Written by Rhayn Ransier
Helena was founded on October 30th, 1864 at the height of the busiest decade of Montana’s gold rush. Each year, near Halloween, the Queen City of the Rockies grows another year older. So, then, do her enduring spirits. From friendly and kind haunts roaming Reeder’s Alley and the grounds of Grandstreet Theatre to the more fervent reminders of unfortunate accidents, Helena has a legend for everyone.
Perhaps the most well-known and pleasant of these tales originates in Reeder’s Alley. This quaint, brick-building lined street is a favorite of both tourists and locals alike. There are many historical places and inviting structures to be found along the narrow, winding roadway. History and lore abound in this village, where the 1870s seem to have paused in time.
Our first foray into the supernatural introduces us to the Duchesnay family (also spelled “Duchesne” in some reports). Mrs. Duchesnay and her husband George were French settlers who called Reeder’s Alley home for several decades in the early 1900s. The Duchesnays owned the large stone house overlooking Reeder’s Alley, which would later be remodeled into the now-derelict Stonehouse restaurant. Mrs. Duchesnay was renowned throughout Helena for her caring and healing spirit, often rehabilitating injured birds that locals would bring to her home at the top of the Alley. Laura was also celebrated for raising hundreds of canaries, her home containing “operas” of the golden songbirds. The cheerful singing of the canaries would often fill the Alley on a summer day, while simultaneously serving a more dubious and mischievous purpose. During the prohibition era, moonshine was sold out of the stone house. To circumvent any legal troubles for those procuring a drink, the Duchesnays simply declared that they were selling off some of their canaries, though the hanging of cages outside often designated the arrival of a forbidden shipment. This continued for many years, until Mrs. Duchesnay tragically passed away in February of 1933 after a short illness.
Decades passed, and the Stonehouse restaurant eventually developed out of the Duchesnay home. Though physical beings have since moved on from the structure, various narratives hint at remaining spirits in the residence. There are several compelling anecdotes regarding canaries remaining in the building. Most notably, an employee of the Stonehouse restaurant stayed late one night in order to set up for the approaching Valentine’s Day dinner service. She repeatedly heard the flapping wings of birds in the darkness and realized the mess that would ensue should she not remove the unwanted visitor. Searching high and low, she could not find the source of the frantic swishing. She quickly became frustrated, and her fruitless searches of the premise revealed no avian visitors. The miffed employee closed her eyes for a moment, searching for the sound of wings flapping among the rafters of the restaurant. Suddenly, the whooshing of hundreds of tiny feathers rushed by, accompanied by the chirps of Mrs. Duchesnay’s pets of the past. The flock fluttered deeper into the building, singing as they went.
Unsurprisingly, there were no birds (or evidence of) ever found in the Stonehouse, that day or after. The restaurant closed in 2004 and the building remains empty to this day. This particular tale lives on in infamy among the paranormal community of the Queen City, lingering memories of a colorful past. On your next visit to the Alley, perhaps you will also hear the fluttering and chirps of a long-forgotten, much-beloved, moonshine-masking brood.
Carroll College is one of many draws to Helena. This private, Roman Catholic, liberal arts college is well known for its small student body, tight-knit staff and faculty, and highly rated pre-medical and nursing programs. Built in 1909, it is no surprise that this historic and spiritual area has several reported lingering spirits.
Once on site, St. Charles is easily the most recognizable building from just about any location on campus. This hulking stone structure sits on the hill at the center of campus, overseeing busy semesters and scuttling students like a wizened shepherd. The most engaging ghost stories often center on St. Charles, now primarily a dormitory for second-year students. These chambers are home to our second and more chilling tale. The spiritual activity reportedly increases here during midterms and finals, when the student’s stress levels are at their highest. Sceptics may see this as a reason to doubt the activity, but many students tell a different story. A despondent spirit is said to linger here in the fourth-floor men’s bathroom, decades after an unfortunate accident. One night in 1964, a student blacked out while brushing his teeth. The resulting brain hemorrhage from hitting his head on the porcelain sink led to his early demise. Soon after, reports of a bloodied spirit in the bathroom began to emerge.
Adding fuel to this dark legend, the room has been completely sealed up for years. Some say hauntings led to the closure. Maintenance men and students reportedly began to see blood stains in the sink, as well as a wounded young man appearing to stand behind them in the mirror. Others brush it off as a mistake during a remodel, resulting in an unsafe space. Whatever the reason may be, administration will occasionally unlock the bathroom during the hall’s haunted house every few years in order to let the students see for themselves. So, tell me, would you be brave enough to venture into this sealed territory on Halloween, possibly coming face-to-face (or face-to-reflection) with the bloody St. Charles ghost? Does he haunt the top floor to scare students, or is he simply yearning to finish his studies and move on from the cursed room?
Our next haunting is a much lighter narrative, taking place at the Grandstreet Theatre in Helena. Repeated reports of inexplicable electromagnetic frequencies have been detected in this area, home to one of Helena’s most beloved poltergeists.
Clara Bicknell Hodgin was the wife of Reverend Stanton Hodgin, leader of the Unitarian Church of Helena beginning in 1903. Unitarians believed in the Church also being a usable space for community events, free-thinking individuals and creative opportunities. The house of worship soon doubled as a niche for children’s classes and pageants, and so the sanctuary naturally doubled as an auditorium for Clara’s favorite projects. Her demeanor was highly praised, and her soul was often described as an energetic, shining light to others. She dove into her work with children enthusiastically. Though she had none of her own, her Sunday school classes were filled to the brim with adoring children.
Although Clara died in 1905, she does not appear to have moved on. Her lingering energy is described as omnipresent, protective and kind, often felt or seen in the auditorium where the children had played in her time and continue to do so today. A stained-glass window, commissioned by the congregation in her honor, remains in the theater. It was packed up and stored in the nearby Civic Center for a time as the church became a library for a short while, and then the present-day Grandstreet Theatre in 1976. Soon after Clara’s window was reinstalled in the theater, whispers of a spirit began to emerge. Occasionally the inscription of her name on the window appears illegible, as if a child’s hand has swiped and smudged the glass. Hazy shapes hang over the auditorium, a dark shadow watches from backstage. A vibrant and deep energy often seems to sweep through the room. Whether Clara is applauding the current performers, or searching for her long-gone children, many witnesses agree that she does not stray far from Grandstreet.
Various paranormal investigators have ventured into all places spooky and chilling in Helena, and our Queen City rarely disappoints. Whether you prefer a lively and cheerful spirit, or a more chilling reminder of the dead, you will not leave without a tale to share. Helena currently offers a plethora of resources for those looking to tune in to otherworldly phenomena throughout the spooky season and beyond.
Happy (ghost) hunting, Helena!
Hike Mt. Helena Ridge Trail to Mt. Helena City Park, or stick to loops closer to Park City to avoid the often crowded trailheads near downtown Helena (photo by Dan Oldenburg)
Author: Keely Damara, Communications Coordinator at Montana Wilderness Association
Accessing and enjoying public lands have become more essential than ever before for the wellbeing of our communities, families, and ourselves.
As Montana enters phase two of Governor Steve Bullock’s reopening plan and tourists begin to flock to the state, physical distancing will continue to be of the utmost importance to keep our communities healthy. Gov. Bullock’s phase-two guidelines include asking individuals to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people where physical distancing isn’t feasible and encouraging vulnerable Montanans to stay home as much as possible.
For those planning to hit their favorite trails this fall, these physical distancing guidelines may be hard to adhere to while traversing heavily trafficked trails. Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) wants to help.
Hike Wild Montana, our online hiking guide, features more than 350 trails across the state, which provides options that can help Montanans stay safe, avoid crowded trails and trailheads, and discover trails less traveled.
Hikewildmontana.org is now easier to use than ever before, with new features that make finding the perfect trail a breeze and accessible. The guide includes a virtual map that highlights Wilderness areas and wilderness study area boundaries, provides quick trail details (such as hike length and elevation gain), and direct links to agency websites about each trail with details on Covid-19 facility closures and restrictions.
MWA Executive Director Ben Gabriel says that the new and improved hikewildmontana.org will help Montanans connect with public lands, from Chalk Buttes in the far southeast corner of the state to the Purcell Mountains in the far northwest.
“We’re grateful for our access to wild public lands here in Montana, especially now,” says Gabriel. “Hike Wild Montana’s new features will make it easier for Montanans to safely explore the lands we love.”
Photo: Hike to a beautiful waterfall in the Elkhorn Mountains on this easy half-day hike (photo by R Kent).
Launched in 2016, Hike Wild Montana is the state’s first statewide online hiking guide with trail information crowdsourced from hikers across the state. In addition to allowing users to search trails, read recent trail reports, and discover local businesses nearby, MWA encourages hikers to submit their favorite trails and share trip reports with the community as well.
MWA is committed to connecting people to the landscapes we’re working to protect through our hiking guide, our Wilderness Walks program, and our trail stewardship program. Since 2012, more than a thousand MWA volunteers have maintained and improved some 350 miles of trails.
“Getting boots on the ground to help keep public trails across the state accessible is an important part of MWA’s conservation work,” says Gabriel. “Connecting people to Montana’s storied landscapes, as Hike Wild Montana does, is also integral to cultivating long-lasting support and reverence for Montana’s wild public lands.”
Hikewildmontana.org is free to use and is the perfect tool for planning your day on the trail and getting outside. Sign up for the new Hike Wild Montana Newsletter to receive hike recommendations, how-to videos, trip tips, volunteer trail stewardship opportunities, and much more delivered right to your inbox.
Our authors are all Helena locals who work and play here.