Big Sky Chronicles: Securing old lime kiln as part of Helena’s history

HELENA – There’s a trail on the edge of Helena, off a quiet southside cul de sac, that leads to a relic more than a century old, which helped build the Capital City during its earliest days.

“You just park at the cul de sac at the end of Crystal Drive,” explained Montana Department of Transportation Historian Jon Axline, “And you walk up and you can bring your dogs. It connects with other Helena trails and it’s really worthwhile to come up and see it while it’s still here.”

Axline knows the path known as the Far East Trail well, having spent a lot of time at the lime kiln as a child.

“We spent a lot of time up here when we lived down on the 400 block of S. California.  This was kind of the playground for us in those days before all the development happened out towards this direction.”

Now, Axline is working to make sure the lime kiln’s place in Helena’s history is not forgotten.  He’s working to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

He explained what he’s found about the lime kiln’s origins:  “The two men that built it, one man named James Marshall and another named John Grant, got the contract to build the high school and they built it between 1890 and 1892.  So it’s my belief that the lime that was produced here went specifically for that one project.”

Helena’s first high school couresty Montana Historical Society

Helena’s first high school was located on Warren Street, next to Central School.

“They would extract the lime and break it down into smaller pieces.  They would dump it into the top of the kiln and there’d be a fire going underneath and it would bake at something like 1600 degrees.  They would pulverize it even more and then they’d load it into wagons through here, take it down the gulch and they’d move it down to where the high school was being built.  That pulverized limestone was used for whitewash, it was used for mortar in brick and stone buildings, it was used in outhouses to keep down the odor and was also used for plaster in a lot of Helena’s west side mansions.”

For Axline, it’s a labor of love to research the lime kiln and make sure its place in Helena’s history is secured — all the while making sure residents know it’s a place they can also come, to take a step back in time.

This story is the first in a series with Jon Axline.  In the coming weeks, he’ll take us to MacDonald Pass to learn about three other nearby gems.  They all speak to our local and state history and you might have passed them a dozen or more times – and never realized their importance: The Frenchwoman’s Road, the Section House and the Airplane Beacon.