Officials broke ground for the first Central School, originally called the Helena Graded School, on July 29, 1875. City fathers put a great deal of thought into its location. Helena was still a rough-and-tumble gold camp, but its inclusion along the projected Northern Pacific Railroad’s route gave it new prestige. That fact, coupled with the locating of a federal assay office—one of only five in the nation—at Helena, helped wrest its designation as territorial capital away from Virginia City. In preparation for this honor, city fathers planned the best school in the territory on the most visible site. The location was so critical and the site they selected so perfect that it was worth the effort to relocate the city’s cemetery, established on that prominent ridge in 1865. Helena Graded School opened in January 1876, built with 350,000 Kessler bricks. It was the first school in Montana Territory with separate classrooms for the various grades, a high school curriculum, and a kindergarten. By 1889, Central School was perhaps not the most architecturally pleasing, but of Helena’s seven public schools it was the “oldest and most familiar structure in the city and….the most prized of the lot."
|Central School students pose behind the school circa 1910. Photo by Edward Reinig|
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 74-104.292 GP
The present Central School will reach the century mark in 2015, when the first of the two time capsules is slated for opening. It would be the first existing Helena school to reach such a milestone. Central’s continued presence on its prominent ridge is more than a school board issue. It is a community concern. Not only does Central School maintain a place of honor as a historic cornerstone of Montana’s public school system, it is the ambassador for all Helena’s historic schools. What happens to it sets a precedent. And its fate affects not only the immediate Central neighborhood, but also the community and those who travel here to experience Helena’s historic landscapes.
Support the preservation of this community icon at www.savehelenaschools.com, and if you have a Central School memory, please share it on the Montana Historical Society's Facebook page.