EAST HELENA — The historic East Helena railroad depot is again starting to look the way it would have a century ago, thanks to historic preservationists and help from local volunteers.
The East Helena Historical Society and its partner organizations are moving forward with a long-awaited restoration project. This week, workers have been putting on new siding boards on the building –one of the last big steps to finish its exterior.
The work is already drawing attention in East Helena.
“There’s been a bunch of people from around the community that have stopped by and asked us what we’re doing – at least ten just this week – so it really shows that it’s important to the community, that it matters,” said Chandler Padgett, an intern working on the project for the Lewis and Clark County Historic Preservation Office.
In addition to the county, much of the work has been done by a group of regular volunteers.
The building has come a long way from where it was in 2019, when groups came together to move it onto a permanent foundation outside East Helena City Hall.
The most notable change is that the building’s new siding is a bold red color, with green trim. The depot had most recently been white with blue trim. John Barrows, co-chair of the restoration project, said the red and green color scheme matches the way the depot would have looked from its initial construction until about 1948.
The new siding is intended to be as close as possible to what was originally used on the building. Workers are using 17-foot fir boards, each painted with a linseed oil-based paint that was brought in from Sweden. Padgett said the paint isn’t just historically accurate, but durable as well.
“Latex only lasts like ten years before it starts peeling,” he said. “Linseed oil paint will last 50 years, probably. It’s a little more difficult to put on and a little more expensive, so people kind of avoid it, but it’s a lot better over time for the wood.”
The trickiest part of the work is fitting the board’s tongue-and-groove connectors – especially near the roof line, where each board has to be trimmed to fit the angle. Padgett said working on the project gives him an appreciation for the craftsmanship that was put into buildings like this.
“It’s definitely a lot of work,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful and make sure you do it well, or it’s not going to look good.”
The depot was built for the Northern Pacific Railway in the 1900s. It initially served as a telegraph station at Clasoil, several miles east of East Helena. It then became East Helena’s train depot in the 1930s, after an earlier depot building burned down. It was used through the 1980s, then converted into an office and eventually left empty. Preservation advocates then reached an agreement with Montana Rail Link to donate the building.
Barrows, who worked at the depot for a time, said the building was a hub for the East Helena community – a center for mail, travel and goods. When the East Helena smelter was operating, ore came in and finished materials went out on the line.
“This station – this little bitty building – had one of the highest revenues on the entire Northern Pacific system, thanks to the smelter,” Barrows said.
The East Helena Historical Society eventually plans to turn the building into a museum, to showcase the history of the railroad and the community.
“The largest artifact will be the building itself,” Barrows said.
Barrows said there’s still a lot of work to do inside the building, so it will still be a while before the museum opens.
The East Helena Historical Society raised money for the restoration. They also received $5,000 from the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association and grants from the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society.