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Montana Capital Still Hitched to the Old West

Charles Hillinger's America

September 28, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

HELENA, Mont. — The flavor of the Old West is everywhere in this small capital.

Last Chance Gulch is the main street. Hitching posts for horses line old brick sidewalks.

More than 50 gingerbread mansions with carriage houses built by the elite during the Gold Rush days--which lasted from 1864 to the turn of the century--are still the best houses in town. Many stone office buildings downtown were erected in the 1880s and 1890s. Many city lots are a peculiar size and shape, built on original mining claims.

A local bank exhibits a gold collection featuring a fist-sized nugget wrested from beneath the city. The streets and hills of Helena yielded $100 million in gold.

The city boasts a statue saluting the gold camps' sluice miners and a bigger-than-life statue of a bullwhacker--an early-day teamster driver cracking a whip.

This was Gary Cooper's hometown. Coop worked as a cartoonist for the Helena Independent before coming to Hollywood.

Looming over Helena, population 24,000 in a state of 800,000, is the state capitol dome sheathed in pure Montana copper. Atop the dome is Montana's version of the Statue of Liberty, "Miss Freedom" complete with torch.

Here in Helena more than half the adult residents work for the government, 4,000 for the state, 1,200 for federal agencies, 800 for the local school district, 500 for the city and county.

Gov. Ted Schwinden, 61, is called Ted in local newspaper headlines. A Democrat, Schwinden has been in office since 1980. He was lieutenant governor before that.

Schwinden, a grain farmer from Wolf Point, is listed in the Helena phone book. Call him at home and either he or his wife, Jean, answers. He wears jeans and no necktie to work quite often. He commutes the two blocks from the governor's mansion in his four-wheel-drive AMC Eagle. He has no security guards, no chauffeur.

He's accessible to the average citizen who drops by the governor's office. His salary is $50,452 a year.

'Most Open Forum'

The 50 state senators and other state representatives meet for 90 days every odd year. They're paid $50 a day and $50 per diem. They have no personal staff, no offices in the capital. There are more ranchers and teachers than any other profession represented in the Legislature.

"We're probably the most open forum of any state legislature," said Ed Smith, 33, chief clerk of the House. Smith became chief clerk when he was 20, youngest in history. "We have no closed sessions. All votes on any matter have to be recorded."

An eye-catcher at the capitol's main entrance is the heroic statue of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced Mar) astride his horse waving his sword over his head.

Who was Meagher? Most Montanans don't know.

He wasn't a significant figure in the history of the state. He only lived in Montana a year and a half.

"Meagher was Montana's first territorial secretary--an appointed position, from September 1865 to July 1867--and when the governor was away he served as acting governor," explained Bob Clark, Montana Historical Society historian.

"But Meagher isn't remembered for doing anything of any consequence, or anything of any lasting historic importance in Montana."

About the only thing historians and a few others recall about Meagher's activities in Montana are the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Clark repeated the oft-told story:

Apparently Drowned

"The governor was out of the territory and the territorial secretary was acting governor. Meagher was aboard a steamboat on the Missouri River. There are two versions of what happened. He was drunk and fell off the boat. Political opponents pushed him over the side. At any rate he apparently drowned. His body was never recovered."

So, why the statue?

"It was the Irish of America who placed the statue on the capitol grounds July 4, 1905," the historian said. "The Irish put it there and no one objected. It was felt by non-Irish at the time that it added a little pizazz to the capitol grounds."

Clark explained that Meagher was a notorious revolutionist--from the British standpoint. "He was an early-day IRA, a leader in the Irish insurrection against British rule in the 1850s.

Meager was captured by the British and sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered." The sentence was later reduced to exile in Australia.

From Australia, Meagher made his way to America, became a brigadier general of the Union Army's Irish Brigade during the Civil War.

Meagher's mark upon Montana came not during his short stay here but 38 years after his death when Irish Americans erected the statue to him.

"Helena is a great place to live and raise kids," said Fire Chief Norm Gray, 49, whose father and grandfather before him were firemen here.

Winter keeps Montana's population down. Gray said winter starts as early as the end of September and lasts as long as June.

"When an Arctic front moves in from Canada, 30-below temperatures are not unusual. Fire hoses freeze. My men freeze. The cold is tough on equipment. We've all had frostbite," Gray said, standing beside the town's historic "Helena, Queen of the Mountains 1886" fire bell.

The bell was formerly housed in the 1874 Guardian of the Gulch fire tower on a hill overlooking the city. After Helena burned to the ground nine times the tower was erected and for years was manned around the clock. The tower is the city's emblem.

Helena's fire station is a mosque, the Algerian Shriner's Temple, sold to the city after it was damaged in a 1935 earthquake.

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