This month marks the 75th anniversary of Helena’s legendary earthquakes. During the month of October, 1935 – in the midst of the Great Depression – the Capital City was struck by over a thousand tremors and aftershocks, highlighted by three major earthquakes, on Oct. 12, Oct. 18 and Oct. 31.
The biggest of the three (magnitude 6.3) shook on Oct. 18, when hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or severely damaged. In the end, four people lost their lives, according to U.S. Geological Survey reports.
Perhaps the most overwhelming occurrence was the destruction of the brand new Helena High School, which had been recently completed for the then-astronomical cost of $475,000. The Oct. 18 quake brought down most of the building, now known as Helena Middle School.
Helena High remained closed for rebuilding for the rest of the 1935-36 school year, while the students finished their classes in railroad coaches near the train depot.
In recognition of that fateful time, the Independent Record gathered memories from several folks who were there. Here are some of their stories, from those who witnessed what became known locally as “The Big Shake.”
Elaine (Phillips) Cooper Power
Seventy-five years ago, Elaine Phillips, the daughter of Phillips Dairy owner Homer Phillips, was a 15-year old sophomore at Helena High School.
“As I recall, there was a Snake Dance and bonfire at Vigilante Stadium on Friday night, preceding the football game to be held on Saturday,” Elaine (Phillips) Cooper Power, 90, said regarding the Oct. 18 quake.
“Some friends and I were driving down Helena Avenue in front of the new high school (now the Helena Middle School). We had only been in the brand new building for six weeks. Suddenly the quake hit, as we watched the auditorium crumble to the ground. We jumped out of the car, but realized there was nothing we could do.”
The girls then glanced down the street, and noticed a light arcing in the Armory Building on Warren St. They ran over to the building and discovered that the entryway was damaged and the caretaker was still inside.
“He was afraid to come out. There was barely enough room to escape, but at our urging, he got out and practically fell into our arms. He was very frightened, so we tried to comfort him,” Power Cooper recalled.
The next item on the teenage girls’ agenda was to get back to their homes as quickly as possible.
“We did not linger to view any other damages,” she said. “I drove to my home in the valley and was assured by my father that if any damage occurred to our little-frame house, then Helena would be completely destroyed.”
She described how she counted aftershocks for hours that night – instead of sheep – before finally falling sleep.
“I can’t remember if at that time we still delivered milk on Saturdays, but I know we did the following Monday,” Cooper Power said. “Many customers left town after the quakes, and our business was impacted by those events for several years.
“And don’t ask me if the cows gave any milk the following morning,” she laughed.
The DeWolf family lived at 526 Peosta Ave. in an older home, owned by Judge Horskey, according to Bill DeWolf, who was 11 years old in 1935.
“Helena had been having tremors for awhile, so it was drilled into our heads that if a big quake were to hit, we were supposed to dive under a bed or a table, or stand under a door jamb,” said DeWolf, 86. “But under no circumstance were you to run outdoors.”
But on the night of Oct. 12, when the Capital City experienced the first of the month’s big shakes, the first thing the DeWolfs did was run straight outside. Except for older brother Fred, who was 13.
“I finished my bath and was lying in bed looking up at our 11-foot ceilings, trying to figure out what to do if a big earthquake hit,” DeWolf related.
He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Suddenly the house started shaking, and I watched the plaster start breaking up and falling directly on top of me,” DeWolf said. “I thought the world had come to an end, and the only one that beat me out the front door was my dad.”
Nine-year old George DeWolf was sitting under a bookshelf, and suffered a shiny black-eye and a bump on his head when the books landed on him.
“The folks rounded us up and put us into the car, except for Fred, who said he had to stay and rest for his daily wrestling match with neighbor Penrose Radley,” DeWolf said. “But a couple of stern words from Dad changed his mind.”
When things settled down, the quake had separated the east wall from the house. The youngest sibling, Joan, 6, who had the chicken pox, was wrapped in a blanket while being held by Mrs. DeWolf. The family drove to Lloyd Dickey’s Chevron Station for gasoline, where they waited in line for a couple hours, since everyone else had the same idea.
“We drove around for a long time before going home, and then spent the night sleeping on Mrs. Seeley’s front lawn across the street, at 513 Peosta,” DeWolf said. “The next night, we went out to our relatives’ place on Williams Street by Fort Harrison, where we slept on the floor for a few days.”
DeWolf described how Fred finished school that year in the Northern Pacific and Great Northern coaches, and “would sit near the back of the cars, so he could slip out of the middle of class without the teacher even knowing they were gone.”
Steve Keim was 5 years old when the earthquakes shook Helena, living with his family at 836 N. Jackson St.
“Our family of nine lived in the three-story brick house which later became the Kozy Motel,” Keim said. “The building still has the telltale signs from the earthquakes.”
The Keims arrived in Helena in 1934 from Judith Gap, where Mr. Keim was a pharmacist. Like many men during the Great Depression, the banks had foreclosed on both his business and his home.
“We rented on Jackson Street on a promise to pay the rent later. Dad found temporary jobs as a ditch digger, and a night watchman. We lived mainly on relief, as did many others at the time.”
The quakes shook apart portions of the house, making it uninhabitable. Steve’s uncle provided the family with a wall tent, which they set up in the lot next to the house.
“My mother and two sisters were taken in by friends, while my father, myself and four brothers stayed in a tent throughout the winter – without power, water, heat, plumbing, cooking facilities, etc.,” Keim said.
During one of the severe quakes, a mother and daughter living across the street rushed out of their house, and were seriously injured when the chimney fell on them.
Two of Keim’s brothers were in the National Guard, and used rifles to shoot down the dangling brick, mortar and stone facilities because it was too dangerous to get close to the damaged buildings.
“Things eventually got better,” said Keim, who later served as Helena’s mayor. “My dad was appointed a testing engineer for the highway department, worked part-time as a pharmacist. And my brothers and I sold and delivered the Helena Daily Independent newspaper.”
Barbara (Sanford) Faas-Creel
At the time of the quakes, 8-year-old Barbara Sanford and her sister, Betty, 10, and brother, Tom, 6, lived with their parents at 625 Hollins.
“The earth had moved quite a few times that day,” said Faas-Creel, who was a third-grader at Broadwater Elementary 75 years ago.
Her father, Morris Sanford, was the athletic director of the old YMCA, at Fuller and Lawrence.
“When the earth shook, it felt like the whole house was going to fall over,” Faas-Creel recalled. “We were screaming upstairs, and Dad had trouble getting his feet off the Ottoman to come and help us.”
The Sanfords drove around Helena, where they saw homes without the outside walls, fallen chimneys on the ground, businesses and homes on fire, and Hawthorne School’s collapsed third floor.
“The earth was still trembling as we drove around,” she said. “When we got back home, Dad opened the door to the house and smoke came pouring out. When he got inside and opened the cupboard door over the kitchen sink, everything burst into flames. He yanked the towels down to the sink and poured water on them to stop the fire.”
Prior to the ride, Mrs. Sanford had used a match to see if she could find a candle, and accidentally ignited dishcloths above the sink.
“Betty, Tom and I slept out on the front lawn in a tent for about a week before we felt safe to stay inside again with our parents,” Faas-Creel said. “Broadwater was damaged and closed down, so I had to go the school at Hawthorne.”
Archie Bray, Jr.
Archie Bray, Jr., was a senior at brand new Helena High in the fall of 1935. On Oct. 18, he was returning from Alhambra Hot Springs, between Jefferson City and Clancy.
“We called it the Butte Highway, and back then it was just a two-lane gravel road,” said Bray, 92, in a telephone interview from his home in Camarillo, California.
“I was driving towards Helena, and when I got to about where Montana City is, I saw a very bright ‘Northern Lights’ type flash in the sky, and the car acted like it hit a bump in the road. When I got back to town, I saw the destruction.”
There was no serious damage to the Bray home, which was at the corner of Dearborn and Euclid, except for two chimneys on the roof that were twisted sideways.
“We stayed in the house the whole time, because my father said that if he had to stay there, then we all had to stay,” recalled Bray, whose dad was the founder of the Archie Bray Foundation.
For the final big shaker on Oct. 31, Bray said he was standing in a vacant lot across the street from his house, when he “heard” the quake coming.
“It sounded as if it came from the west, and when I looked in that direction, I saw the ground rippling towards me,” he said. “When the ripple got to me, it shook me so hard, it knocked me to the ground to my knees.”
Bray described attending the rest of his senior year in the railroad coaches near the corner of Helena and Lyndale avenues, the current site of Malfunction Junction. “They fired up the steam engines during school hours, and that’s how they warmed up the coaches for us to go to class,” he said.
Floy (Synness) Peterson Nicholson
One of the more prominent remnants of the Big Shake is the Van Orsdel Building on Sierra Road. The four-story building, which is still standing but half missing, was next to where the Deaconess School used to be.
Floy Synness and her sister, Mary Lou, were students at the Deaconess in 1935.
“Helen Piper was the Deaconess principal, a Miss Weringer was the secretary, and there were some delightful teachers there,” said Floy (Synness) Peterson Nicholson, who was 9 years old at the time.
Peterson Nicholson said she recalled the night of the big earthquake on Oct. 18 very well. She related how her parents, Lloyd and Frances Synness, were playing music for a dance at the Synness’ Shanty Dance Hall, the current site of Bob’s Valley Market.
“The lighting in the hall was large gasoline lanterns that hung down the center of the ceiling,” Peterson Nicholson said. “When the violent shaking started, the lanterns were swinging back and forth, and people below prepared to catch them perchance they (came down).”
The Synnesses lived in a log home next to The Shanty, with its only damage being a cracked chimney.
“Dad and Mom rushed home, got us kids out of bed and off to the Deaconess we went,” Peterson Nicholson said. “There was a light rain, and when Dad shut off the car, we could hear singing. All the children were in the outside gazebos, with their house mothers singing, ‘God Will Take Care Of You, Where E’r You Go, What E’r You Do.’
The children, along with their mattresses and bedding, were then relocated to their temporary new home – The Shanty. There was plenty of food available for the kids; vegetables from the Synness’ garden, and lots of wild game from Lloyd’s hunting exploits. Peterson Nicholson described how the beds were placed around the outside perimeter of the building.
“It was reported that Miss Piper was in her office, and that when the big quake hit the plaster fell from the walls and ceiling of her office except a large round piece just above her head,” Peterson Nicholson said. “She was a fine woman. Maybe someone up there was looking out for her.”
Editor’s note: Floy is the reporter’s cousin.
“I was 10 years old when the big shake hit Helena, Oct. 12, 1935, at approximately 9:40 p.m.,” John Wall recalled. “A friend and I had attended a movie at the Rio Theatre. After the movie, we walked to our home at 26 11th Ave., and were discussing the film with my parents when everything started shaking.
“We were scared to death, (but later) my father, C.M. Neill, who at the time was the manager of Power Townsend Co., took me down to the business at the Steamboat Block to inspect how it stood up,” Wall said. The Wall family later became the owners of Power Townsend Co.
Wall described how the large plate-glass windows across the front were badly cracked and hanging, so his father took a sledge hammer and broke them out. They were temporarily replaced with wood.
He said there was very little damage to the building, except for some brick veneer on the upper floors, because “The Steamboat Block’s walls are four feet thick in the basement and taper to eighteen inches at the third floor roof line.”
After touring around town to see the damage, Mr. Neill drove his family of seven to the Bill Toughy ranch, between Boulder and Whitehall. They stayed there for a couple weeks, before going to the Tomcheck’s home in Townsend.
On Oct. 31, Wall returned to Helena to help his dad clean up the family home on 11th Avenue. He was in the basement when the final big quake hit. Wall said that he stepped outside to the sidewalk during the shaking, and an instant before “the brick chimney landed right where I went through the garage door.”
“I soon returned to St. Helen’s School, and all was back to almost normal, except for the aftershocks,” he said.
Peggy (Zugel) McMahon
Peggy (Zugel) McMahon was only 4 years old back then, and her brother Jim was just 2 1/2, but she said, “The night on Oct. 18, 1935, is still a vivid memory in both of our minds.”
“Two gals from Anaconda that had jobs at the Capitol were boarding with my folks at 822 Jackson, and were hosting a baby shower for my mom,” McMahon related. “They were in the kitchen preparing the refreshments, and Jim and I were helping with the party by passing out candy and nuts to the twelve ladies in the living room.”
She said the chandelier started swinging, the ladies started screaming, and then the lights went out. McMahon and her brother then hid behind the clothes in the closet, “But I don’t remember if we took the candy with us or not,” she laughed.
Most of the women didn’t drive, so their husbands came to pick them up, except for one lady, who had driven in from Hauser Dam. She had to stay in town because the road over the dam was closed.
“The boarders slept out in the car, and I was put in the crib with my brother,” she said. “My dad put a board over us in case the plaster fell.”
McMahon’s mother was close to giving birth, but since the hospital was being evacuated, the family drove to Anaconda the next day.
“A few days later, our new baby brother Larry was born at the hospital in Anaconda,” McMahon said. “I think what scared me the most of the whole deal, was when all the ladies at the party started screaming.”
Milton Coty was 11 years old in 1935, living with his family at 29 S. Rodney. His father was a mechanic on the late shift at the Montana Highway Shop, next to what is now the Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds.
“On the evening of the second quake, at approximately 9 p.m., my father called from work and told my mother to ask our renters to drive us out to the shop, because something was going to happen,” Coty said. “When she asked him why, he answered that all the horses being pastured at the Fairgrounds were running around and whinnying, and the Chinese Pheasants there were flying around cackling.”
At the fairgrounds, Milton and his brother Calvin were lying on the floor in the foreman’s office beside a tall book cabinet, waiting for their father to get off work. When the earth began to shake, Milt thought the cabinet might collapse on top of them.
“We got outside, and to the south we could see power lines and transformers arcing, and dust rising all over town,” he said. “Then the power went off, and the town went black. Pretty soon car lights started coming on, and streaming out of town.”
The Cotys first went to the Ten Mile Reservoir to stay with Milton’s great grandmother, Mary Ellen Scott, where they bunked for a few days, “while things continued to shake.”
The family went back to town just prior to the Oct. 31 quake, while their house was being repaired. “My dad was hunting at the Coty Ranch when it hit. He was knocked down by the quake, and watched the ground roll up the hillside like waves.”
The Cotys then returned to the ranch, nine miles west of Helena, staying in the “Cook Shack” until late March, 1936, before moving back to town. Milt, who had just started the sixth grade at Central School, finished out the year at the Baxendale School, which had been closed since 1928.
Bette (Samson) Chamberlain
Bette (Samson) Chamberlain was 10 years old in 1935, when her family moved to Helena after her father, Otto Samson, went broke on his sheep ranch on Clancy Creek.
Otto took over his brother Walter Samson’s grocery store on the corner Ewing and 13th streets.
The Samsons lived in a two-story house just north of the store. Bette had helped her mother unpack Chinaware onto a card table, and there was a tea kettle of boiling water on the stove for the dishes, when the quake struck.
“The tea kettle flew off of the stove and across the kitchen floor, but not one of my mom’s dishes flew off of the card table or were broken,” Chamberlain said.
“Samson’s Grocery was ‘rockin’, rollin’, and rumbling,’” she said. “Cereals rocked from the top shelves; ketchup, mustard, and pickles rolled; canned goods rumbled. The mess was knee-high behind the counters, which my dad cleaned up, but the next time another big shock came, there was another mess to clean up.”
Shirley (Bausch) Clearman
Shirley (Bausch) Clearman was 3 1/2 years old 75 years ago. Her family owned the old Cosmopolitan Hotel on South Main Street (now Last Chance Gulch), under the title of C.J. Bausch and Sons – The Big Stove Store. The building suffered substantial damage from the quake.
Clearman’s grandfather, C.J. Bausch, was mayor of Helena at the time of the earthquakes. Bausch made a report to the federal government for reconstruction aid, which was turned down.
Albert Bausch, Shirley’s father, accompanied photographer Les Jorud around Helena as Jorud photographed the aftermath. Shirley said she still has Albert’s collection of still photos and home movies of damage of the Big Shake in her possession.
Rod MacDonald was in the first grade at Hawthorne School in 1935. His father, who was the president of the school board, was a lawyer, and MacDonald said his dad’s law practice suffered for months after the event.
“Our class was moved to the basement of the public library, now Grandstreet Theatre,” MacDonald said.
He recalled how many of the churches also provided room for schooling. Some of the schedules were half days, allowing the rooms to teach two classes per day.
“My parents owned an apartment building, six fronts, three stories high, at 802-812 North Benton St.,” MacDonald said. “It sustained only minor damage, but everyone was afraid to sleep in the building. So my father allowed the tenants to move the mattresses across the street to a vacant lot. Then each night everyone made their beds and slept in a long line next to each other.”
M. Lavern (Traufer) Yuhas
M. Lavern Traufer was a fifth-grader at Central School. Her parents, John and Theresa, owned the Economy Market on the corner of 11th and Davis, and the N.P. Meat Market on the corner of Helena Avenue and Roberts, where Helena Industries is now.
A fellow by the name of Curt Dehler ran a grocery store in conjunction with the N.P. business.
When the “big one” occurred, Lavern and her mother ran outside, where it was pitch black, and heard the screaming of her neighbors. “Mom and I were nervous wrecks,” M. Lavern (Traufer) Yuhas said.
The back wall of the N.P. Market – which was 3 1/2 feet of stone – collapsed, crushing Traufer’s huge walk-in cooler, sausage kitchen and equipment.
Debris from the market and St. Mary’s Church across the street scattered over Roberts Street, to the point where John and Dehler spent several hours digging out their parked cars.
“Folks kept the 11th Avenue store open most of the night, serving coffee and just talking and worrying,” Yuhas said. “The foundation on our home on Helena Avenue was damaged, and the chimney fell through the roof, all the way through the dining room floor into the basement.”
The family slept in their DeSoto sedan for several nights, before the Northern Pacific Railroad moved in coaches for sleeping.
“Dad’s business was a total loss, he moved what he could salvage to the 11th Avenue store,” Yuhas said. “And Curt Dehler sold the grocery store at once and moved his family to Portland.”
Catherine (Traufer) Stevens
Catherine (Traufer) Stevens, LaVern Yuhas’ aunt, was born in Marysville, in 1915. She was 20 years of age during the big quakes.
“I married Eddy (Stevens) when I was 15, and had two kids, Jimmy and Dorothy, by 1935,” said Stevens, 92. “We were living on Sparta Street when the big earthquake hit, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
The couple was visiting Cathy’s mom on State Street on the night of the 18th, when her mother commented, “I feel the strangest wind.”
The Stevenses returned home just about the time of the quake. “The house started jumping, so we grabbed the kids and ran outside,” she said. “Everybody else in the neighborhood was out. All the power was out, and it was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Then one by one, lights started flickering on in town, as people were starting their cars up.”
The only damage to the Stevens’ home, which was built on a hill, was from several rocks that had crumbled off the downhill side of the foundation.
Phil Duncan was 8 years old and hospitalized at St. Peter’s at the time of the quakes.
His father, Wesley Duncan, owned the Duncan Fruit Co. On the night of the quakes, Mr. Duncan and an employee, Hank Darfler, were installing a door on the business at night. The entire wall of the building collapsed outward, half-burying a company truck parked 20 feet away.
Duncan and Darfler held onto each during the shaking, and crawled out over the rubble unscathed afterwards.
“My dad was afraid that St. Peter’s was destroyed, so in complete darkness, he ran up to the hospital where I was to be discharged the next day,” recounted Duncan, 83. “The halls and stairways were lighted by candle light. Somehow, he then got a ride back to our house on Alta Street.
“Because of the destruction of Dad’s business, our lives were changed forever,” Duncan said.