Montana State Capitol in Helena
The Montana State Capitol in Helena houses the State Legislature. Its intriguing history and grand design speak to the spirit of Montana.
The land that became Montana was originally the territory of Native peoples. Its current Native tribes include the Blackfeet, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshoni, Sioux, Gros Ventre, Salish, and Kootenai. A limited number of white settlers and missionaries had been in the area in the early nineteenth century, but it was not organized into a territory until May 28, 1864, during the Civil War. As with many western states, a gold rush brought the first significant wave of white settlers. White immigration and encroachment led to escalating violence and the invasion of the United States Army. The period of conflict after the Civil War, notably including the Battle of Little Bighorn, resulted in the forced removal of Native peoples onto reservation land.
Mining, fur, ranching, timber, and agriculture continued to draw white settlers to the territory and on November 8, 1889 Montana was admitted to the Union as the forty-first state. Helena became the Territorial Capitol after the Legislature moved it from Virginia City in 1875, but it was not officially ratified as the site by election until 1894. The following year, a Capitol Commission was authorized by the State Legislature and a design by George R. Mann was approved with construction beginning in 1896. The Capitol follows a neoclassical design and is made of sandstone and granite with a copper dome topped by a Columbia figure. State Representative Fred Whiteside exposed a plot by Commission members to use cheap materials and embezzle leftover funds from the project, after which the Commission disbanded and a second one was convened. The second commission chose Charles Bell and John Kent to complete the capitol, and the cornerstone was laid July 4, 1899.
The construction of the Capitol happened in two phases with the main section completed in 1902 and the wings constructed in 1911-1912. An outside firm known as F. Pedretti’s Sons decorated and furnished the 1902 section, but when the wings were built the state commissioned Montana artists to adorn them. One of these Montana artists, Charles M. Russell, created the 12-feet by 25-feet painting titled “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross’ Hole” which hangs in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Within the rotunda there are four portraits representing early Montana: a prospector, a trapper, and Native chief, and a cowboy. Various busts and statues of important Montanans fill the landings of the grand staircase, and murals adorn the walls of the main hall, notably one donated by the Northern Pacific Railroad to commemorate the completion of a portion of the transcontinental railroad in Gold Creek on September 8, 1883. In front of the Capitol steps stands a bronze statue of Thomas Francis Meagher, a Union general in the Civil War and a representative of the many Irish immigrants who settled in Montana. Earthquakes damaged the capitol in 1935, but Works Progress Administration workers restored or replaced the damaged elements. Updates and upkeep continue at Montana’s State Capitol, securing its place as a modern seat of government and a monument to its past.