two storefronts on the west ground floor and two that opened at the second-floor level onto Jackson Street. The New York Store (one of Helena’s early department stores) and a saloon were among the tenants during the 1890s. This exceptional building, with its grand off-center arched entry and rough granite detailing, is an excellent example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, inspired by H. H. Richardson. Designed by Helena architects Shaffer and Stranahan, the Atlas Block bears a striking resemblance to Richardson’s Crane Library, built in 1883 at Quincy, Massachusetts. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
Ming Opera House Consistory Shrine (15 North Jackson) A.K.A. Shriner’s Hall
Masons have been a dynamic force in Montana since early territorial days, playing key roles in events that shaped the state’s history. Helena Masons first came together in 1865 for the funeral of Dr. L. Rodney Pococke, for whom Rodney Street was named. The fraternal organization has since been closely intertwined with the Helena community. The Masons acquired this former opera house in 1912. Built by John Ming in 1880 and renowned throughout the Pacific Northwest, the theater hosted such famous performers as Otis Skinner, Eddie Foy, Marie Dressler, and Katie Putnam. In 1915, noted Helena architects George Carsley and C. S. Haire redesigned the building in the exotic Egyptian Revival style. Under the Mason’s care, the original hand painted 1880s scenery remains in occasional use, as does the spectacular $10,000 pipe organ they installed in the remodeled auditorium in 1915. This Helena landmark survives thanks to the stewardship of its owners and continues to serve as a meeting place for members of all the Masonic orders. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
Artist C. M. Russell illustrated the program for the formal ball, held April 12, 1913, inaugurating the largest hotel between the Twin Cities and the Coast. Built almost entirely with donations as a public enterprise, Helena felt real pride of ownership and the Placer quickly became the center of civic activity. Its name derives from the placer gold washed from the gravel during the excavation of its foundation. Architect George H. Carsley designed the building in consultation with Cass Gilbert, architect of New York’s famed Woolworth Building. The Placer’s wrought iron balconies, overhanging eaves, and wide cornice are reminiscent of the nearby Montana Club, designed by Gilbert in 1905. The seven-story hotel was constructed of reinforced concrete and Western Clay Manufacturing Company (now the Archie Bray Foundation) brick. Each of its 172 guest rooms, arranged around a U-shape, opened onto the outside. Custom-made china, cutlery, and bed linens—supplied by Helena’s New York Store—all bore the hotel’s prospector insignia. The hotel featured a carriage entrance, a lobby fireplace built for seven-foot logs, and a state-of-the-art kitchen with an automatic dishwasher and central refrigeration system. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
Time stands still within the quiet confines of this nationally renowned social club, the oldest in the Northwest. A group of Helena’s elite founded the Montana Club in 1885 “for gentlemen only.” Members built a seven-story building on this site in 1893, but fire consumed that landmark in 1903. A new Montana Club literally rose from its ashes. Cass Gilbert, architect of the Minnesota State Capitol and New York City’s famed Woolworth Building, incorporated the original first-floor stone arch design into the new plans. Completed in 1905, the American Renaissance style building sheathes a contemporary structural system in a classical façade. Over the years members have included copper kings, millionaires, and politicians who hosted such notables as Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. Perseverance and adaptability have seen the club through hard times and change. In 1915, women were first invited to the New Year’s Eve celebration, and gender segregation eventually became a thing of the past. Today, the Montana Club is one of Helena’s most commanding anchors, an ambassador from another era, where tradition endures in grand style. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
Iron Front Hotel (415 North Last Chance Gulch)
Helena architects Heinlein and Matthias designed this elegant European-style hotel, formerly the Windsor House. Built in 1888, it is Montana’s only known example of a prefabricated iron façade. The locally pre-cast façade represents a building trend popular in larger cities during this period. In 1889, House Republicans of the state’s first legislature regularly caucused in the hotel’s meeting rooms. The fourth-story ballroom features an oak floor once billed as the best dance floor in the West. Information obtained from the Montana History Wiki, a website of the Montana Historical Society.
The site for the building of the Cathedral church was selected by Bishop John Carroll. It was purchased in 1905 through a generous contribution made by Thomas Cruse. Mr. A. O. Von Herbulis of Washington, D.C. was commissioned to be the architect. Mr. Von Herbulis was trained abroad and was chosen because of his extensive knowledge of the Cathedrals of Europe. Mr. Von Herbulis submitted architectural sketches in two styles, Romanesque and Gothic. When the drawings were presented, the Gothic form was chosen and approved unanimously by the Building Committee and Advisory Board.
Columbia Construction Company of New York began construction of the Cathedral in 1908, with the cornerstone laid on October 4th that year. On November 8, 1914 the Catholic community of Helena gathered to celebrate the Eucharist for the first time in the new church. The first funeral held in the Cathedral was that of Mr. Thomas Cruse, loyal friend and Cathedral benefactor on December 26, 1914. The Cathedral was not completed for another 10 years. In June of 1924 the Cathedral was consecrated and set aside for the exclusive worship of God.
In the fall of 1935 a series of earthquakes struck the State of Montana. The Cathedral of St. Helena was not spared damage. The South tower was almost completely destroyed. The tower was reconstructed and reinforced to prevent future calamity. The reconstruction was completed by 1938.
The stained glass windows for the Cathedral were made and installed by the F.X. Zettler Firm of Munich, Bavaria. At the time of the dedication of the Cathedral forty six of the fifty nine windows had been installed. The Zettler Firm claimed that the thirty seven windows of the set that tell the story from the fall of Adam and Eve to the Church in the early years of the 20th Century, surpassed any windows made by the firm in the first 50 years of its existence. The remaining windows in the clerestory level were installed by 1926.
The interior of the Cathedral remained unchanged from its dedication until the mid-1950′s. Under the direction of Bishop Joseph M. Gilmore, the bronze altar canopy was installed; also the grillwork behind the altar and the gilding of the interior was added. The restoration was completed in April 1959 in time for the Golden Jubilee of the Cathedral and the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Diocese of Helena.
The Cathedral was renovated in 1982-1983 under the direction of Bishop Elden F. Curtiss. This renovation was to fully address the Liturgical Reform of the Second Vatican Council. Extensive repairs to the stained glass windows was also undertaken by the late Fr. Daniel Hillen.
In 1999-2000 repairs to the interior columns was completed. The columns had been damaged in the Montana Rail Link train crash of February 1989 and its resulting explosion.
The most recent renovation of the Cathedral begin 2002 under the direction of Bishop Robert C. Morlino continues today under Bishop George Leo Thomas. Both the upper and lower levels of the Cathedral were renovated. The lower level was completely remodeled to include the two new social halls and a complete renovated kitchen. The lower level was named in honor of the First Bishop of Helena, John B. Brondel. The upper level renovation included the sanctuary, Saint Joseph’s Chapel, new baptistry, and the installation of the elevator in the North Transept. Physical plant enhancements include a new heating system, renovated Chime System, renovated and enhanced pipe organ, restoration of the Stained Glass and covering their exterior surfaces with laminated plate glass, installation of new a sound system, construction of a new confessional, the removal of the old St Helena Grade School, construction and landscaping of a new main parking lot and exterior upgrade to the Faith Formation/Office building.
Guided tours are available the week after Memorial Day through Labor Day Tuesdays-Thursdays, 1:00-3:00 p.m. Other months of the year guided tours are arranged by calling the Parish Office, (406) 442-5825. For more information, please visit http://www.sthelenas.org.