The historic and unused railroad station house in East Helena, a longtime landmark in the community, could be demolished by its owner, Montana Rail Link, within a month if funds are not found to move it to a new location off railroad property.

“I sure hate to see it torn down and go away,” said East Helena Mayor Anthony Strainer. “It’s in pretty shabby shape, but I think it’s worth saving if we can. … It means a lot to East Helena.”

Now, Montana Rail Link sees it as a liability and potential hazard. Lynda Frost, a Missoula-based spokeswoman for the railroad, said no particular event spurred the potential demolition, but that the company is always trying to keep its properties safe and remove unused infrastructure.

Montana Rail Link is happy to part with the building, but is not willing to pay for the move.

One possible new location for the station house would be near the Manlove Cabin, the oldest surviving structure in East Helena. It’s been relocated to its current site just off the junction of Route 12 at Route 518 (sometimes known as the Kleffner Ranch Road), which connects East Helena to Montana City.

That location is owned by the Montana Environmental Custodial Trust, which has been responsible for managing lands and cleanup related to the Asarco Superfund site.

“We would absolutely work with the city and the county, if they were involved, to find a place to put it,” said Cynthia Brooks, spokeswoman for the trust.

But that location also would probably require some funding for the trust’s costs for maintenance, security and liability insurance, she said.

Strainer and Pam Attardo, the city-county historic preservation officer, are seeking estimates and possible contractors for such a move.

The structure was built sometime after 1910 as a telegraph house, according to Bill Taylor of Missoula, who along with his wife, Jan, has written a pair of books on rail lines that connected gold and silver mines in the state. He said it matches the building plans in use by the Northern Pacific Railway at the time.

Back then, telegraph houses were located about every five miles along the railway, so the railway could keep track of the movements of the trains.

But the building wasn’t always in East Helena. It replaced an earlier depot that may have dated to the days of the Helena-to-Martindale stagecoach line and burned down on May 24, 1930.

Where the current structure came from is in dispute.

Taylor says the building came from western Washington state. The railway, he said, had designed the buildings to be easily disassembled and moved by rail. By the 1930s, telegraph houses were no longer needed, so the railway had surplus structures.

Dan Stinson of Helena, also a scholar of railway history, disagrees with that theory.

“Could you stick that building through the Mullan tunnel?” he asked, referring to the route under the Continental Divide west of Helena.

He says — and the website of the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association agrees — that it had a much shorter journey, from a site called Louisville (named after a mine in the Elkhorn Mountains) near Clasoil, a settlement near the current junction of Route 12 and Spokane Creek Road.

Stinson suggests that at some point, historians may want to take a look for clues — such as newspapers or other items under the floor and inside the walls of the structure, which buildings of that vintage often have for insulation.

Whatever the origin, the building functioned at its current site as an agency house for the railroad, tracking all the loads delivered to and from the Asarco smelter.

“It was a busy place,” Taylor said. “It operated around the clock.”

He and Stinson agree it probably stopped serving that purpose in the late 1970s or so, as the paperwork gave way to electronic data.

Stinson said most telegraph houses, once common in the rural landscape, were never saved. Telegraph operators lived in them in the remote locations, although there would have been no need for that once the structure was moved to East Helena.

The building is distinctive enough that the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association sells models of the building on its website for model train enthusiasts to use in their setups. The fact that it’s still standing is “a noteworthy feat for a wooden, line-side depot,” the association says.

“They sat unattended and died,” said Stinson. “I’m not sure where there’s another of these.”

Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or sanjay.talwani@helenair.com

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