We spent the better part of an afternoon nosing around historic Reeder's Alley, at the south end of Last Chance Gulch. At first glance, it doesn't look like much. A conglomeration of mismatched buildings - some log cabins, some wooden, and quite a few red-brick ones. Between them, a faded pinkish-gray brick pathway leads up the tree-shaded alley. However, there's more than meets the eye and plenty to keep the interest. This location is the site of Helena's oldest buildings and its mining boomtown beginnings.
I didn't realize there even was a visitor center in Reeder's Alley until after exploring some and just happening to stumble onto it, but that's a good place to begin. They have excellent handouts and knowledgeable staff. It's located in the lower alley, the front brick office, facing west. A four-page news sheet contains a wealth of information and drawings about the history of the alley, Last Chance Gulch, and geological features of this area.
Reeder's Alley gets its name from Louis Reeder, a stonemason and bricklayer from Pennsylvania, who arrived in Helena in 1867, three years after gold was discovered in Last Chance Gulch. After helping to build Helena's first courthouse, he invested in property along the Gulch, gradually erecting several rows and tiers of brick tenements for miners. These 35 units provided comfortable and fire-resistant homes, sturdier and snugger than tents or even log cabins. They've withstood the test of time, earthquakes, and even urban renewal. Reeder himself died an untimely death after a fall from scaffolding, while repairing a chimney, in 1884.
Through the decades, mostly single men, and later pensioners, made the small apartments of Reeder's Alley their home. Early on, it was bordered by a thriving Chinatown, and nearby, a very active red light district that continued to offer services until the '70s. Reeder's Alley and adjoining "unsavory" areas were slated by city planners for demolishment. Three Helena women, envisioning an artist colony instead, purchased and fixed up the buildings in the alley. The colony never really materialized, but thankfully, the alley was saved from destruction. In 2000, Reeder's Alley was donated to the Montana Heritage Commission.
Pioneer Cabin right of the alley entrance, is the oldest building in Helena. The gray log cabin with white trim dates from 1864-65, built by brothers Wilson and Jonas Butts. After its last resident died in 1939, the Last Chance Restoration Association restored the cabin and furnished it with period pieces. Peeking through the many windows gains good indoors views. With its bright whitewashed walls, rocking chairs, sewing corner, and dining table all set in the kitchen, it looks downright livable. The cabin is a museum and tours can be arranged; call (406) 449-6522.
Caretaker Cabin to the left is almost as old as the Butts cabin, but looks newer because its log walls were covered in clapboard. Yee Wau Cabin next to it, was built in 1870 by two brothers who sold groceries and Chinese merchandise. Helena's Chinatown, five sprawling blocks of homes, businesses, and extensive gardens, was populated mostly by men, as were so many Chinatowns in the old West. Already dwindling in the 1890's, the remaining buildings were entirely demolished by 1970's urban renewal. The sturdy little Yee Wau Cabin at the edge of Reeder's Alley is the only survivor.
As we made our way up the alley, we came across a woman who was cleaning out one of the brick apartments, where she ran a curio shop all summer. She shared with us a most unusual experience she had there. The resident ghost of that particular apartment, a prospector, played a prank on her by locking her in a closet. She hollered for help, but it was evening and other shopkeepers had already gone home. She showed us damage to the wood, where she finally pried open the door to get out, after several hours. Even more strangely, there was no locking mechanism...
Some apartments in the upper alley, now mostly offices and a few shops, use the stone of the gulch itself as a back wall. In the back part of the upper alley you'll also find the Stonehouse, which used to be and now is again, a restaurant, but didn't seem to be running when we were there. It's now called Bootlegger's at the Stonehouse. Beyond the Stonehouse you'll find Morelli Bridge, built in 1893, the oldest timber bridge in Montana.
Karmadillo's enjoys a fantastic view of the Last Chance Gulch area from multi-level wooden decks on the upper alley. They serve extensive Southwestern selections for breakfast, and lunch/dinner, most under $10. Seasonal hours and days open can be found on their website.
off S. Park Avenue
Visitor center and information: Montana Heritage Commission
101 Reeder's Alley