(HELENA) Community leaders gathered in Helena’s Beattie Park Thursday for a tour of the historic Sixth Ward neighborhood and the Helena Railroad Depot Historic District. The group included city and county commissioners and representatives from Helena College and the Montana Business Assistance Connection, among others.
The tour was organized by the MidTowne and Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association. The group wanted to showcase the area’s history, but also bring attention to what could happen there in the future.
“The hope is that it’ll make them realize the value of what we have here historically, and also to help them catch the vision of revitalization for this part of Helena,” said Rose Casey, a member of the association’s board.
Ellen Baumler, an interpretive historian with the Montana Historical Society, led the tour.
“I think really the area is one of Helena’s best-kept secrets,” she said. “Even people who live here maybe have never been down there to check it out.”
For decades, the Sixth Ward revolved around the railroad. The neighborhood first developed when the Northern Pacific Railway came to Helena in 1883. Baumler says you can still see signs of that history, in the four false-fronted buildings on Railroad Avenue, the streets paved with bricks, and the railroad depot build in 1904.
Baumler said it’s key for any new developments in the Sixth Ward to respect that historic character.
“When we talk about revitalization and redevelopment, what gets put in those historic places is extremely important,” she said.
The neighborhood association wants to attract more economic activity and tourism to the Sixth Ward. One of their top priorities is improving access to the area, which is cut off from the rest of Helena by Montana Avenue and by the railroad tracks. Casey said almost 20 businesses in the area have signed onto a petition, calling on the city to change traffic patterns to make it easier to get into the neighborhood.
The association has also suggested boosting tourism by opening a museum in the area. Casey said one possibility is a model railroad museum. She said there are many model train enthusiasts in the Helena Valley who want to find a permanent place to store their collections.
Casey said local businesses have also started discussing the creation of a Railroad Business Association that could represent their concerns to city leaders.
“Everybody wants to see growth here, but the vision I think is being driven by the people that live and work here,” she said.
The neighborhood association hopes tours like Thursday’s will get more people thinking about the possibilities of the Sixth Ward.
“We just want all of Helena to realize that this section of town is going to be something that we want everybody to be proud of,” said Casey.