A piece of East Helena history found its permanent home Saturday morning thanks to a couple of cranes and years of work from local history advocates.
The Northern Pacific Railway East Helena Depot represents a number of important periods in East Helena, from early commerce and communication to the hub for the former smelter. Now the nearly 110-year-old structure has a new purpose, and will serve as a museum and visitor center for the city once restorations are complete.
In 2012 Montana Rail Link contacted Pam Attardo, Helena/Lewis and Clark County historic preservation officer. The depot had not been in use since the 1980s and the railroad proposed tearing it down unless another purpose could be found.
“It has a really cool history, even longer than East Helena’s,” she said. “We had to decide what to do with it and my first call was to (East Helena Schools Superintendent) Ron Whitmoyer, who was really instrumental and got this going to where the city decided to take it.”
By 2014 the city of East Helena agreed to accept the building and residents coalesced around the depot, forming the East Helena Historical Society. The group was dedicated to finding a final home for the depot along with restoring it for a museum.
Montana Rail Link paid to have the structure moved onto the property at city hall. There it has sat on blocks for the last five years until Saturday morning. Society members gathered early with work crews volunteering their time to move it across the parking lot to its final foundation.
“It’s taken a number of years to raise funds and to get the right people in the right places,” said John Barrows, who co-chaired the depot project for the society. “There’s hardly a better building to show the history of the smelter and the railroad in East Helena.”
The original depot was constructed in the 1880s at what was then called Prickly Pear Junction, named to mark a junction of stagecoach lines and later Northern Pacific’s line south, according to a history compiled by Barrows.
The original depot stood two stories, including a living quarters, but burned in 1930 when sparks from a switch engine set the building ablaze, Barrows said.
The replacement came in the form of a lightly used 1910 telegraph station that sat east of East Helena. The railroad moved it by rail to East Helena, where it remained in operation until the 1980s, when technology eliminated the need for the station. But Barrows notes the importance of the depot during that time until 1957, moving mail and goods, sending Western Union telegrams as well as passenger tickets. After 1957 the building’s use shifted towards operations such as weighing cars, arranging switching service and billing cars for the smelter.
“It was small, but it was one of the highest revenue producing stations in the country,” Barrows said.
Crowded around city hall early Saturday, a pair of cranes lifted the depot and a flatbed semitruck backed into place. While it only had to move a short distance, picking up and setting down a century-old historic structure required delicacy and precision, and about two hours after they started, the depot rested on its new concrete foundation.
“It couldn’t have been done without the help of the historical society ladies — they are the people who worked on it the last few years doing the paperwork and permits, and those are the people who showed up Saturday morning,” said Andy Anderson, co-chair of the depot project. Anderson brought his experience as a carpenter to the project and was out among the crane crew doing the heavy lift.
Many projects take years to come to fruition, Attardo said.
“One thing I’ve learned doing this is that nothing happens quickly, you have to be persistent,” she said.
Now the historical society can get to work on restoring the depot. That will include repair and instillation of correct signage and colors from its historic past so that it can be opened to the public.