HISTORY OF REEDER’S ALLEY
Pennsylvanian, Louis Reeder built this quaint collection of tiny row house apartments that once housed miners and, later, single men of varied occupations. At one time some thirty-two one-room apartments spread along the narrow alley in various buildings. Less than half remain. During those days, as with other services, rent was paid in gold dust. Other landmarks included in this little area include the historic Morelli Bridge and the Stone House.
When Helena was first founded, the original camp was called Last Chance Camp. On October 30, 1864, a group of self-appointed men voted on the name of Last Chance. Town names up for nomination were Tomah, Pumpkinville, Squashtown and Helena. We are thankful that Helena won the vote!
The Pioneer Cabin is the oldest documented dwelling in Helena and the only documented miner’s cabin built during the first months after the Last Chance/ Helena discovery. The back room of the cabin was the original structure as was built by veteran gold miner and Indiana native, Wilson Butts. Wilson arrived at Last Chance Camp with the first wave of miners in the summer of 1864. He was in nearby Bannack when gold was discovered in Helena so he was in the perfect position to come try his luck in “Last Chance.”
In the spring of 1865, Wilson’s brother Jonas joined him and brought along his wife Louanna and their three young daughters. The family lived in their covered wagon until the second room of hand-hewn logs, square-notched at the corners, had been built in front of Wilson’s bachelor cabin. The new room with its large front window, the first glass on the gulch and the largest glass window in Last Chance Camp at that time, served as a parlor and bedroom for the family of five. The cabins were only later connected with the “breezeway” addition.
The Gilpatrick Family settled into the Butts’ former cabin around 1867. Stephen and Luella Gilpatrick planted two small locust seedlings carefully brought to Montana in coffee cans. These were the first non-native trees planted in Helena and they long provided the only shade in the neighborhood.
The Butts’ neighbors in the Caretaker’s Cabin were William and Rachel Davenport. Sallie Davenport, their daughter, kept a journal during the family’s trip west aboard the stern wheeler St. John en route to Fort Benton. Several days into the voyage, measles broke out onboard. All three Davenport children were very ill. Only Sallie, oddly the more delicate of the three children, recovered. Willie (the young boy in the family) died as the boat docked at Fort Benton and Anna lingered until she died on September 6, 1865.
At the same time that Jonas and Wilson Butts built the front room onto their cabin, William Davenport built his log cabin next door. Sallie, the sole surviving Davenport child wrote: “It had a board partition, so that it made two rooms. Two fair size windows and a roof made of slabs on top of the dirt. But, at the first heavy rain, there was not a dry spot in the house, and when that dirt was thoroughly soaked, it would drip for days…”
By the 1890s, historic maps indicate that both the Pioneer Cabin and Caretakers Cabin became part of Helena’s red-light district. The Caretaker’s house and the Pioneer Cabin are Helena’s only surviving remnants of what was once a thriving red-light district along today’s South Park Street. In fact, the small extensions at the back of the Caretaker’s House were used as cribs – one-room offices where women conducted business. Interestingly, the wall that runs along the East side of Reeder’s Alley was installed over the cribs’ windows as an attempt to confine the women and prevent their solicitation into Reeder’s Alley. The Alley itself was never part of the red-light district.
Today, the Caretaker’s Cabin and the Pioneer Cabin are owned and managed by Montana Heritage Commission, State of Montana. It is through the Commission’s dedication and the work of the Montana Preservation Alliance that we are able to showcase the Pioneer Cabin, along with the help of our wonderful volunteers.
Next door to the Caretaker’s Cabin is the Yee Wau cabin. This is the only remaining Chinese-associated dwelling in Helena. Typical of the tiny dwellings that once lined Last Chance Gulch, the Yee Wau cabin was one of the last built on the heels of the gold rush circa 1870. From 1876 to 1886 the Yee Wau brothers, longtime local dealers in Chinese merchandise and groceries, owned the property. During this time, Chinese immigrants comprised ten percent of Montana’s territorial population. These important pioneers made significant contributions especially in laying the tracks of the Northern Pacific across Montana in the 1880s. In Helena, Chinese citizens provided services, owned property and paid taxes. Chinese dwellings, businesses and expansive gardens spread for five blocks below Reeder’s Alley. As the male-dominated Chinese population dwindled by the late 1890s, others continued to occupy the tiny cabin. Clairvoyant Daniel J. Schraier hung his shingle here in 1899. The cabin is now privately owned. Yee Wau brothers with their cabin.
Source: Real Property Acquisition Feasibility Study, Montana Heritage Preservation and Development Commission, December 2005.