HELENA — Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, marks the 86th anniversary of the 1935 earthquake that shook Helena.
The first rumblings began on Oct. 3 with a small earthquake. On Oct. 10 magnitude 5.9 struck the area, causing damage but no injuries. The main shock, 6.2 in magnitude, hit just before 10:00 p.m. on Oct. 18. The 6.2 quake was nearly twice as large and 2.8 times stronger than the Oct. 10, 1935 quake.
Historian Ellen Baumler shared with MTN the story of five Catholic nuns who survived the quake.
The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth came to Helena with the mission of educating children, helping orphans — including building St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans — and caring for the sick at St. John’s Hospital.
Baumler says through a dramatic night came a story of hope at the St. Vincent's Academy for girls based on the catholic faith. When the main quake hit, three of the sisters woke up around 50 girls under their care.
“The sisters told the girls to dress very quickly,” said Baumler.
Baumler says the sisters used candles to guide them in the dark. They navigated their way through the building, but as they reached the first floor about to exit...
“Somebody from the back yelled, ‘Don’t take that door, take the next one!’ They went to the next door, just as the wall fell in behind them.”
Baumler says the girls lay bundled up together for the rest of the night, not knowing the full extent of the damage until morning.
“There were live wires and breeches in the construction and missing stairs, and it's just a miracle that they all got out. And, the sisters later said, it was only by divine providence that they were able to get out safely,” said Baumler.
According to the University of Utah Historical Earthquake Project, the quake destroyed some 300 homes and knocked out power for an hour. Many people slept in their cars in the following days while trying to find alternative housing arrangements. Significant damage occurred to many buildings with some entirely destroyed. At the time the City Engineer estimated some $2.5 million in damages to the area.
The town would see a mass exodus of people in the following days, with people traveling to other parts of the state to escape the quakes and wait for repairs to be completed.
On Oct. 31 a 6.0 aftershock struck the area that destroyed even more buildings that were damaged during the mainshock.
Four people in total died as a result of the tremors. On Oct. 18, 23-year-old Dave Harris was crushed by rubble when the front wall of an old two-story building fell out. Charles Siggelink was also mortally injured that night by a collapsed building. He died a day later at St. Peter’s Hospital.
On Oct. 31, 27-year-old Ed S. O'Brien and 24-year-old Vincent Kennedy, brick masons from Salt Lake City, were killed while working on the stack at the Kessler Brewery.
Another smaller aftershock, 5.8 in magnitude, hit Nov. 28. Following the earthquake, the City Engineer revised his estimate of total damages from the earthquake series to $5 million or more.