Rehab of Helena Fire Tower sees renewed momentum

Posted April 18, 2022

This article originally appeared in the Helena Independent Record. It was written by Nolan Lister.

Thanks to a recent Montana History Foundation grant award and a financial commitment from the city of Helena, a long-fought effort to restore the city’s beloved fire tower has new legs to stand on.

The Helena Fire Tower received $10,000 from MHF and was one of 28 projects in Montana to be awarded a piece of the organization’s more than $212,000 in grant money for 2022.

“It’s very much a symbol now,” Helena and Lewis and Clark County Heritage Preservation Officer Pam Attardo said, speaking to the importance of the wooden structure perched above Last Chance Gulch.

Attardo said much of the tower, including all four legs and the sill, date back to 1874.

“It really is still the fire tower,” she said.

A suspected arson fire set in 2016 left portions of the structure damaged, and the city did not commit funds to restore the tower at the time. The tourist draw has been fenced off, unable to support any more weight than some strands of lights since then.

In 2020, staff planned to use dollars from Helena’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Lands budget in conjunction with community donations and a Montana Department of Commerce Historic Preservation grant of $25,000 to begin rehabilitation work.

The city committed $150,000 to the project from the general fund, and that has been carried over from budget to budget since 2020.

State Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, said on the House floor the fire tower project stricken from the bill “ended up being taken out not because it was a bad project, but because it was located here in Helena. … the idea being these extra dollars going outside of Helena to reach the other areas of Montana and the history that is associated with those areas.”

Attardo said she and her staff have worked hard to secure alternative sources of funding to plug the hole left by the Legislature’s decision.

In addition to the $10,000 awarded by the MHF, she said two more grant awards of $15,000 and $60,000 could potentially be on the horizon.

Estimates of the total project cost have risen from about $180,000 in 2020 to upward of $220,000 as of this year.

Attardo said to maintain the fire tower’s place on the National Register of Historic Places, rehabilitation of the structure needs to meet the secretary of the interior’s exacting standards, which dictate everything from the tools used on the job to the moisture content of the timber.Doug Porter is an architectural conservator specializing in the investigation, stabilization and repair of culturally significant sites. Porter has restored numerous landmarks including the Keane Wonder Mine Aerial Tramway in Death Valley National Park and the Cable Mountain Draw Works in Zion National Park.

“He would really be the most qualified person for the job,” Attardo said, adding that the plan is to bring Porter to inspect the fire tower and eventually contract his services to oversee the project.

Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Director Kristi Ponozzo said in an interview the city will first need to competitively bid the contract.

According to Attardo, years of neglect and the lack of a maintenance plan from the city has left the icon in “pretty dire straights.” The last significant repair work done to the tower was in 1998.

Metal plates and sealant applied to the structure in misguided efforts to keep it standing have trapped moisture in the timber, causing the fire tower to rot from the inside out.

But the stakes may be higher than anyone realizes.

While conducting research for the project, Attardo’s team uncovered a newspaper article from 1970 that claimed Helena’s fire tower was one of only five such structures left in the United States, prompting the question of where the others are.

They reached out to contacts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to find the fire towers. Attardo said in an email Wednesday that she has received responses from 40 states so far. None has such a structure still standing.

Attardo said Helena’s fire tower may be the last remaining wooden fire tower in an urban setting in the country, a mark that could earn it designation as a national historic landmark.”Then it becomes nationally significant,” Attardo said. “That would open up the door to more grant opportunities and federal funding.”

Ponozzo said her department is up to the task of maintaining the fire tower should the reinvestment be made, and added that a maintenance plan expected to come out of the project will be welcomed.

“We would certainly work with our partners at the Montana Historical Society to maintain the fire tower with historical integrity,” she said. “Pieces like this, iconic pieces on our landscape, are part of the culture of this city. It will always be important, and we want to treasure it.”

There is no timeline as of yet for the project, Ponozzo said.

To back up the city’s newfound commitment, Attardo said the Helena and Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council is working with nonprofit organizations Preserve Montana and Friends of the Fire Tower to drum up an additional $100,000 to be seed a permanent endowment for the fire tower administered by MHF.

“The hope is it won’t get back to the point it’s at now,” she said.