Transformations in Helena

St Mary’s Catholic Church became a 6th Ward landmark upon its opening in 1910 and a recent renovation will keep the building in community service for another generation.

The sixth ward in Helena in the late nineteenth century was a focal point for the new capital city of Montana. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the location of its railroad yards some mile and a half southwest of Last Chance Gulch created a new part of the city with plenty of bars and cafes for rail workers and travelers but also a historic neighborhood that often gets forgotten.

The historic block o& commercial buildings facing the depot
Hap’s has served customers for decades along this commercial block.
Nationally recognized railroad architect Charles Reed of the St Paul firm Reed & Stem designed a new modern passenger station for the Northern Pacific in 1904.
Northern Pacific depot’s clock tower. The passenger station is the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s National Register-listed historic district

The architecturally expressive Northern Pacific passenger station of 1903-1904 led to new investment of brick buildings in the neighborhood but many small vernacular dwellings remained in use and today the neighborhood retains a railroad workers’ feel.

Hap’s Beer Parlor transformed from a rail workers’ hangout to a neighborhood institution. It was a popular place when I lived in Helena almost 40 years ago—it remains legendary.

In 2016 the city of Helena established the Railroad Urban Renewal District which encouraged new investments in the neighborhood and its immediate environs, such as the Vanilla Bean coffee shop and bakery. Another key addition was the Sixth Ward Garden Park, an impressive example of the community garden movement.

The changes in the neighborhood are promising but also challenging as new businesses such as Headwaters brewery move to the outskirts. Let’s hope the modern does not crowd out the historic in Helena’s Sixth Ward.

The new Headwaters brewery

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