Life With Brian

Linda Burton posting from Helena, Montana – “On your left you’ll see two deer in the yard,” said Brian, as our tour train rounded the corner two blocks from the capitol. I thought he was joking, pointing to a yard with fake deer for effect. But one of the deer moved its head. Everyone scrambled left, cameras clicking. It was deer, all right; two deer sitting by the hedge on the lawn of an ordinary yard in this downtown residential area. One a speckled fawn? Too cute! “Some people put flower guards out to protect their tulips from being eaten by the deer,” Brian continued, as we rounded yet another corner to stop before the governor’s home. Brian pointed out the designs in the glass door, and then around another corner we went, waving at the neighbors in their yards. It was a sunny morning, and the Last Chance Tour Train was packed; half of us tourists and half locals who wanted to show off their town in the sweetest way possible – on a tweetsie little train driven by a history teacher in an engineer’s hat, delivering interesting facts with a sometimes humorous twist.

The capitol on our left. Greek Renaissance, Columbus sandstone, copper dome; dedicated in 1902; the horseback statue out front Civil War Union General Thomas Meagher, Territorial Governor of Montana, mysteriously drowned in the Missouri River in 1867; the flower bed was planted in June. Road construction on Montana Avenue slowed us as each rubber-tired unit went over the bump; cars on either side of the four way stop waited patiently for the train to cross, waving. Another residential neighborhood, turn right. The governor’s former mansion on our left. Used by governors from 1913-1959; open for tours Tuesday through Saturday in the summer at noon, 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00. More beautiful old homes, turn left, St Helena’s Cathedral coming up. Look at the two crosses on top of the 230-foot spires. An airman took a bet; a hundred dollars that he could fly his plane between those crosses. He did it too, although he had to tilt sideways to get through. Unfortunately for the airman, when he returned to his base he was reprimanded and never permitted to fly again. Good news, he won the bet. (Is that a tale, or true?)

Last Chance Gulch. The four men from Georgia had been searching for gold with no luck. Tired and weary and losing hope; let’s move on. One more day, that’s it; one last chance. The rest of the story is golden; that strike- it-rich day was July 14, 1864. We’re riding down a street of history; fortunes were made in copper and gold; at one time Helena had more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. That building over there, the Montana Club, where the rich gathered to socialize and strategize. Mansions. Block after block of beautiful old homes; stories of wealth and what it brings; this one a father’s wedding gift to his daughter; those two built for sisters who wanted to live near one another, gargoyles on one porch for luck; the next house was unlucky, the owner died of pneumonia just as it was completed and never got to live there. Sidewalks. Two men were contracted to build; one preferred sidewalks of brick, the other plain cement. I’ll build east-west, you build north-south. And so they did. Cass Gilbert designed that house over there; he also designed the US Supreme Court Building and the George Washington Bridge; this street is named for him.

The Downtown Walkway. Cars are not allowed but our tour train tootles along, easing gently past pedestrians and shoppers. The Bullwhacker Statue. Helena’s first hotel. Big Dorothy’s, a ruby past, now merely a saloon. Out Park Avenue to the edge of the Helena National Forest; talk about life as a gold miner; dig all day, into town at night to drink and spend, back to guard against claim jumpers, next day, do it all again. At one time twenty percent of the population was Chinese; they had the hard jobs and were paid a penance for their work; poor living. Discovered much later; secret tunnels under the floorboards of their houses; aha, they worked at night, getting their share of the riches of the mines as well.

Up the hill. Helena burnt down three times and people got tired of that; built a fire tower in 1876; manned it twenty-four hours a day. Guardian of the Town. Masonic Temple over there; they have the Masonic apron which belonged to Meriwether Lewis; hand-painted silk, it is said to have been in his pocket when he died in 1809. Pass by the house with a secret room; was that where the shenanigans took place that made Helena the capital city in 1894? Who counted the votes? How did Lewis and Clark County have twice as many votes as voters? Too late now. Back at the capitol; the new wings don’t match; added between 1909 and 1912; go in, must see; guided tours on the hour. Around the corner, stop for tour’s end in front of the Montana State Museum; go in, must see. “Don’t forget to stop by and see the six-foot grizzly in the Fish and Wildlife Building,” Brian reminded.

Last Chance Trolley Tours, 406.442.1023

Montana Historical Society