Saturday, October 17, 2015

Millionares and working girls in Helena

The little tour that we took emphasized the older - and quite beautiful part of town. These huge Victorian mansions were side by side with more modest, but beautifully kept homes. Unfortunately, the new part of town - where we stayed - was the usual unplanned urban sprawl which is a real shame.

 Governor's Mansion: This stately Queen Anne style mansion has enjoyed both public and private roles in the history of Montana and its capital city. The history of the mansion is as much a history of the people who resided here as it is of a building. Montana's Original Governor's Mansion, built in 1888 by Helena entrepreneur William Chessman as a symbol of his wealth and influence throughout the Helena community. The next two owners, the Larsons and the Conrads, continued the pattern of affluent living. In 1913 the State of Montana acquired this handsome brick mansion as the first official governor's residence for nearly half a century. Between 1913 and 1959, it was home to nine Montana governors and their families. We also saw the new governor's mansion - with some kind of prow attachment which has earned it the nickname of "Ship's Mansion" (or something to that effect). It's no where as beautiful as the old Victorian mansion and one has to wonder why it was built.

If a man's home was supposed to be his castle, the millionaires in Helena believed in making that castle a palace, Victorian style. 

The Last Chance Placer is one of the most famous placer deposits in the western United States. Most of the production occurred before 1868. Much of the placer deposit is now under the streets and buildings of Helena. (As late as the 1970s, when repairs were being made to a bank, a vein of placer gold was found under the bank's foundation). This large concentration of wealth was the basis of developing fine residences and ambitious architecture in the city; its Victorian neighborhoods reflect the years when gold was flowing and the men with money were ambitious to show it off.

 By 1888, about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any city in the world. About $3.6 billion (in today's dollars) of gold was taken from Last Chance Gulch over a 20-year period.When this was first built, it was a private club - you had to have at least a million dollars to belong.

The numerous miners also attracted the development of a thriving red light district.  Given that the town was full of single men and few women, so working women could made a living - if not always a good one. Unfortunately most could not avoid STD's which were a death sentence in the days before penicillin. Working women in Helena had the forces of "respectability" and temperance to contend with but the profession survived - semi-legally -until the 1950's

Among the well-known local madams was Josephine "Chicago Joe" Airey, who built a thriving business empire between 1874 and 1893, becoming one of the largest and most influential landowners in Helena. The brothels of Helena were a successful part of the local business community well into the 20th century, ending with the 1973 death of Helena's last madam, "Big Dorothy" Baker.

Ms Baker was an astute businesswoman. She managed to stay on the "right" side of the law by philanthropy, gifts to the police and politicians and by keeping an upscale house where the ladies were both professional and discrete. Who says that sin doesn't pay? For a much fuller and more interesting account of this part of the wild West, check out Lael Morgan's "Wanton West. Madams, Money and Murder..." The Wild West deserved it's name.

Later, we walked through the old downtown which escaped being bulldozed into rubble and was then rebuilt into a "walking mall," lined with trees, benches and places to shop and eat. In fact, we had a wonderful Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean meal there - proving that Helena is still a draw for enterprising immigrants.


Carla Ives said...

Wonderful! I love the old homes and, although I've been in a very few parts of Montana, I've not been to Helena. The little bit of the state I saw is breathtaking. My main comment about those humongous old homes, beautiful as they are, would be. . . . I'd have to be rich enough to buy it AND hire someone to clean it! :)

David James said...

Hi Nancy, this is journaling in its truest sense — telling a story about an interesting journey or a life event.
Thank you for sharing this is in our Victorian History Group
You are an inspiration with your love of history and the art you create and share.
Thank you dear Nancy!

nancy namaste said...

Carla - you bet that these millionaires had a full staff to do all the cooking, cleaning and the gardening. I just saw a documentary about English servants in the 19th century; one estate had 30 servants. I don't think these mansions had that many but certainly enough so that the lady of the house didn't have to do any of the real work.

nancy namaste said...

David - thank you so much for your gracious comment! I enjoy the groups that you moderate, and appreciate that you keep the tone civilized and polite - no easy feat.