Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Havre Montana, a City With Hidden Depths

Looking at old pharmacy bottles is fascinating.
September 16, 2017
Havre on Montana’s Hi-line is a railroad town that started as a supply depot and developed some colorful if violent western history. The city of less than 10,000 is the 8th largest in Montana and is less than 40 miles from the US/Canada border.
We arrived in Havre on the eve of Festival Days Weekend, and were pleasantly surprised at all of the events that were scheduled. We met people from the Dakotas, from Idaho and from Medicine Hat Alberta who had come to town for the event.
Saturday Morning a farmers market was set up in Town Square. We enjoyed making purchases from a number of vendors from a local Hutterite colony. The produce was outstanding.
There was a parade with horses and floats and firetrucks.
As part of the celebration Triple Dog Brewing Company was running pint specials. Fred enjoyed a flight of samples (most of them) and a pint of his favorite, the American Mutt.    

We entered the underground via an old tunnel with surprisingly newer signage.
Havre is famous for its underground which is presented through the Railroad Museum as a tour called Havre Beneath the Streets.
The Historic Underground and Railroad Museum is home to an impressive display of model railroads on 2 levels. There were many enthusiasts enjoying the displays including several children whose parents and grandparents were having a hard time prying them away from the running locomotives.
We purchased our tickets and started to learn about the underground while waiting for a 1 o’clock tour.
Havre, a railroad town, was built quickly and consisted of a business district that was primarily wood. Structures were close together and were connected with wooden sidewalks.
June 14th 1904 a fight in a local bar resulted in a couple of irate drinkers being ejected. Late that night they broke into the bar and set it on fire. The fire, fueled by dried wood and alcohol spread to adjoining stores and eventually consumed the entire business district.
The Great Havre Fire consumed 55 businesses.
Three things were left standing in the 10 block fire zone.
The Old State Security Bank which was constructed of stone, the vault in the Old Bank Saloon and the chimney of the Havre Hotel.
The damage was devastating and construction materials were not easily obtained. The aftermath of the fire could have destroyed the city but enterprising business owners recovered  what they could and moved into the basements and steam tunnels beneath their stores to resume operation. Tunnels were dug between stores to connect them making it easier to shop between them.

Thread display from the Mercantile store
It took 2 years to rebuild the city. During that time Havre residents conducted their business underground.
Our tour began with a short walk around the block to a set of stairs that lead us into the tunnels. While walking on the sidewalks we noticed several places where square purple stones were embedded into the concrete. Once inside the tunnels we saw that the purple stones were really glass and they served as skylights for the tunnels. The glass was originally clear but over time when exposed to heat and sun had turned purple. I had seen that phenomenon with sea glass and was delighted to realize that the sun’s rays had once again improved a man made object.

The faux wood finished post office was made to be portable.
The first “building” we came to was a post office, complete with teller’s window and post office boxes. It was not original to Havre and had been donated to the museum from Fort Assinaboine. The tour guide encouraged us to touch to wood look post office and to realize that it was made of metal not wood. He explained that this was because towns along the railroad lines frequently failed. A metal post office could be taken apart and moved to the next small town that needed one.

Look at the size of the bellows from the Blacksmith shop.

I tried not to imagine the smells that would have lingered in those tunnels
We wandered through a Mercantile Store, a Bank, and a Dentist’s office with gruesome looking tools.
The Pharmacy
These mortuary baskets would have been used to transport bodies.
There were also a Barber Shop, a Butcher, a Blacksmith, a Mortuary, a Pharmacy and the Sporting Eagle Saloon.

Poker tables original to the Underground Sporting Eagle Saloon

Bar at the Sporting Eagle Saloon
Beyond the saloon were some less respectable establishments that included an Opium Den, a Bordello and housing for Chinese immigrants that were working on the railroad lines.

The Bordello had mirrors and fancy lights

And a room full of numbered iron beds separated by gauze curtains.
Legitimate businesses had all moved back above ground by the Summer of 1906.
Interest in the underground fell aside until the 1920’s when Bootleg liquor smugglers were looking for a place to hide. There is an old still and shelves full of jugs in a back room off a dark tunnel hallway. Once prohibition was repealed in 1933 the underground rooms were used as storage for the businesses above them.

Prohibition era Bootleg still
The underground lay undisturbed until the 1990’s when a group of citizens with an interest in history decided to investigate. According to our tour guide; “We grew up here. We heard the stories. We wanted to know what was really here.”
We are so glad that their curiosity lead them to discover the history lesson that is Havre Beneath the Streets.

Havre Beneath the Streets
Frank DeRosa Railroad Museum
120 3rd Ave

Havre, Montana


  1. Wow, Bonnie...that is an amazing find! Very interesting and enjoyable post.

  2. It was a fun place. We are so happy to have been told about it.

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