HELENA – Helena’s last major earthquake happened in October of 1935.
It started with a small quake Oct. 3, followed by a 5.9 on Oct.12 and a devastating 6.2 on Oct. 18.
Historian Ellen Baumler said it was that quake that led to major devastation for the community – and stories of escape that live on to this day.
Most notably is the story of a play rehearsal that was taking place that day at the then-brand new Helena High School, which is now Helena Middle School.
“For someone reason, the teacher just felt like it was time for everybody to go. And so she had just dismissed the students maybe about 9:30 or 9:45 a.m. And right after that, this 6.2 earthquake struck and it destroyed the auditorium. It buckled the walls in the school, there was really extensive damage. And this was a brand new school,” said Baumler.
Baumler said there’s also the story of the nun who led girls at St. Vincent’s Academy to safety.
“There were students at St. Vincent’s Academy, which was a girls school across from Catholic Hill where today the old St. John’s hospital building stands, that was St. Vincent’s Academy. And the girls were just getting ready for bed. There was some construction going on at the time and there were some scaffolding and some loose wires and things. As the earthquake hit, the nuns told the girls to get candles. They took candles and they all followed one sister and somebody yelled ‘don’t go out the doorway!’ so they bypassed one doorway and as they bypassed it they heard the wall fall behind them and went out the next door. The next morning when they looked at the damage that doorway that they had passed opened into nothing. And the sisters after that always felt that it was the hand of God that guided them out,” said Baumler.
She said there’s also the story of the 110 St. Joseph orphans left homeless for months, who stayed temporarily at Boulder Hot Springs.
“The St. Joseph’s orphanage was destroyed. There were 110 children left homeless. They ended up spending a few months at Boulder Hot Springs. Senator Murray very graciously allowed them to use the west wing and the children lived there while the orphanage was rebuilt. And that orphanage sat out where Shopko is today.”
The devastation was widespread around town, with many people sleeping on their lawns out of fear of returning indoors. They were struck by another 6.0 quake on Halloween.
“And so it was a time when I think Helenans really showed their mettle and people came together,” explained Baumler. “Then, of course, they say during those dark times, of October in 1935, Helena was renamed, Lena. Not because it leaned, but because during those dark times the earthquakes knocked the hell out of it.”
In the end, the 1935 Helena earthquakes took four lives.
Since 1935, Montana has experienced other major earthquakes in the state prior to Thursday’s 5.8 magnitude one. MTN talked with an earthquake expert from Butte about the history of quakes in the state.
Michael Stickney, the director of the Earthquake Studies at Montana Tech did say Thursday morning’s quake near Lincoln was one of the largest earthquakes Montana has experienced in several decades.
“It’s actually pretty significant, it’s the largest earthquake since October of 1964 in the state of Montana. The late aftershock of the Hebgen Lake earthquake that occurred in 1959 was the last bigger earthquake,” said Stickney.
The early morning quake was felt all across the state and into Idaho and Canada. It has
been producing much smaller aftershocks every minute since the initial quake. Stickney said while Montana historically experiences plenty of seismic activity, Thursday morning’s quake was a major event.
Stickney added that this quake occurred on a fault that was thought to be inactive about 5.5 miles southeast of Lincoln