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The Queen City of the Rockies, Old West opulence

Helena, Montana


John Treadwell Dunbar image

By —— Bio and Archives May 14, 2011

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imageHistory buffs and visitors who appreciate turn-of-the-century architectural decadence will love Helena, Montana’s state capital of 50,000+. Affectionately called the Queen City of the Rockies, Helena exudes Old West opulence, and those rushing by to Glacier National Park up north or Yellowstone to the southeast are committing a disservice by not stopping in, if only for a brief visit.

Step into Helena and you step back in time, back to the smoky, rough-and-tumble days when the nouveau riche went to great lengths to flaunt their new-found wealth and thumb their noses at the little people who aspired to join them on Nob Hill west of town, the mansion district.

Four frustrated miners from Georgia - the state, not the country - had just about given up their quest for glory when they took one final stab at their luck in a nondescript creek spilling down a mundane gulley in July of 1864. Southern perseverance payed off as they struck gold in a very big way. In a flash the word got out and yellow fever spread like a raging wildfire. A raucous, frantic tent city popped up over night on the banks of that little creek, commerce boomed and daydreamers began spending great wads of unearned cash in their overly optimistic minds.

You won’t find that section of the stream anymore as it was driven underground and flows, I’m told, beneath crooked and appropriately named Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s main street and home to the exquisite, tree-shaded walking mall that meanders among tall, dignified buildings on its southern end. The mall, and surrounding side streets, is one of the great attractions of Helena’s historic downtown.

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Clean and tasteful, you’ll find an array of specialty shops, salons, boutiques, eateries, leather stores, coffeehouses, art galleries, antique stores, bakeries, flower shops, tobacco smoke shops for the hackers and spitters, and lots more. Bring your camera and arrive early to avoid the crowds, and look closely for grand murals that adorn the sides of some of those old, stately brick and sandstone buildings.

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You can spend hours wandering about the towering downtown section. Considering the times when many of these structures were built, the scale is enormous. Pubs and bars and old restaurants are tucked away and hidden from casual view, known to the locals and patronized by a small army of contemporary professionals; lawyers and judges and politicians and a cadre of state bureaucrats that call this place home and keep Montana running.

For a taste of the past stroll into some of these old buildings and climb the creaky stairs or ride the creaky elevators and smell the must and study intricate wood trim and feel the waxed bannisters under the palms of your hands and step across squeaky hardwood floors and absorb the sophisticated antiquity, the stale relic of the past that smells like a thrift store. Then go back outside and wander down side alleys and look up at the blue sky and observe the red rust along the gutters and artistic patterns of layered brick walls and elaborate facades and those old, carved doors we ignore on our passage in and out.

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And just imagine the days when Helena was really humming, bustling and booming, hammers banging and saws ripping as the Queen rose skyward out of the wilderness with great pride, brick by brick, and whiskered men of great determination rode in wagons or on horseback and ladies in large, feathered hats maintained décor and watched their steps crossing the muddy street and the hems of their long, Victorian dresses were stained yellow and brown.

Back then you watched your mouth, too, because folks packed Colt .44s and Winchesters and lives were short and somewhat brutish, and cumbersome rules and regulations ad nauseam were unwanted burdens of the mysterious future. And the air reeked but no one knew the difference or could do anything about it and they simply shrugged their shoulders because that’s just the way life was.

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Buy something while you’re downtown, besides a pack of gum. A refrigerator maybe, or a shoe, or some fancy art work like a pretty painting of a naked lady on a plush couch looking sexy in that pasty-white, pudgy 1880s kind of a way. You know how it is. The conglomerate box stores dominating the northern skyline make it tough on the independents fighting for their independence, the real people. They can use all the help they can get.

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When we lived in the extreme north end of Lewis and Clark County a few years ago, along the majestic Front Range, we split our “city time” between Great Falls and Helena depending on our mood and whim of the day. Helena grew on us, Great Falls didn’t. There’s an awful lot to do in Helena. And being the state capital, those who control the state’s purse strings have gone to great lengths to make sure their home town is well-tended.

The monstrous state capital building is one such example where cost is evidently no object. Originally dedicated in 1902, a major renovation was undertaken in 2002. With a marvelous stained-glass, barrel-vault ceiling dominating the Grand Stairway, historic murals on display by Montana greats like Charles M. Russell, thousands of manicured plants and flowers adorning the capital lawn and life-size bronze sculptures of such notables as former U.S. Senate Majority leader Mike Mansfield and his wife Maureen, it’s well worth your time to stop in and wander the empty halls of power. And while you’re there, buy something, please, anything; a democrat maybe, or a republican. It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, and I hear they offer steep discounts to the slick and greasy.

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If I had to wrestle Helena to the ground and brand its furry flank with a red-hot poker I’d use the letter “C” for conservative. Unlike uber-educated, left-leaning progressive cities such as Missoula and its University of Montana, which has been called the Harvard of the Rockies, Helena is rather staid, proper you might say, comparatively speaking.

That’s not to say Helena doesn’t have its share of great thinkers. In addition to the College of Technology, Helena lays claim to beautiful Carroll College, one of the top-ranked, albeit small, liberal arts schools in the entire West, graduating a fair number of Fulbright Scholars. The small Catholic college’s brownstone campus looms big on the horizon, a landmark of sorts known for exquisite stained-glass artistry - works covering 450 square feet of stunning colorful images. Not only that, but their Saints football teams were National Champions in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007. Ponder that!

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No visit to Helena would be complete without a tour of the mansion district. The wealth of precious metals harvested here and elsewhere attracted the monied in droves. In the early days, Helena was crawling with more millionaires per capita than any other city in the U.S., or the entire world for that matter. We’re talking about real millionaires, when a million dollars bought more than a rundown, termite-infested duplex in West Los Angeles. Located in the West Hills, somewhat west of Last Chance Gulch, stroll through on foot, do a casual drive-by or view the unabashed architectural decadence from the comfort of the Last Chance Tour Train. It’s well worth the effort. And for crying out loud, help out the local economy and buy something while you’re over there. A mansion maybe, or that other shoe before it drops.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer