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In search of... Montana Club's secret tunnels

2004-08-14T23:00:00Z In search of... Montana Club's secret tunnelsMARTIN J. KIDSTON - IR Staff Writer - 8/15/04 Helena Independent Record

The keys clattered in the hands of J. Anne Roberts when she approached the door to the rathskeller, a place that holds its secrets close and where the past is never far away.

In a literary sense, Roberts is the guardian of an invisible underworld, a place that few venture and where mystery abounds. She knows every nook and cranny of the Montana Club, and most of the stories that lurk within its shadows.

"We had a very strange night here once," Roberts began, thinking back nine years. "The phone lights came on. There were only three of us in the building, and none of us were making any calls."

The police arrived that night asking what was wrong. Why had Roberts called 911?

"We didn't call 911," Roberts implored. "The police searched the club. When they left, they couldn't guarantee we were alone."

The Montana Club is a massive place, occupying 56 percent of the seven-story building which rises on the corner of Sixth and Fuller avenues. It's one of Helena's tallest and most prominent structures, and it plays a large part in the city's lore.

But much of the club lies hidden from view, and many of its stories remain a mystery. After all, the building runs nearly three stories underground and is rumored to have hidden passages branching under the city.

Roberts, an affable woman with a knack for making her patrons feel at home, opened the door to the rathskeller, the first stop on our subterranean tour.

The rathskeller -- a type of tavern -- is a warm place with its rich faux leather, lavish heraldry and antique paneling cut from Washington fir. Electric candles cast a warm red glow throughout the room. It feels more like a captain's galley than a one-time party palace for the rich and famous.

"These were popular at the turn of the century," Roberts said, moving behind the bar. "It's one of the finest historic city clubs in the country. We have international and national guests that are just wowed by this place."

In the past, the rathskeller has hosted the likes of Mark Twain and President Teddy Roosevelt. More recently, it catered to Askar Akaev -- the president of Kyrgyzstan -- along with Liz Claiborne and her husband, Art Ortenberg.

Roberts pulled aside a curtain guarding a recess in the wall. The outlet cuts under the sidewalk on Sixth Avenue, and the traffic rumbles above.

At one time, Roberts said, the club served as a private playground to the state's millionaires. Many of them indulged in high-stakes poker games behind these very curtains. Legend says their essence still lingers.

"Some won't come down here by themselves," Roberts grinned. "There's a fear of spirits."

It was here in the rathskeller that bartender Julian Anderson stashed his patrons' booze during Prohibition. He came to work for the club in 1893 and stayed on until 1953, when he retired as one of the city's most prodigious characters.

If the tunnels were used by the club's patrons, Anderson would have known about it. So too would Ellen Baumler, a historian with the Montana Historical Society, whose knowledge of Helena history runs deep.

"There was definitely a whole series of tunnels underneath Helena," said Baumler. "They were built to deliver the steam heating system throughout the city."

Baumler said the Montana Club indeed had access to the tunnel system. While she dismissed the idea that the tunnels were used to ferry the club's rich and famous to the city's bordellos, she does believe they were used for clandestine purposes during Prohibition.

"The legislators often stayed at the Placer Hotel, and the tunnels connected it to the Montana Club," Baumler said. "They probably did ferry liquor back and forth, along with political messages."

The club's underground chambers don't stop here. Below the rathskeller are two more floors. It's a maze of abutments, dead ends and hidden rooms, and it's better described as a dungeon than a sub-basement.

Roberts hit a switch at the top of the stairs. The lights flickered on to wash over the foremost cellar. Deep shadows pressed throughout the room, hiding the cellar's darkest recesses.

The boiler hums. An alley window sits high above. More steps come into view, bridging the stonework, descending down deeper still.

These rooms have their stories, Roberts said -- tales of tragedy and heartbreak. Few ever come this far and, because of it, a fine dust has settled in. The fabled tunnels are still hidden. A look around the chamber, they could have been anywhere.

Back in 1903, the 14-year-old son of Anderson, the bartender, freely wandered this club. On April 28, the boy, who had been hired to operate the club's elevator, made his way to the seventh floor with foul intentions.

History says the boy had a penchant for fire. He delighted in watching the local fire department race its team of horses through the streets. Hoping to spark the department into action, he set fire to the club and sat back to watch the excitement build.

"He started the fire on the upper floor," Roberts said. "It traveled down floor by floor. The fire department didn't have enough water to fight it."

Much of the old building collapsed into these underground hollows. The foundation remains, along with a brick wall cut by an arch. The arch opens to a back room -- a forgotten room wrapped by stone and timber.

It's here that a flight of wooden steps leads to a platform -- another room set into the wall. Could this be it, the way to the tunnels? The full force of light doesn't reach this far, but there's enough to see the room's shape -- something like a subway platform.

The room sits under the sidewalks on Fuller Avenue. A massive steam pipe runs along the length of the room, punching through the brick wall that now caps the room's southern end. The old tunnels have been blocked, but here they were.

"Most towns across the West had the same system," Baumler said. "In Butte, they were filled in with sand because the streets were collapsing."

In Helena, during urban renewal, city crews uncovered similar tunnels under Broadway.

"I assume they were filled in as well," Baumler said. "But Helena is full of tunnels and holes."

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 447-4086, or at mkidston@helenair.com.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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