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