The 1st time I was in the Montana State Capitol in Helena I didn’t learn much. It was a late-autumn, weekend afternoon. Snow was in the forecast. The only person around was a security guard, so I was limited to a self-guided walk-through. The 2nd time I visited the Montana State Capitol in summer, 2014, Dallas the Dynamo was there. Dallas gave Ruth, me, and a family from Illinois the best capitol tour I’ve ever had. Afterwards, he gave me his card which featured racing flags, a sports car, and the words retired (sort of).
Montana’s Governor, Steve Bullock, calls his capitol “The People’s House” and “the crown jewel of Montana architecture”. Helena, like most western towns, began as a mining camp; but it didn’t become a ghost-town when the gold ran out. According to Montana’s State Capitol (a publication of the Historical Society), it became a banking and supply center with a ginormous Catholic cathedral. Montana became a state in 1889 and Helena beat Anaconda’s bid to become the capital in a copper king showdown.
Using the same design as South Dakota’s, the capitol’s architects, Charles Emlen Bell and John Hackett Kent, created a flashy Victorian building with lots of light, purple marble from Tennessee, an ornate copper dome, etc. Bell and Kent got the job when they agreed to move from Iowa to Montana. A provision of the contract required the architect to be Montanan. Their building was dedicated on July 4, 1902, and take note, Washington–the legislature had authorized $1 million for the project but the final cost was $540,000.
Touring this capitol is like visiting an art museum. Dallas, sensitive to the interests of 2 families, took us early on to see a sculpture of Jeannette Rankin, noted pacifist and the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. When she died at the age of 93, she was considering another congressional run to protest the War in Vietnam. Dallas met her.
Then he took us to see E.S. Paxson’s “Lewis and Clark at Three Forks”, the 1912 painting Stephen Ambrose personally selected for the cover of Undaunted Courage. Dallas met him.
In the Senate Chamber, Dallas pointed up to the massive, heavy chandelier that came loose during the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake that destroyed and/or unbalanced a lot of flooring. A 1999-2000 capitol restoration brought back a lot of the building’s original appearance.
We spent the rest of the tour in the House of Representatives discussing artist Charles M. Russell’s painting “Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole”. This 25 feet long, 12 feet high work commissioned in 1911 is considered Russell’s masterpiece. It’s clearly the largest of his paintings. The roof of his Great Falls Studio had to be raised while he painted it. However, Dallas had us focus on one small detail, a snarling wolf. Russell seriously disliked the Speaker of the House and put a wolf behind his podium so that each time the man turned he would see the animal’s menacing face. Dallas estimated that the painting was worth $60 million.