The Fire Tower

HELENA – Earlier this year, Helena city officials began discussing the future of the historic Fire Tower after it was damaged by arson in August of 2016.

After the fire, the city contracted with the Morrison-Maierle engineering firm to assess the damage. The company used those results to make recommendations and cost estimates for how to restore the tower. The company decided it was not safe for people to climb the tower, after the fire damaged several of the support beams.

The engineers worked with the City Parks and Recreation Board to analyze different costs associated with fixing it, but finally determined that the iconic structure would have to be demolished after determining the structural instability was too great to preserve.

The city decided replacing and restoring the historic landmark is the least expensive option.

Story continues below

In conducting research on the tower, Montana Historical Society Interpretive Historian Ellen Baumler made an interesting find: the original contract to build it.

Baumler said she had heard of the potential existence of contract document, but had never seen it.

“I went to the librarians and said, have you guys ever heard of this? And they said, well, no!  Let’s see if we can find it,” said Baumler.  “So we searched it, just on the online catalog, I think the librarian plugged in fire tower contract and there it came up.”

Helena’s Fire Tower as it stands now is the third of the fire towers to grace this hill.

It was built after the second one was burned in a devastating blaze in January of 1874.

Just like any official document for construction you’d see today, there were multiple bids and plenty of detail about what the tower needed to include.

“The contract was let for $100, there were two bids, two other bids, one for $150, one for $200,” says Baumler.  “In the document, actually, it lays out how it was built, with what types of structures, what types of fastenings, what type of foundation it had, and the house on top is described exactly as it is today.”

Baumler said this Fire Tower was built soon after the contract was approved.

With Helena’s extensive history of major fires during its earliest years, she says this is an exciting find that brings the past right up to the present.

“The original emblem for the city was the phoenix.  People realized that Helena rose from the ashes many different times,” says Baumler.  “But the fact that our icon now is the Fire Tower really does say something about our community and how our history is important to us and how we have risen from the ashes a number of different times.”

For more information about the history of the Fire Tower click here.