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Nuggets from Helena: Fire Tower a Christmas tradition and testament to historic preservation

Nuggets from Helena: Fire Tower a Christmas tradition and testament to historic preservation

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Firetower (copy)

Helena's iconic Fire Tower is illuminated with string lights in this file photo from October 2019. 

The iconic Fire Tower on the crest of Tower Hill has stood watch over downtown Helena for 145 years. The existing fire tower is actually the third in a series of fire watch towers that have guarded the Gulch since the late 1860s. The current tower was originally constructed in 1874 at a cost of $100, as noted in the March 19,1874 edition of the Helena Daily Herald. The threat of fire was constant concern in frontier mining camps. Most buildings were hastily constructed of wood and built too close together. Once a fire started, many of the adjacent structures were rapidly engulfed by flames. One of the first civic tasks to confront inhabitants of early western mining camps was marshaling a collective effort for providing a semblance of adequate fire protection.

Helena's topography, when mixed with high winds, creates a prefect combination for encouraging catastrophic fires. The original Helena townsite sits at the confluence of two gulches which permits winds to gain strength. This phenomenon often aided in initiating and perpetuating disastrous fires. Helena's early history is replete with one devastating fire after another. Last Chance Gulch was the scene of a series of ravaging fires in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Former Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan noted in a Jan. 19, 2014 Independent Record article, the devastation which resulted from one early Helena fire:

"At about 7:30 in the morning of January 9, 1873, smoke could be seen rising from a small house in Chinatown at the southern most part of town. By the time the fire had run its course, it would burn a swath north to south from Cutler to Broadway and east to west from Main to Joliet, roughly what is now Cruse Avenue. The fire killed one man, destroyed 150 buildings and dwellings and resulted in nearly $900,000 in damage. The fire consumed the law library of Wilber Fisk Sanders, prominent Helena attorney. Sanders' library included a significant and irreplaceable collection of books and papers of the Montana Historical Society. [Sanders' library went up in smoke.]"

In the aftermath of these fires, the city purchased more fire fighting equipment and installed additional cisterns. It also hired two watchmen to man the top of Tower Hill to guard against damaging fires. The hill, as it does today, offered a panoramic view of downtown Helena. Each watchman worked a 12-hour shift. Fire watchmen were among the first public employees of the fledgling city. By 1886, the fire lookouts were paid the princely sum of $75 per month! At the first sign of smoke, the watchman on duty would ring a large bell on the tower which alerted citizens of an impending fire. The city was divided into fire zones and the bell tolled out the requisite number rings of a particular zone communicating the location of the fire. By the early 1890s the watchmen were no longer needed in the Fire Tower. By then the city had developed a system of fire alarm boxes and telephones to communicate with the Fire House. The Fire Tower would no longer be needed for fire prevention, but to the dismay of generations of Helena children, a fireman would climb the steep Fire Tower ladder every evening at 8:45 p.m. to ring the Fire Tower bell announcing the nightly city curfew. This practice continued until the difficult winter of 1931 when the bell's mechanism froze and was never repaired.

As time passed, the Fire Tower fell into disuse. The extremes of weather took a toll on the aging timbers and the structure was a frequent target of vandalism. The tower sustained significant structural damage in the devastating earthquake of October 1935. Following the earthquake, some called for the Fire Tower's demolition and removal. Nearly 20 years later, a lightning fire further undermined the Fire Tower’s structure, forcing the fire department to remove the massive 2,200 pound fire bell which remained in the tower. For many years the bell was located at the Helena Civic Center and then was moved to Constitution Park, where it sustained considerable damage from vandals over the years. The bell was refurbished by Helena firefighters in 2011 and moved to its current location at Fire Station Number Two on North Hannaford Street. The bell is inscribed with the words, “Helena Queen of the Mountains.”

Preserving a prominent piece of Helena history

Preservation of historic buildings and places requires vigilance. The fact that the Fire Tower survives is a testament to dedicated community of volunteers who over many generations have routinely rallied to preserve the historic structure. Beginning in the early 1950s, a civic effort championed by the Helena Chamber of Commerce, L.P. Barney, a longtime local building contractor, and an army of local volunteers worked to shore up the sagging structure of the Fire Tower. In the 1960s the Last Chance Gulch Restoration Association began raising public funds for needed repairs to the tower, adding protective fencing and interpretative signage detailing the structures historical significance. In 1964, as citizens of Helena celebrated the city's 100th anniversary, the Fire Tower and the slogan “Guardian of the Gulch” became the city's official symbol.

The late 1960s and early 1970s ushered in the era of Urban Renewal in Helena. This multi-million dollar revitalization effort was part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Its objective was to reshape America's urban landscape. As a result, the face of downtown Helena was altered forever. More than 240 structures in the area were razed in the process. About this time, members of the Soroptimist Club of Helena began what would be a nearly 30-year effort to preserve the Fire Tower and conserve the Tower Hill site. In 1972, the club was part of broad local effort that successfully led to listing the Fire Tower on the U.S. Interior Department's National Register of Historic Places. The club worked to protect the Tower Hill site with improved fencing. By the late 1980s, it led the effort to illuminate the Fire Tower for the first time. By the 1990s the club's efforts had resulted in raising nearly $20,000 for much-needed restoration work to the Fire Tower and surrounding Tower Hill area.

In what would become an annual tradition, in the mid-1990s, the Fire Tower was lit with strings of lights for the holiday season. In the early morning of Aug. 2, 2016, an arson fire damaged the southwest strut of the Tower and subsequent engineering inspections revealed structural issues throughout the entire edifice. Consequently, in 2017 and 2018 the tower was lit by spotlights because it was deemed too risky to allow personnel to climb the structure to install string lights. In July 2019, the city hired wood scientists to evaluate the integrity of the Fire Tower’s timbers to determine which were sound and which needed repair or replacement. The specialists concluded that the Fire Tower, with proper repair and replacement of specific timbers, would continue to grace Tower Hill for many more years to come. This year, the city was able to return to the traditional string lighting after generous volunteers, including Dick Anderson Construction, Electrical Solutions, Nitro-Green and FastSigns affixed lighting to the tower via a lift truck. The new lighting will have a life span of 10 to 15 years. 

Since the 2016 arson fire, a volunteer group, Friends of the Fire Tower, has sought ways and funding to repair the Fire Tower. The aim of this group is to preserve the iconic tower for future generations. Friends of the Fire Tower and the City Parks Department continue to work with the Montana Preservation Alliance, the City-County Heritage Tourism Council and others to find long-term repair solutions for the tower.

This year, with the approach of the holidays, the new lights on the historic Fire Tower are stunning. The tower's silhouette is beautiful in the night sky. As Helenans, we should be grateful that the city's founding generation had the foresight to build the Fire Tower and that succeeding generations volunteered and were committed to preserving this iconic historical landmark. The Last Chance Gulch Fire Tower: a historic icon and wonderful holiday tradition. Happy Holidays and best wishes for the Helena Fire Tower's 146th year. 

Mike Shields is a retiree and serves as chair of the City of Helena-Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly “Nuggets from Helena” column in the Independent Record. Previously published articles concerning the Fire Tower by the late David Walter and the history of the Helena Fire Department by former Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan were referenced in preparing this article.

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