(EAST HELENA) East Helena community leaders are preparing to move the city’s historic railroad depot to a new permanent home.
The depot building has been sitting on blocks behind the East Helena City Hall, wrapped in protective plastic, for about five years. Historical advocates, the City of East Helena and others are now working to restore it and turn it into a museum.
About a week ago, workers poured a concrete foundation for the building on the northeast corner of the City Hall parking lot. In the coming weeks, volunteers will bring in cranes to set the depot on the foundation.
The depot was built around 1910. It initially served as a railroad telegraph station at Louisville and Clasoil, several miles east of East Helena. The Northern Pacific Railway then moved the building to East Helena, after the town’s original depot burned in 1930.
For years, the depot played a significant role in the ASARCO smelting operation, as ore came in by rail and finished products went out. It also served as an unofficial community center, where residents purchased train tickets, the mail came in and out, and telegrams were delivered.
“It is the very essence of a community – especially like East Helena, which was such a multi-ethnic community,” said John Barrows, who co-chairs the depot project. “It is the very essence of the communications, transportation and the social aspect of meeting the trains.”
Barrows himself worked at the depot in the mid-1960s, serving as a relief agent and telegrapher. He handled jobs like weighing the freight cars that came through, to determine how much they should be charged.
Barrows said Burlington Northern, the successor company to the Northern Pacific, used the depot through the 1980s. After that, it was used as an office, but was eventually left empty.
In 2012, Montana Rail Link, which now operates along the old Northern Pacific line, considered demolishing the depot. They contacted Pam Attardo, Lewis and Clark County’s historic preservation officer, to see if she was interested in the building.
“I said, ‘I sure am,’” she said. “And so they said, ‘Well, if you can move it, it’s yours.’”
In 2014, MRL donated the building to the City of East Helena and paid to move it to the City Hall property. Now after years of working, groups like the city, the East Helena Historical Society, the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society and the Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council are ready to finish restoring the depot.
“It gives me great satisfaction to see this thing come to fruition,” said Attardo.
Much of the work has been done by volunteers. Andy Anderson, a local contractor, offered his help in getting the project completed.
“I love this town, and it’s just the time in my life to give back,” he said.
Through his connections, he was able to organize businesses to donate much of the needed work and materials – from the excavation to the concrete and the final move. He thanked everyone who contributed.
“This is a gracious community,” he said.
Attardo said the depot has significant historic value, both as one of the few remaining examples of the Northern Pacific’s telegraph stations and because of its links to ASARCO. She said, despite the building’s age and years of use, it is actually in relatively good condition.
“Its original fabric is still in there,” she said. “The layout is still pretty much as it was.”
The exterior paint will have to be removed because of lead content, and several windows will have to be replaced. Barrows said the depot will be repainted red with green trim, as it would have been in the 1930s and 1940s. The interior will also be restored to match its original appearance. Barrows donated several pieces of appropriate equipment.
Anderson said, once the depot is in its final location and the plastic wrap is removed, he expects a lot of excitement from the East Helena community.
“So many people in this town have come forward and wondered when it will be done – they want to help paint,” he said. “Once it’s moved, it will generate a lot of interest.”
Barrows said the restored depot will mean a lot for the town.
“We’re trying to preserve the culture and heritage of the community in a structure that is very indicative of that era,” he said.