Monday, April 1, 2013

The Rush to Reeder’s Alley

Happy April Fool's Day. Don't get taken in!

Reeder’s Alley in Helena is a charming collection of tiny tenements that originally provided miners with better accommodations than the primitive log cabins typical of the of the gold rush. Built against the slope of the hill between 1873 and 1884, the one-room apartments were built by brick mason Lewis Reeder, who brought the row house style from his native Pennsylvania. He added a couple of western false fronts to achieve a unique architectural combination. When placer mining dwindled, working-class tenants replaced miners. By the 1890s, the alley was home to mostly single men, but they were cooks, hotel porters, laborers, sheepherders, and an occasional musician. This was long before the alley was neatly paved with brick as it is today. The narrow dirt street saw little traffic; it mostly served as a bridle path for horseback riders.

But for one day in 1897, according to the Helena Weekly Herald, the alley was famous. It was a spring day, and there had been a thunderstorm—the kind that comes up suddenly, sends torrents, and then ends abruptly. After the rain, the alley ran rivers of muddy rainwater. Streetcar operator Bob Murray was on his way home for mid-day dinner. He cut through the alley as was his habit, and as he made his way up the hill, sloshing through the aftermath of the storm, he noticed something glinting in the sunshine. There it lay in the gutter, washed out of the alley. Murray picked it up. It was a shiny gold nugget, later valued at $3.10.  Where there was one, there had to be more. Word spread through the neighborhood, and in a flash, there was a gold rush right there in the alley. Tenants, Chinese from nearby shanties, and passersby were soon mucking in the mud, proving that the frenzy of the gold rush was still alive. However, we can wonder today at the veracity of this report. It hit the paper on April 1, and so we will never know for sure.

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