The Fire Tower
A symbol of Helena since the 1870s


The Fire Tower, November 17 1940


COURTESY OF CHIEF SEAN LOGAN AND THE HELENA FIRE DEPT. ARCHIVE
CLICK ON THE IMAGE FOR A BIG VIEW IN A NEW WINDOW


Over the years, the image of the firetower has been used on postcards, parking tokens, belt buckles, and much more...



Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan Tells the Story of the Fire Tower

 


Fire plagued Helena in the early days. Wooden buildings huddled together and a lack of abundant water made stopping fires once they got started very difficult. Several huge fires in the 1870s were particularly horrific, wiping out much of the central business district and many homes. It should be remembered that, during those pre-railroad days, nearly all supplies had to be freighted overland into Helena from either the head of navigation on the Missouri River at Fort Benton, 130 miles to the north, or along the Montana Trail from Corinne, Utah, some 400 miles to the south. It could take months to replace needed materials after a fire, and at no small expense.

A watchtower overlooking Last Chance Gulch was first built on the west side of "Catholic Hill" in the early 1870s. The one pictured above, which was taller and included a shelter on top, was built in 1874. An 1864 Gould Manufacturing Co. bell salvaged from the Missouri River sidewheeler "Tacony" was hung in the new tower (that bell is pictured above), replacing a large iron triangle which had been used to sound the alarm.

Tower Hill was used during the 1870s and 1880s for launching fireworks displays during Forth of July celebrations, which seems against good fire prevention practices.

On May 1 1878, a telephone was installed in the tower, making it possible for the watchman to instantly alert firefighters in the Clore St. (Park Avenue) station and give them directions.

In 1886, the city ordered a larger bell from the Jones Bell Company of Troy, New York. It weighed in at 2,121 lbs., and cost approximately $12,200 in today's money. The tower had to be reinforced to support the bell.

In 1889, an electric Gamewell alarm box system was installed in Helena, making the bell in the tower obsolete for all but tolling the juvenile curfew hour. The Gamewell system was in operation until 1956, and was at the time one of the oldest in the state.

The Fire Tower has been repaired and restored several times over the years. The 1935 earthquakes damaged it, so the huge 1886 bell was taken down and put on display in front of the A-A Garage on South Main until 1939, when it was placed back in the tower.

In 1950, a lightning fire weakened the structure so badly that both the 1864 and 1886 bells, which were then more or less just being stored in the tower, were removed.

The 1864 "Tacony" bell was eventually reinstalled in the tower, and hangs there today.



A Rare Visit to the Fire Tower, Feb. 2010

Photos courtesy of Chief Sean Logan of the Helena Fire Department, with special thanks to Parks Director Amy Teegarden and Parks Superintendent Rich Lynd.

Chief Logan has many more photos of the fire tower visit posted in his wonderful Helena Fire Department History Facebook group. Recommended. Thanks, Sean!

 

 

 

 

 


The Original 1864 Bell, Salvaged from the Missouri River Sidewheeler Tacony

 



 

Panoramic View Taken from the Fire Tower, Sept. 16, 2011


Photo by Kennon Baird • Click on Image to Open a Big View in a New Window

 

1935 Earthquake Damage to the Tower

The tower did not go to Butte...

 

 

The 1886 Bell
Manufactured by the
Jones Troy Bell Foundry Company, Troy, New York

Displayed in Front of the A-A Garage 1935-39


COURTESY OF CHRIS WARREN

The bell was placed on display in front of Otto Krieg's A-A Garage until damage to the tower caused by the 1935 earthquakes could be repaired. In 1939, the bell was returned to the tower. It was taken down permanently in 1950, after a lightning-caused fire weakened the tower...


From 1951 until 2008, the 1886 bell hung in a steel frame in front of the Civic Center...

 

From 2008 to 2012, the bell was in Constitution Park, at the corner of Sixth Ave. and Main St.


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN

The bell suffered abuse at this location.



Inscriptions on the 1886 Bell


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN

"Helena - Queen City of the Mountains - February 13th AD 1886"

 

 


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN

"The Jones Troy Bell Foundry Company - Troy N. Y. 1886"

 

 

Inside the 1886 Bell


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN

The clapper is hung from what is called the clapper staple, seen here.

 

 


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN

 

 

Now at the Hannaford Street Station


COURTESY OF SEAN LOGAN

In 2012, the cleaned 1886 bell was installed in front of the 650 North Hannaford St. fire station. Many thanks to Chief Sean Logan and all who worked to conserve this historic bell.

 

Fire Tower and Related Links

Click here for the pdf format story of the 1864 sidewheeler "Tacony" bell, courtesy of METNET.

Click here for the pdf format story of the giant 1886 bell, courtesy of METNET.

Click here for an 1881 pdf format newspaper article about Helena firefighters' preparedness, and what it took to move an engine in the days of steam and horses.

Click here for a 1920 pdf format newspaper article about the Fire Tower.

Click here for a 1962 pdf format newspaper article about the Fire Tower, by Al Gaskill, "The Man in the Brown Derby".



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