In the years before roads and automobiles made commuting around Flathead Lake easier, steamships ruled the waves. The Helena stood out among the fleet of ferries in that it allowed the communities around the lake to flourish. Constructed in 1915 by James Kehoe, the Helena was cobbled together from salvaged parts including its engine, which was once featured at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
After representing the industrial might of the United States in the Louis Sullivan’s transportation pavilion, Helena’s engine powered a Chicago fireboat, which later sank following a grain elevator fire. Kehoe recovered the engine and shipped it to Montana. There, he used the engine to propel his newly built, 110-foot Helena.
By the 1930s, steamships were obsolete and the Helena was abandoned. Today, the hull rests on the bottom of the lake next to vestiges of the old Holt Bridge which peek above the waterline as a wistful reminder of a bygone era. Fortunately, the Helena’s props, capstan, and pilothouse have all been preserved nearby for history buffs to view if they make their way to the backwoods of Bigfork.
Interestingly, the Helena provides more than archeological curiosity, as the nearby Kehoe Agate Shop was constructed from the wood of her decks by James’s descendants. The store itself is more a museum, where visitors can see impressive displays of fossils and gems, including a 12,000-year-old mastodon. There is also a sparkling array of Montana-sourced sapphires on display.
The rock shop and sundry steamship components are the only remaining reminders of the now-defunct town of Holt, which was subsumed into the larger town of Bigfork. However, at one time, Holt was expected to be the commercial center of the Flathead region, a function that today is served by Kalispell.