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On a recent Saturday this past June, I was early for the farmer’s market. I headed up the gulch past Reeder’s Alley to the Mt. Helena parking lot, intent on a brief ramble before stocking up on fresh produce for the week. The weather report and the sky assured me that another round of rain was in my immediate future, but undaunted, I set out. After starting on the 1906 Trail, I veered right into the lower trails that wind through the prairie ecosystem. The wet spring had given plants and flowers an opportunity to thrive, the colors and fragrances were especially alive on this day. Even as the rain began to fall, I felt blessed that this natural world has been preserved for the many reasons we value our community and our heritage.

Mt. Helena, officially Mount Helena City Park, has always been an essential part of our city, and in recognition, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Since picnickers first enjoyed its quiet refuge during the mining camp days, to hiking enthusiasts powering up the steepest trails today, Mount Helena City Park has provided an “opportunity for a wide, clear view of the city’s physical history from far above, … dominating much of the built environment below, providing respite and open space for the city of Helena”, as expressed in the nomination for Mt. Helena’s inclusion in the National Register. It is home to ruins of mining operations, a limestone quarry, two reservoirs and abandoned wagon trails. Beginning in 1924, the painted white "H" has been the pride of the Helena High senior graduating class. In the 1940s, American and Canadian troops used the mountain’s varied terrain to train for combat. A closer look at that extensively researched nomination reveals a remarkable history that few of us ponder when enjoying the mountain today.

When gold was discovered in Last Chance Gulch in 1864, prospectors came to the area in droves. Mt. Helena’s heavily timbered slopes provided wood for buildings, sluice boxes and other necessities for mining activities. Livestock grazed the lower slopes. Over the years, periodic fires razed the town, and residents looked to the mountain for its limestone reserves. Quarries were developed to provide stone and mortar for more permanent structures. In the 1880s, the Woolston Reservoirs were built on the eastern slopes to store and provide water to the growing city below.

Today, we think nothing of the gender equality in attaining the peak, but women of yore were praised for their ability to hike to the top. In 1875, a “genuine frolic” outing prompted one gentleman to say “any young lady who can ascend and descend Mt. Helena without a murmur is capable of accomplishing almost any feat of pedestrianism.” When you consider that young ladies of the day were dressed in corsets and form-fitting bodices, petticoats, long skirts, laced up leather boots with heels, climbing any hill was a feat of pedestrianism. A bicycle club formed in 1883 that offered Helenans a chance to pit cycling skills against the terrain, and given bicycles of the day, that too was an accomplishment. The Powerline Trail, the clearing for the actual powerline and originally marked “No Trail”, became popular with use and is maintained with erosion bars today.

No matter how people get to the top, the views of the valley are what draw most to climbing Mt. Helena in the first place. In 1882, the Helena Daily Herald encouraged readers to “indulge themselves in an hour’s walk to the top of Mt. Helena and witness a revelation of greater beauty than can be found in all the art galleries on both continents.” The following year, those views included watching the Northern Pacific Railroad make its way across the valley to connect Helena with the outside world. In 1889, a bonfire that could be seen for miles was lit at the summit to announce Montana’s statehood, and again in 1894 when Helena’s designation as state capital was confirmed.

Decades of removing timber from Mt. Helena’s slopes, along with periodic forest fires left it largely denuded. On Arbor Day in 1899, to the accompaniment of Fred Kuphal’s classical violin, Helena schoolchildren made their way up a ravine, each carrying an evergreen seedling. This outing was the first recorded efforts to reforest the mountain. For years, musicians from the Helena Symphony returned to the site of that first planting on the summer solstice to play music and commemorate the event.

By the end of the 19th century, Mt. Helena was in desperate need of restoration and improvement. Nearly treeless, pitted from years of mining exploration and grazed to barren soil, its condition was indicative of the entire West; exploitation of the natural world for the sake of settling the frontier. In 1898, the Helena Improvement Society (HIS) was formed. Called “a most potent force for good in Helena”, it turned its sights to Mt. Helena. After all, Helena was at that time touted for having more millionaires per capital than any city in the country, yet it didn’t have a park. While the condition of the mountain land was thought to have little economic value after years of mining, grazing and timber removal, it did have recreational and aesthetic value. Residents could “gain a fresh perspective for their lives by climbing to the top.” Developers’ original plans (which thankfully were unrealized) called for a “great pleasure resort”, complete with “gravity railroad to whisk revelers to the top past a series of pleasure gardens and wild animals imported from Yellowstone Park”, with an “astronomical observatory and elegant hotel” at the summit.

Of course, residential development and subdivisions were a consideration, and there were political factions to navigate and private landowners to appease. In September 1903, the trail we call 1906 was complete. On July 4, 1904, a pavilion at the summit (destroyed by lighting in 1937) was dedicated, with dignitaries asserting that “Man’s love of nature is as deeply embedded in his being as is love of liberty and life.”

There was still a lot to do — tree stumps, some two feet in diameter, were a reminder of forests that once covered the slopes. HIS sold memberships to raise money for replanting and fencing to discourage grazing. By 1905, the needs of Mt. Helena were brought to the attention of the newly organized federal Forest Service and Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot himself expressed “the department’s desire to demonstrate upon Mt. Helena the astonishing results achieved by the expert foresters of the Department of the Interior.” The Forest Service, combined with the “civic energy” of the community, created “one of the most prominent object lessons in forest planning in the country, and served as “a conspicuous example of what can be done in reforesting denuded mountainsides.” In May 1906, 10,000 Ponderosa Pine and 20,000 Douglas fir seedlings were planted on Mt. Helena. Hikers on the 1906 Trail today walk among some trees from that original planting, a visual reminder of the concerted community effort in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service.

How fortunate we are today that our predecessors worked to turn the tables on destruction and believed in the conservation and preservation that would leave our community a better place in their time. They created a legacy that would be enjoyed by generations in the future, people they would never know and a time they would never see. They recognized the intrinsic value of the mountain and its story, and now Helenans have something to be proud of because they cared.

Restoration and preservation — these words get batted around a lot these days, and they usually require significant effort from those who want to save threatened buildings or landscapes from destruction. Keep in mind that it’s not only the bricks and mortar or trees and trails that are being preserved. It’s the story we share, the history that happened there, the intangible as well as the tangible that represents who we are and where we came from, what we cared about, our hopes and dreams for the future. Restored and preserved places represent the people who came forward and said “this is worth the effort,” the obstacles they overcame, and the disappointments shared when objectives are not realized.

So, next time you need a break from the bustle of a 21st century life, make your way to the trails of one of Helena’s cherished historic sites. Imagine strains of chamber music and the laughter of children planting trees, or perhaps a corseted woman offering a historic high-five upon reaching the summit. Because of the vision of those who built the city and its legacy of preserving this special place, and those who succeeded in securing its place on the National Register, Helena’s century-old invitation stands for us today: “Do not deny yourself the health and pleasure of the … delightful walk. Go all and go often.”

Mary Jane Bradbury is an educator, historic interpreter and member of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly “Nuggets from Helena” column in the Independent Record.

An iconic Montana hike: Views from the top of Mount Helena

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