My Failed Excursion and the Helena Historic District

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I understand that not many people will be coming to Helena, Montana for tourism reasons. If you’re looking for the jaw-dropping mountain ranges that are synonymous with the state, Glacier National Park or places further out west are going to be where you go.

I didn’t really plan to wind up here, but “the best laid plans of mice and of men often go astray”. Since I have copious amounts of free time in my new (and hopefully temporary) home, I decided to go explore the Helena Historic District with my camera as a way of abating my anxiety.

Attempt # 1: Canyon Ferry

On Thursday, I borrowed a car and decided to venture out Canyon Ferry, a small town about 20 miles east of Helena, resulting a comedy of errors. 

The drive out can be described in one word: desolate. Helena itself is not a big city (the entire ‘metro’ is 60,000 people) with much of that population living in the sprawl of ranch-style homes. But where the city limits and occasional estates end, the ethos of The West begins.

Canyon Ferry Road East of Helena

Montana outside Helena

While I don’t think I want to move here, I’ve come to understand the appeal of living in a place like this. Yes, there is nothing here, and progress comes slow (my mother mentioned that they just got Uber service here) but the tropes of living out west can be oddly cathartic if you embrace them. In a city, it’s easy to find distractions. Out here, you come to know yourself very well because there’s nothing else to distract you. Like I said, fun and cathartic for a few weeks but to live out here might gnaw at my sanity.

Montana outside Helena

That isolation, while great for any mini-existential crisis you may be having, has a negative side as well. I pulled over on a side road near Canyon Ferry, and began a little off-road adventure. I didn’t realize that, as I was shooting, a setting was off on my camera making almost all of the photos I took unusable.

As I was playing amateur explorer in a sub-compact car, the gas light came on. I panicked and drove the 20 minutes back to civilization and gas pumps, leaving my adventure behind. I debated just calling it a day, say I’d been defeated, and go home and process my pictures (I wasn’t aware of my camera setting mistake yet). But no. I persevered, refueled, and headed back out towards Canyon Ferry.

The reason I’d chosen Canyon Ferry was that the lake feeds the Missouri River. This lake is picturesque and beautiful…

… when there’s no smoke from forest fires muddling the mountain views.

Canyon Ferry Lake

I was crushed. At this point, it’d been an hour and a half since I set off, and I had nothing to show for it. Worse yet, the smoke was only a problem south of the city (the direction this picture was taken). To the north was clear and fine and great.

I hopped back in the car and went home, defeated.

Attempt #2.1 – Helena Historic District

Today, the weather was nice. I grabbed my camera and walked to the Helena Historic District. Immediately, I was greeted with a dose of Americana:


The Helena Historic District actually has a neat feel to it. The town began in the mid-1800s as a Gold Rush town, and a lot of the buildings have survived. For instance, if you want to live in an old church, that’s completely normal.

Former Church in Helena

But why live in a piddly church like that when you can go to a cathedral like this one?

Cathedral of St. Helen

The Cathedral of St. Helena was built in 1914 and was modeled after the neo-Gothic Votivkirche in Austria. In 1980, it was added to the Register of National Historic Buildings.

Cathedral of St. Helen

As I stood in front of it, it looked down at me. It made me feel guilty and small, looming over me like a disappointed parent. Say what you want about Catholicism, but the neo-Gothic buildings are something else.

Cathedral of St. Helen

Inside was just as impressive. My first thought was back to Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal. The ceilings were the same, as were the imposing neo-Gothic structure and accents. All this was missing was the blue lights and large tour groups.

Inside the Cathedral of St. Helen

My last stop for the day was at the First Baptist Church of Montana. It was built in 1883 and the organ (that’s still inside) was installed in 1903.

First Baptist Church of Montana

I didn’t go in because I wanted to get to my next stop: Fire Tower Park. But that’s for another post.

Keep Reading

This post is part of the Weekend Postcard. It’s a great place to read what other people are writing about, where they’ve been, etc. Click on the badge below to see who else added their story (though if my analytics are anything to go by, most of you come from this link anyway).

Two Traveling Texans



  1. I hadn’t heard of this place before. I don’t thing I would want to live there either but your photos look great.

  2. I have not been to that area beautiful, but I can imagine it feels miles from Boston! That cathedral is really impressive I wouldn’t have expected to see that in Helena. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  3. I’ve only driven through Helena and stopped for a photo of the church from the outside, but I wish I had gone in! I lived in Kalispell for 3 years, just 20 minutes from GNP! I loved every minute there! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

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