Helena, Montana, is a nice town. If I could stand the climate, which is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and very dry all year round, it wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live. Granted, it’s a bit isolated out there in the eastern foothills of the northern Rockies, but no more so than anywhere else in Montana. It’s an hour from Butte, a couple of hours from Great Falls, and only four hours from Yellowstone, after all.
But I was heading in the opposite direction from Yellowstone. At least for the time being.
I had two research stops planned on this trip, and Helena was the first. The Montana Historical Society is headquartered in Helena, with a terrific museum and a research library staffed by some extremely helpful librarians. I spent the morning there poking through clipping files and microfilm, looking for anecdotes written by people who had been in Yellowstone during the days after the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake since I am going to be placing another character in the park during that event. The Hebgen Lake Earthquake was the largest (7.2-7.5 on the Richter scale — the 1906 San Francisco quake was a 7.9, for a basis of comparison) earthquake in the Rocky Mountain region in recorded history, and, in the area immediately west of the park, it caused a landslide that killed almost thirty people and created an entirely new lake.
Inside the park, no one was killed, but a great many buildings (including the Old Faithful Inn) and quite a few miles of road were severely damaged, and what the earthquake did to the thermal features (geysers, hot springs, etc.) apparently put on quite the show. Some of the changes were permanent, some temporary, but it is safe to say that the Hebgen Lake Earthquake profoundly changed Yellowstone, and the stories people told about it are a novel begging to be written.
From research to what I’ve been calling shilling, for lack of a better term. After lunch, I went to the Lewis and Clark County Library, where I spoke with one of the librarians and left bookmarks, then I strolled on down Last Chance Gulch, which is a) what Helena was called back when it was a mining camp in the 1860s before it became Helena, and b) the name of the main drag downtown, which is now a tree-shaded, lilac-lined pedestrian mall. I stopped at the city hall’s historic preservation department, the chamber of commerce, a local bookstore, and at the Lewis and Clark County Historical Society along the way, trailing bookmarks as I went. I also found a new-to-me quilt shop, and, of course, left with fabric. Ahem. My name is M.M. Justus, and I am a fabricoholic. There. That’s out of the way.
By that time it was late, and I went back to my motel to get ready to head on the next morning. I do like Helena. It was a good place to set part of a novel.
Unfortunately, I have no pictures of today. But there will be more tomorrow.
Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures