Friday July 11, 2014
Helena is one of those towns whose downtown oozes history. The chaotic street layout that began as the old paths to prospecting holes and mineral loads tells a story of luck and chance. This is not a planned city like Great Falls with its grid streets. This is a town that sprung up from fortune seekers that had one very lucky day.
The downtown area and the surrounding neighbourhoods are full of historic buildings and homes in all styles of construction. There are impressive double-story sandstone buildings with large windows and old, rickety boarding houses that have somehow resisted destruction over time. The streets are hilly and winding, with each bend providing a new view of the layers of time all still visible today. Old neon signs from the 1950s are juxtaposed against turn-of-the-century storefronts and government buildings from the 1920s. The architectural styles seem almost as chaotic as the street lay-out. But there are plenty of people downtown and it has a real vibrancy that is quite seductive.
The town got its start when hopeful miners en route to strikes in British Columbia got the bad news that the lode had played out. So they decided to head to the Marias River area of northern Montana instead. This did not work out for them either. However, on their way back they stopped in present day Helena and decided to explore a small creek where they’d camped. They said this was their ‘last chance’ to find gold. Luck looked kindly on them. On 14 July 1864, they found gold in the creek. They staked their claims, named the place Helena after a town in Minnesota, and the other fortune-seekers flooded in. Last Chance Gulch is still one of the main streets in downtown.
My first stop today is the Capitol building. I’ve now visited the Capitol buildings in Wisconsin (on a work trip), Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming (on bike trips). What I love about the building here is that it is so plain and simple. There are no ornate gardens or elaborate grounds. The inside is somewhat grand and has large murals, but it doesn’t have the intricacy of design or detail that the other buildings I’ve visited have had. It makes me laugh. It matches the anti-government attitude present in so much of the state. Even the other federal and state government buildings nearby are just small, plain 1950s and 1960s buildings.
Next stop is the state history museum. The woman at the front desk won’t let me take my Camelback inside but is happy to look after it for me. She says, “oh, the stuffed toys are cute”. I reply, “Those are my travel partners. You’re welcome to talk to them to keep them company. They’ll be pretty peeved they don’t get to go in”. She looks at me like I should be visiting the mental hospital instead of the museum. I guess you need the back story or to see the fully-loaded bike to understand.
The main gallery that depicts Montana’s history does so through the tools and implements used over time. Ugh. I am so not a gear girl. It is an interesting way to trace history and provide the link between exhibits. I’m sure my dad, husband, brother and other blokes in my life might actually find it interesting. To me, though, the tools only provide a teeny bit of social context. Never mind. I try to get into it, and I examine the tools quite closely from the Folsom period up until about the early 1800s, then my hardware attention-span is depleted. Please don’t quiz me about the tractors and farm implements from the latter stages of the gallery! I do read all of signboards that describe what happened and when in the history of the state, though.
I am quite disappointed when the exhibits end just after World War II and I am spat out into the hands-on children’s gallery. I guess it is appropriate. You go from the past to the future of the state in one giant, screaming, laughing, kiddo swoop. But to me, I’m really left hanging! What happened in Montana between 1947 and 2014!!?
I check out the other galleries – one natural history and Native American culture gallery and a gallery that features Charlie Russell paintings. He is arguably Montana’s most famous artist, but I just can’t get into his work. I think it is because his scenes are all action and conflict, all human-focused on very blokey things. I think his use of soft colours combined with very hard and defined lines on the subjects bothers me a bit, too. I’m not refined enough to understand the finer details, so his work is lost I guess on my redneck-ness.
I wander downtown and really enjoy looking at all of the buildings and trying to imagine this town at different points in time. I head over to the mansion district to see all of the elaborate and well-maintained homes built with mining money. I keep thinking: wow, that would be a lot of dusting and sweeping!
Late in the afternoon, I wander back to the hotel. The wildfire smoke that started drifting in yesterday has increased today. My lungs are raspy, so I think it’s time to get out of the smoke while I have the chance.
I stop at Wendy’s on the way home for chili and a baked potato. A man comes up to me outside and starts doing the ‘crazy man religious bible thing.’ He’s been saved and wonders if I’ve found our savior. I’m trying to be polite, but I don’t believe in a god, so I don’t have much patience with these sorts of people. He then asks me if I’ve seen miracles, just as the taxi he’s waiting on pulls up. I think, ‘well, thank god, that may have just been a miracle. And I’ve certainly been saved… from further harassment’!
I grab food at the supermarket and then spend the evening enjoying the smoke-free air-conditioned room and a whole bunch of fruit! I may have taken more than my share of the popcorn in the reception area, too….
Great day – I enjoyed this town. Much of the outer area is just suburban sprawl, but the downtown was very cool and I finally found some outdoorsy and educated-looking people. Thanks, Helena, it’s been fun!