A part of East Helena’s history is becoming a focal point for an effort to protect more of the community’s heritage.
Work is ongoing to find a permanent home for the Montana Rail Link railroad depot, which was moved to East Helena from the historic town of Clasiol, about 8.5 miles outside East Helena.
The weathered white building was among the legion of telegraph offices that once dotted the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks at roughly 10-mile intervals.
Messages for passing locomotives used to be hung outside of these buildings and snatched by a crew member as a train passed by.
The 18-foot-4-inch-by-24-foot-five-inch building was moved to East Helena in 1930, said Pam Attardo, the Helena/Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council’s heritage preservation officer, and has been the railroad depot there ever since.
Few of these telegraph offices remain, she added.
Montana Rail Link, which now manages the tracks that pass through East Helena, contacted Attardo in 2012 about moving the building with its green shingle roof and red brick chimney from its current site.
The movers that were going to relocate the building, however, were unable to complete the task, she added.
Attardo went back to Montana Rail Link, which then agreed to donate the $2,500 cost to have the building relocated. It will be temporarily placed next to another prominent East Helena historical remnant: the Manlove cabin that was reportedly built in the 1860s when the town was just a stage stop.
Part of the plan to find a permanent site for the depot and the cabin too involves creating a historical society in East Helena, Attardo said.
The hope is that the Montana Environmental Custodial Trust, which involves state and federal agencies, will allocate some of the Asarco land as a home for these crucial pieces of East Helena’s history. The land is undergoing an environmental cleanup.
Nearly two dozen city residents met in mid-February to talk about their town and the passing of its history. Another meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on March 19 at the East Valley Middle School.
“We’re pretty excited as there’s a great deal of interest” in preserving the community’s history, Attardo said.
Previous interest in seeing the community history book “Prickly Pear Junction” reprinted has also played a role in fostering a concern for the city’s history, said Ron Whitmoyer, the East Helena School District superintendent, who is among those wanting to see local history preserved.
He came to East Helena 30 years ago to teach math and science. This has been his home ever since.
Whitmoyer explained his interest in helping care for the community’s history by saying, “I love my town. That’s what it boils down to.”
“This building was actually slated to be torn down until Pam got involved with a couple of other community members,” he said.
Fire has claimed some of the community’s history as has time.
“This is critical history for our community that was to be lost too,” he said.
“We have a very proud community,” he continued. “We have people who have grown up here and dealt with adversity over time and don’t want that heritage to fade away.”
The concept being discussed by local residents who are concerned with historical preservation is to have a place to celebrate their heritage as it existed from 1888, which would note the role of the railroad in converting what was once a stage stop — Prickly Pear Junction — into a town.
“The possibilities are endless really,” Attardo said.
Plans call for restoring the telegraph station’s living quarters that with the passage of time have been converted to a ticket counter, she added.
Despite working with the trust, it’s still uncertain if the community will receive the ground it hopes to use as a historic site.
“I’ve been working with them for two years and never been able to get a date” on when land would be made available, Attardo said.
Creating an East Helena historic society, she explained, is intended to show the trust that the community is serious about wanting to safeguard its history and is able to raise money for maintenance and restoration work.
“This is something that East Helena should own and be proud of,” Attardo said of the railroad depot. “This little building is a gem.”
“Now there’s relatively few of them left.”