Helena, the Ka-boom town. 9/10/19

No, I do not mean boom town! Yesterday while I was trying to find interesting things to do, I discovered that Helena had experienced a massive train wreck and explosion on February 2, 1989. It all happened due to a perfect storm of circumstances. Here is the story from Wikipedia.

“In the early morning of February 2, 1989, during a record cold snap, a Montana Rail Link freight train picked up three extra “pusher” locomotives in Helena, Montana, to help move the train over Mullan Pass. The train then traveled west from Helena. Halfway up the pass, the lead engine developed an electrical problem that caused a loss of power and at about the same time was stopped by a malfunctioning signal. The train crew then parked the train at the Austin siding, on the east side of Mullan Pass. While waiting for the signal to be fixed, the crew uncoupled the engines from the 48-car train to switch the order of the locomotives, setting the air brakes but not the hand brakes on the cars. At about 5:30 a.m., record cold temperatures (-32F) caused the air brakes to fail on the decoupled cars. The cars then rolled backwards 9 miles downhill, uncontrolled, into Helena, crashed into a parked work train near the Benton Avenue crossing, caught fire, and exploded.” Ka-boom!

Photo from Helena Independent Record

People were evacuated, all the windows in a nearby college dormitory blew out, power was knocked out, the water coming out of the fire hoses froze, and pieces of train landed as much as a mike away. Amazingly no one was killed or even seriously injured.

John and I want to see the site of this awful wreck. Certainly there must be a plaque or something commemorating the event. We go to the Benton St. crossing and there is nothing, nada, zilch. John takes a picture looking up the track and we can only imagine the runaway train heading for the heart of Helena.

Looking toward the direction of the runaway train

So the train wreck site is a bust but there are plenty of other things to see and do in Helena. (In case you are wondering Helena is pronounced Helen like the name and then a. John asked someone.)

Helena is the capital of Montana. It has a population of 31,000 making it one of the smallest capitals in the U.S. It has a big fancy state building with a dome, though, and statues and landscaped grounds. Does every state capital building have a dome?

Montana was admitted to the union in 1889 and the capital’s building is dedicated in 1902. Wings were added to the central building in the early 20th century.

Montana 2019 planting in front of Capitol
Frederick Meagher, territorial governor on horseback with John
Montana Capitol

Nearby is the Montana Historical Society Museum. There are so many interesting exhibits that I am just going to put in pictures of some things  that I enjoyed.

In front of the museum is the sculpture Herd Bull by James D. Hadcock
Joe Scheuerle painted Native Americans in the early 20th century. This is a painting of Eagle Elk from 1905
Joe Scheuerle photographed with Native Americans
Callous Leg
There is a large gallery of Charles M. Russell artwork. This is his philosophy late in life.
Indians Discovering Lewis and Clark, C. Russell,1896
When the Land Belonged to God, a depiction by Russell of the West before the Euro-Americans arrived
John and a grizzly bear
A rare white bison considered very spiritual, almost magical

Next we visit the attractive Gothic style St. Helena Cathedral. The stained glass windows reflect the style of their German maker.

Exterior of St. Helena Cathedral
Stained glass, Sacrifice of Isaac
Art Deco decoration in the nave
Cathedral selfie

For lunch today we add a new cuisine, Japanese, at Hokkaido Ramen. Very enjoyable.

Tonkatsu shoyu ramen
John and today’s beer

Now it is time for a little rest before heading out around 3 PM to visit the Holter Art Museum in Helena. Here are some pieces I enjoy.

John interacting with a rocker in an interactive gallery
I am interacting with a Richard W. James Homunculus
Phoebe Toland’s Reflections
Understory/Overstory installation

We have had a busy day! John and I share some chicken wings and call it a night. We have a long drive to Boise, Idaho tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “Helena, the Ka-boom town. 9/10/19

  1. Thanks for sending this info along. We looked all around the area for a plaque or something but could not find anything. Seeing as how your area is experiencing record cold, I hope there are no trains sitting atop Mullen Pass with just their air brakes set!


  2. Hi. I was involved in the 1989 train wreck in Helena,Mt. The 51 car train came east 12 miles and hit our helpers. I’m sure you have seen news of it! They were supposed to have a info site about it! It never did happen unfortunately. I will say in all the years of reading articles since the wreck the only accurate one is a 30 minute video that Kxlh news did. If you haven’t watched it it’s called Modern Disaster. It’s a good watch..

    Thanks, Mike McNellis


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