In September of 2019, we took a road trip and we were finally able to visit Montana and check off another state we had not been to before. This was the 40th state we visited and we were able to tour the Montana State Capitol while in the Helena area. It was a very interesting state capitol and the grounds were pretty nice to check out as well. I am not sure how many capitols we had been to at that point, but we are slowly making our way toward our desire to visit each capitol one day.
For a little bit of history, the Montana State Capitol was built between 1896 and 1902. However, there was some drama leading to the actual design of the capitol. As the story goes, in 1895 there was a competition with a $1 million dollar prize for the winning architecture. However, the selection committee awarded prized to finalists and selected a design even though funding was not yet available. On top of that, it was also discovered the Capitol commissioners planned to defraud the state of substantial portions of the building costs. I am surprised that the capitol w was even built, lol. Anyway, the original commissioners were replaced, and they began anew. In 1898 they selected Charles Emlen Bell and John Hackett Kent both of Iowa if they were willing to relocate to Montana due to a provision that the chosen architect needed to be a resident of Montana
They relocated and the cornerstone was laid on Independence Day in 1899. The Montana State Capitol took about three years to build, is faced in sandstone from a Columbus, Montana quarry, and cost approximately $540,000. Then on the same date July 4th three years later in 1902, the Capitol building was dedicated with much appreciative fanfare.
After we parked we made our way into the incredible capitol and took a few minutes to admire the rotunda and the four beautiful circular art paintings surrounding it. I don’t have room to share all four pictures here, but there is an example of one. Each painting depicts four important archetypes of people of Montana’s early history. There is one of a Native American, an explorer and fur trapper, a gold miner, and a cowboy. They no longer give guided tours since 2017 but they had brochures and we were able to do a self-guided tour. Yay!
We walked around looking at a lot of other artwork around the capitol and stopped to take a picture of their beautiful grand staircase, the dome from below (more on that in a bit), the beautiful stained glass windows, some of the statues (which there were many), and a picture of us in front of a small replica liberty bell. I loved the architecture of this building.
I mentioned the dome earlier and I want to share a little more about the dome. The dome itself is made of copper and is very beautiful. However, what is more, interesting than the dome, is the story behind the 12-foot-tall, copper-plated statue atop the dome. She has been grazing the capitol since 1901, with a shield in her left hand and a torch in her right. There has been a mystery attached to her since her arrival in Montana. This mysterious figure simply arrived at the Helena train station from somewhere back east as the capitol was being built with a short note indicating that she was intended to grace the dome. The builders placed her atop the Dome, christened her “The Goddess of Liberty”, and there she has stood ever since. More details have since come out about this mystery and you can read more on the Montana Historical Society website or this Missoulian Article.
As I have said many times before I love checking out the chambers of each state captiol we visit. The main thing I want to share about the House of Representatives is the piece of art hanging above the speaker’s chair titled “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross’ Hole”. It was done by Montana’s famous artist Charles M Russell, is 25 feet long, and twelve feet high. This was quite interesting to me as I am related to John Colter who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. You can learn more about their time in Montana on my Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center post. Anyway, this painting depicts Lewis and Clark meeting Montana’s Bitterroot Salish people upon their return across the Bitterroot Mountains from their voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The painting portrays this event that took place on September 4, 1805, and is drawn to show the perspective of the Salish Indians. It is quite an impressive piece of art and wanted to share more about it in this post.
The Senate Chamber is also impressive and has another mural related to the Lewis and Clark exploration. On the Senate’s west wall is a huge monumental bronze relief mural in which the sculptor Eugene Daub depicts the explorers at daybreak as they prepare to embark on their upriver journey through Montana’s Missouri Breaks. It was installed in 2006 upon its completion of the bicentennial commemoration of the expedition, and it was wonderfully titled “We Proceeded On”.
Before you leave the area you really do need to take some time and walk around the capitol grounds. Besides the wonderful statue atop the dome, there is also the Thomas Francis Meagher statue. It is bronze and was done by Charles J. Mulligan in 1905. There is a lot to say about him, but I will just share here that he was an Irish revolutionary and Union brigadier general during the American Civil War and arrived in Montana in 1865. Mulligan’s equestrian statue is as much a tribute to the many Irish immigrants who made Montana their home as it is to Meagher himself. In keeping with a theme, it was dedicated on July 4th in 1905 before a cheering crowd of over 1,500 people. Along with these two statues, there are numerous other monuments and memorials located throughout the Capitol complex which are interesting to check out.
We had a wonderful time exploring this historic capitol and learning about how it almost didn’t happen, and the connection to the Lewis and Clark expedition. I am so happy we finally made it to Montana and hope to visit again on a future trip. Here is a link to their website with more information if you want to learn more about this interesting capitol building. Also, if you want to learn more about the cute little city of Montana, check out the Last Chance Train Tour. It’s a fun way to see the city.
Montana State Capitol Building Visitor Information
1301 East Sixth Avenue Helena, MT 59601
Monday-Friday 7:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. and Saturdays, Sundays, and most holidays from 9:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. The Capitol is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Presentations are not available on weekends.
Self-Guided tours are available whenever the capitol building is open to the public.
Parking is extremely limited in the Capitol Complex, especially during legislative sessions. Visitors may park personal vehicles in any non-restricted lot on the Capitol Complex. All Helena Parking Commission rules are in effect.
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