Sunday, August 2, 2009

On the Road Again - Post 9: Boom Town

I'm not really a fan of those historical tours you can take in almost every city and town. For one thing, they're typically conducted in modes of transportation either so cute it makes your teeth ache (e.g., locomotives like the kiddie trains at amusement parks, double-decker buses, trolley cars, and so forth, all of them inevitably red) or so uncomfortable you soon believe it would be altogether better simply to throw yourself through the window (e.g., noisy diesel buses with cramped, high-backed seats molded to allow only one totally disagreeable sitting position).

For another thing, these tours are always conducted/driven by an enthusiastic, big-personality jokester, the kind of person who asks where everyone is from and instructs the crowd to give Bill the ticket guy a round of applause because he's the one who washed the windows so everyone would have a nice clear view - this on an open-air vehicle that has no windows. Ha-ha. Being an extrovert and a public speaker myself, I feel bad if I leave these people hanging, so I end up playing along and feeling instead both imposed upon and like a chump. It's exhausting, really.

But my husband loves the tours and, with rare exceptions, he's been right about their value, despite the drawbacks. They're a great way to get the lay of the land and a sense of the local scenery and history. The tour in Helena, MT, was not an exception. It took place in a tricked-out locomotive that pulled three open-air cars (the whole thing cherry-red, of course), and it was conducted by an exceptionally chipper woman named Liz who looked about 25, but told us she was the mother of three daughters, two of them teenagers, and the wife of a man who often "feels he's swimming in an estrogen ocean." She also mentioned her father, her brothers and that she's planning a run next year for the Montana state senate.

Liz managed to tell us a great deal about Helena, too, as she trundled her super-cute tour vehicle around town. I owe her - and the Helena Chamber of Commerce website, which disagrees with her on a few matters - a debt of gratitude for the tidbits I've woven into the tale below.

The last of the three huge gold strikes in Montana's history was discovered by four prospectors known for unclear reasons as the Four Georgians. Apparently, only one of them was from Georgia, but all of them had decided to go home empty-handed if they didn't strike gold in the gulch along the Last Chance Creek. The gold they found there in 1864 began one of the largest gold rushes in the West.

The town site of Helena was first surveyed in 1865, but most of the streets - then and now - meandered as had the miners, following the curves of Last Chance Creek and circumventing miners' claims. Even then, naming things Last Chance one thing or another must have been irresistible. It certainly is today. My favorite was the (I suspect inadvertently) sinister Last Chance Splash Swimming Pool & Water Park.

By 1888, fifty millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any other city on earth. As millionaires are wont to do, these flush late 19th century versions built grand mansions, cathedrals and public buildings, and stooped as low as necessary to make sure that their Helena, which had become the capital of the Montana Territory in 1875, was also designated the state capital when Montana joined the Union in 1889. Arms were twisted, votes were purchased, and it's said that more votes were cast for Helena as the new state's capital than there were residents in the Territory.

The public buildings include two standouts. The Greek Renaissance-style State Capitol, surmounted by a copper dome (left unpolished and, as a result, richly patinated thanks to oxidation) was, according to Liz, upon its completion in 1902 the first state capitol in the U.S. to have electric lights. Helena also boasts, really rather randomly, the St. Helena Cathedral, which was modeled after the famous cathedral in Cologne, Germany, and the Votive Church of Vienna. The first funeral to be held in the Cathedral, not too long after its completion, was that of the man who commissioned and paid for it, a heartbroken long-time widower who raised a daughter on his own only to see her "make some bad choices" and die of pneumonia (in the G-rated version anyway) at 19. Both the Capitol dome and the 230-foot spires of the Cathedral pop into your line of sight from all sorts of vantage points throughout Helena's hilly, easy-to-get-around 14 square miles, and they are as picturesque as they are unexpected.

Among the mansions gold built are the original Governor's Mansion, a lovely Queen Anne on a beautiful lot. It housed 10 Montana governors until the new residence (quite hideous by comparison) was built in the 1950s. Oddly enough, neither the original nor the current Governor's Mansion is in the Mansion District, but that District is nevertheless rife with a large variety of other architecturally swanky homes, many featuring turrets, portes-cochères, wraparound porches, carriage houses, children's playhouses, lead-lined bathrooms, and other manifestations of the whims of their well-heeled owners.

During our two weeks in Helena, we lived in a "little mansion" complete with gorgeous woodwork, stained glass windows, fireplaces we never got to use, internet access, modern kitchen and bathrooms (thankfully), and a bewildering multiplicity of irons and cordless telephones. We discovered extraordinarily fresh vegetables, one first-rate and two very good restaurants, superb Gorgonzola salad dressing, and the best donuts we have had since we were children. Our days were punctuated by trips to the Y to swim (me), to Mt. Helena to hike (not me), and to all sorts of locations to eat and explore. The temperatures were warmer than we'd hoped, but we did get to see one humdinger of a thunderstorm and the sun shone until nearly 10 pm every evening.

The Capitol and the Cathedral:

The original Governor's Mansion and a selection of homes in the Mansion District, all photographed too late in the afternoon on an extremely sunny day (sorry):

Sprinkled around the Mansion District are ornate hitching posts, which serve as further reminders of both the area's Old West origins and the crazy things on which people will spend money. Click on the picture below to see the full magnitude of one resplendent hitching post as well as the original late 19th century brick sidewalk behind it.

The "Guardian of the Gulch," another Helena icon, is a fire watch tower built in 1886. It's the most recent of a series of observation buildings and lookout stands to have stood on Tower Hill overlooking the Downtown District. For some inscrutable reason, it was made of wood even though all of its guessed it...burned down.

Wildlife is everywhere in Montana, including in Helena. We encountered these deer nibbling on lawn foliage a few blocks from the original Governor's Mansion.

No comments: