Among the historic structures in downtown Helena is the Montana Club building, which came to symbolize residents’ view of themselves and their aspirations for their city.
Founded in 1885, the Montana Club was pivotal in Helena’s development, said Ellen Baumler, interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society. “I think it really did help bring those aspirations, those lofty aspirations to the forefront,” she added.
And during an election nine years later on Nov. 6, 1894, less than 2,000 of slightly more than 57,000 votes cast gave Helena the laurel it and Anaconda both so ardently sought: designation as Montana’s permanent capital.
Construction of the Montana Club, on Sixth and Fuller avenues, followed a decade that began with the arrival of the railroad in Montana and ended with statehood in 1889. Building this red-brick and stone, seven-story structure was a way to help promote Helena.
“It was founded for art and not ostentation, and for culture and for elegance” in a place that was kind of a frontier town, Baumler said.
The building reflected the city’s image of refinement and elegance, which other Montana cities did not have, Baumler said.
“They wanted Helena to be viewed as a very cosmopolitan place, a place of refinement and not a gold camp,” Baumler said. “They wanted (Helena) to become this queen city of the Rockies.”
Born of the gold rush, Helena evolved and endured, unlike other communities that are ghost towns today or merely names of places that once existed.
“No other gold rush town became a viable town that’s still a town today,” Baumler said.
Not everyone who lived in Helena prospered directly from mining, but those who served the miners, such as the stockmen, also realized a share of the riches.
“I think the fact that they settled here, the fact that they had homes here — they really wouldn’t stand for anything less than Helena as capital,” Baumler said.
“I do think Helena was the most diverse place,” she added. “Most of the other towns were founded for the railroad, for agriculture — Great Falls for the hydroelectric power there, Missoula for the timber. Helena really was not founded for anything. Helena was the town that gold built and became the political center, and really no other town can say that.”
Time of transition
“Every town always seemed to hunger for the capital, for it would bring jobs and prosperity, prestige and permanence,” wrote Michael Malone and Richard Roeder in “Montana: A History of Two Centuries.”
Grasshopper Creek, where gold was discovered in 1862 in what would later be named Bannack, became the first capital. Gov. Sidney Edgerton ordered the territorial Legislature to assemble there.
There was a general understanding, wrote Jean Moore in a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1942 among the files at the Montana Historical Society, that Bannack would be the capital until a more permanent location could be found.
Edgerton settled the debate on where the capital should move by signing an act that declared Virginia City to be the winner, Moore’s article stated.
Malone and Roeder explain the capital’s new home by saying Virginia City had a larger population than Bannack.
Historical accounts say Virginia City, where gold was discovered in May 1863, had a population of 8,000 to 10,000. Miners, merchants and ruffians alike moved as the gold played out and new riches were discovered.
But even as Virginia City enjoyed the prestige of being the territorial capital, its population was shifting, and Helena, where gold was discovered on July 14, 1864, was growing.
“Since its discovery in 1864, Last Chance Gulch had grown by leaps and bounds. It had never been entirely satisfied with the selection of the capital site (and) as it grew its dissatisfaction became more and more in evidence until in 1866 it decided to show its fighting intentions for a much-wanted honor and finally succeeded in getting an act through the legislative assembly giving Helena an opportunity to submit her request to the territorial voters,” Moore wrote.
The decision, however, turned out in favor of Virginia City.
“The people of Helena refused to take their defeat gracefully, bided their time and in 1868 when a bill was introduced into the assembly to give the capital to Deer Lodge, it was amended to read Helena instead, and once again the vote for the capital went to the people and once again Helena was forced to accept defeat,” Moore’s account of the competition to be the capital continued.
The ballots from the election of 1868 on the location for the territorial capital — held amid widespread accusations of fraud — were destroyed by fire in the territorial secretary’s office in Virginia City, which raised suspicions, according to “Montana: A History of Two Centuries.”
“Five years from the date of the second decision in favor of Virginia City, Helena once more took up her feud,” according to Moore’s article.
A third election, held in August 1874, asked voters if they were for or against Helena as the capital. The election contained widespread irregularities. The Gallatin County vote was thrown out. The vote from Meagher County was “certified as fraudulent,” noted Malone and Roeder.
The Montana Supreme Court settled the matter in Helena’s favor after the United States high court refused to intervene, the authors stated.
The honor of being the capital city, at least for the time being, went to Helena in 1875.
Far from settled
The debate on where Montana’s capital should be didn’t end there, however.
Helena was not alone in its ardor for the honor, and several Montana towns began to realize they also could seek the capital. Which city would claim the prize became the talk of the state.
“It was later agreed that the capital should remain at its Helena location until a definitely permanent site should be chosen by the people’s vote, and that the people should have another opportunity to vote on it in the general election of 1892, settling for all time this great controversy. The two cities receiving the highest number of votes were to be eligible for the finals,” Moore wrote.
“For days names of different towns were proposed to the convention, and hardly any town of any size at all was omitted from the race. No effort was spared to make it hard going for Helena to hang on to her hard-won honor,” she added.
Of the seven cities that competed — Helena, Deer Lodge, Butte, Bozeman, Great Falls, Boulder and Anaconda — Helena and Anaconda advanced.
A flyer in the Historical Society’s archives typifies the rhetoric between Helena and Anaconda:
“Helena is a city — Anaconda is a village;
“Helena is everybody’s town — Anaconda is one man’s town;
“In Helena the people rule — In Anaconda a corporation rules.”
It ended with the assertion, “This fight for the capital is not Helena vs. Anaconda, but the people of Montana vs. Marcus Daily.”
Marcus Daily and William A. Clark were both immensely wealthy and at odds with one another. Daily wanted to see the capital in Anaconda and reportedly spent $2.5 million on this effort. Clark had made a deal with Helena — he had senatorial ambitions — and historians say he spent perhaps $500,000.
“If Anaconda had won, I just can’t imagine what would have happened,” Baumler said. “It’s really hard to imagine. Would all of these wealthy people have moved, or what would have happened?”
“But they did fight hard, and it was such a dirty race. I think they say each vote cost between $55 and $56, something like that,” she added.
Returns were projected onto a canvas hung on a neighboring building as the results were received at the Helena Independent, Dave Walter, a research librarian at the Montana Historical Society, wrote in a Nov. 3, 1994, story in the Independent Record.
“The local and state elections were nearly forgotten for all interest centered on the capital vote,” he continued. An estimated 1,500 people packed Broadway and Main Street to watch the results.
Early results put Helena in the lead. Choteau County gave Helena 1,007 votes to Anaconda’s 296. Meagher County went to Helena: 1,155 to 359 for Anaconda. Park County followed the trend: Helena 1,549, Anaconda 767.
“But by 11 p.m.,” Walter wrote, “returns began arriving from Anaconda strongholds, and the margin disappeared. The contest was ‘too close to call’ at 3 a.m. when a persistent drizzle finally dispersed the crowd.”
The morning saw the return of the crowds and finally the results from Butte, which would support Anaconda. The question was whether Helena was able to erode some of that support.
“Shortly after noon on Wednesday, the Butte figures chattered in,” Walter wrote. “Helena had snatched a surprising 40 percent of the Butte vote!”
A spontaneous celebration on Wednesday night saw some 2,500 people partying in the town. Walter recounts the celebration that centered on the saloons, but local bands marched through the streets while fireworks exploded erratically overhead.
Walter wrote that 5,000 people arrived in Helena for the official celebration on Nov. 12.
A parade that took more than an hour to pass a single point along the route moved through the city before ending at the city auditorium. The overflow crowds moved to the Opera House. Speakers went from one building to another.
Bands and people surged along the downtown district streets.
“Helena has never celebrated on such a scale — before or since,” Walter noted. “W.A. Clark reportedly picked up a bar bill of $30,000 for the festivities.”
“I think we still strive to be very cosmopolitan,” Baumler said. “We don’t have any industries really. … We live up to those aspirations of being the capital city, and most of us are involved in working for the government in one way or another.”
“I think as a town we really do work hard to bring people here, and we work hard to promote our town just like those men did who founded the Montana Club. We do that today with our tourism,” she continued. “We aspire to be the stopping place between Yellowstone and Glacier. And we don’t always go about it in the right way, but we do have those aspirations of making Helena the stopping place and center for everyone. And that’s really no different than it was in the 19th century, I think.”
While the Montana Club today is just one of many historic buildings in Helena’s downtown, it remains a place where the city’s spirit is celebrated each Thursday morning during Hometown Helena, a weekly gathering of community members and local business and civic leaders who address the latest Helena news.
“It is still kind of that center, where you have that feeling of worldliness and elegance,” Baumler said of the Montana Club.
“Those founders were good promoters. And it’s probably because of their promotion that Helena did become the capital and what it is,” she added.