Helena Branch History

1996 marked the 75th Anniversary of the Helena Branch

In 1913, the United States Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act to provide stability to the country's banking industry through the creation of the Federal Reserve System. As Montana has developed economically since statehood, so has the need for stability within its financial system. Just a short 32 years after admission to the Union and only 45 years after the Custer Massacre, a Federal Reserve Branch Bank was established in Helena, Montana in 1921 to regulate and provide services to the state's banks. These services included the handling of currency and coin; collection of checks, drafts and coupons; transfer of funds; payment of War Saving Certificates and stamps; loans to member banks; fiscal agency operations as a depository for the U.S. Treasury; and examination of member state banks.

Helena Branch First Building

The new Branch Bank moved into the old Foidel Undertaking Company building on the corner of Edwards Street and Park Avenue after extensive renovations. Construction of the vault required filling old tunnels and sluice boxes under the building with concrete to guarantee security for the vault and to support the vault's height. The new vault door alone weighed 27 tons.

Soon after opening for business on February 1, 1921, the Branch received a currency shipment of 2 to 3 million dollars from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. A Post Office driver, thinking the money sacks contained ordinary printed materials, stacked them on the sidewalk in front of the Bank, then went inside and notified a Bank officer that a mail shipment was outside. It happened that this same currency shipment had lain overnight at Logan, Montana on a railroad platform, completely unguarded! The security controls on these kinds of shipments were, needless to say, made much more stringent after this incident.

Security has always been a necessary component of the Bank's operations. In 1930, the Branch had to hire an extra guard for part of the year—John Dillinger had come to Helena! Supposedly, Dillinger came into Helena and rented a room across from the Bank for two weeks. The assumption was that he “casing” the bank, so another guard was hired. It was a short-lived scare as the extra guard was only on the payroll for August and September.

The Bank also held an attraction for a famous Hollywood movie star. Helena native Gary Cooper, star of many westerns, would visit the Bank frequently to see his brother Art, a Branch employee in the 1930s.

In October 1938, disaster struck Helena in the form of a major earthquake and the Branch building did not escape the damage. A brick wall in the manager's office collapsed and the rest of the building suffered considerable damage. Operations continued in the building for more than two years thereafter with the cracked walls propped up by timbers, both inside and out. Tremors continued sporadically for almost a year causing considerable, and understandable, concern for Bank employees. According to Bank retirees, when aftershocks would occur the metal cage of the building elevator would rattle and all the employees would jump up from whatever they were doing and run outside.

After determining that the cost of repairing the earthquake damage would not balance the end result, plans were formed by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, D.C. to build a new Branch Bank building in Helena. A site on the corner of Lawrence and Park Avenues was chosen for its proximity to the Post Office, located across the street. The new one-story building was designed to imitate the architecture of the Masonic Library located across the street on the east side of North Park Avenue.

Helena Branch Building

The 27-ton vault door from the original Bank building was moved to the new Bank, before its opening in June of 1938, on a low flatbed truck owned by Caird Engineering Works. Planks were carefully laid out on the bricks of Park Avenue in front of the truck because the street was undermined by numerous mining tunnels and the weight of the truck could cause one to collapse and the door to fall into a mine shaft. When the door finally arrived at the new building, the movers forgot that the sewer lines, water lines, and other services had just been buried and when they were backing the truck up to the building, the wheels of the flatbed sank out of sight in the newly filled trench. It took longer to get the truck out of the trench than it did to remove the vault door from the other building and move it up the street.

The original Bank building was sold in 1940 to the Greyhound Bus Company and served Helena as a bus station for many years. It was finally demolished in 1974 during the Urban Renewal Project in downtown Helena.

World War II brought new challenges to the Helena Branch Bank. From 1941 through 1944, the Fiscal Agency Department was located in the Bank and sold and redeemed War Bonds for the public. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, and the loss of access to rubber from the Far East, the Branch issued checks and paid out war savings stamps to thousands of Montanans who sold their extra automobile tires to the government. These tires were turned over to the Army as soon as they were purchased.

The War also affected the gender composition of the Branch's employees. Out of 70 plus employees during this period, only four were men. This meant that women were handling nearly all the jobs including the heavy coin volumes. In an attempt to relieve this situation, the Branch started a drive to reduce the high amount of silver dollar use in Montana by urging citizens to switch to paper dollars. However, Montanans' preference for silver dollars led to a great deal of opposition to this proposed switch. The opposition was so great that Montana Senator Mike Mansfield brought up the issue in Congress and it was entered into the Congressional Record. In time, the Montana member banks did make an effort to help in the reduction of the use of silver dollars in Montana by ordering and distributing more paper money.

Expanding operations at the Bank led to a space problem by the mid-1940s. To meet these space needs, a second story was constructed and completed in February, 1946. To celebrate the opening of the second floor as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Helena Branch, the Branch and Montanan Inc. co-sponsored a display of Montana manufacturers' products. Eighty-two exhibits were displayed, all on the new second floor of the Bank, except for the Anaconda Company exhibit which took up the entire lobby on the first floor.

Employee benefits seemed to be the theme in 1956. During this year, a five-day work week was established for the first time. The minimum wage was raised to $1.00 an hour, which caused a salary raise for all lower grade employees, bringing them up to the minimum wage. The Branch hours were 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for all days. Annual medical exams were also started during 1956.

By 1964, the United States' supply of silver dollars was exhausted and even silver certificates were being replaced by Federal Reserve Notes. This situation caused a great deal of concern to the citizens of the "silver dollar state" (as Montana was called) that they would be forced to use paper currency. One Branch retiree reported that sometime in the mid-60s a shipment of $2,000,000 in silver dollars was sent to the Branch from the Denver Mint for distribution around Montana. He said the larger banks were taking shipments of $50,000 at a time and that they distributed the entire amount in two weeks.

Branch employees in the Money department were not too sad to see the silver dollar go. According to a Money department employee of the time, the employees felt that "paper dollars were much easier to handle than the silver." Coin shipments were unloaded from a truck outside the building by the drivers, sent down a chute into the basement, loaded onto pallets, moved into the elevator and lifted to the first floor, and then taken into the vault. Currency, on the other hand, was brought directly into the building and loaded into the vault.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Branch experienced increased pressure in the Check Processing department. As people turned to check writing more and more as an alternative to the use of currency, the volume of checks sorted by the Branch continued to expand. In an on-going effort to keep up with this volume, the Branch constantly upgraded its computerized check sorting equipment, adding new systems in 1964, 1967, 1973, 1977, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today, all departments in the Bank rely on computers for day-to-day operations.

In 1971, the Branch began again to deal with the continuing problem of space. Over the course of the next seventeen years, the Branch dealt with three separate proposals to build a new facility. These proposals involved separate building sites scattered around the Helena area. In 1971 a proposal called for a new Bank to be built on the corner of Lawrence and Warren Streets, at the site of the old Helena High School across from the St. Helena Cathedral. This proposal was ultimately rejected by the Board of Governors in Washington, DC

Crowded work space problems reached a critical point by 1975 and a temporary solution was implemented. The Bank leased its “Helena East” facilities in the basement of the USF&G building on 11th Avenue. The Check, Mail, Wire Transfer, and Accounting departments were relocated to the new facility and remained there until 1990.

Another proposal for a new Bank building was forwarded in 1977. This called for a new building to be located at a site near St. Peter's Hospital on the east side of Helena. Opposition by downtown businessmen and bankers, who did not want the Bank to leave the downtown area, prompted the Branch to suspend its building program indefinitely in 1979.

In a move that probably shocked everyone at the Branch, on July 10, 1987, the Board of Governors gave approval to a plan calling for the construction of a new sixty-five thousand square foot, twelve million dollar facility that would replace the building on Park Avenue and all leased spaces. The plan called for the new building to be located at the corner of Fuller and Neill Avenues, where the old Great Northern railroad depot was located.

The exterior design of the new Bank would blend the architectural genre found in many of the downtown's historic buildings with a contemporary sophistication. The local government and community groups received these plans in a positive light and many expressed appreciation for the design as well as the fulfillment of the Helena city government's goal of developing the area into a suitable anchor along the north boundary of the downtown.

Ground breaking began in 1989 for the new Helena Branch building. Since one of the objectives connected with the building project was to create as much a “Montana” Bank as possible, an architectural firm from Billings, CTA, designed the building, a Montana contractor from Bozeman, Martel Construction Inc., was awarded the building contract, and major subcontracts were awarded to many Montana firms. Another aspect of the “Montana” theme involved the use of building materials either produced in Montana or representative of the state. For instance, travertine, quarried from near Livingston, was used in the lobby and the roof was constructed of copper.

In response to the danger of earthquakes in the Helena area, the new building was stabilized by steel pilings driven deep into the ground under the building. The designers also separated the building into two sections to help the building withstand up to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

Current Helena Branch Building

In 1995, the Helena Branch stands as a paradigm for Montana's banking industry. The Bank's strength lies in its most valuable resource, its people. Loyalty dedication, and just plain hard work may seem to many like worn out or unattainable cliches. However, at the Helena Branch they exemplify the norm. This attitude and behavior by officers and staff enables the Branch to consistently reach its goals and even surpass them. By carrying on its proud tradition, the Helena Branch will continue to provide needed services to Montana's banking industry and economy for many years to come.

Timeline Helena Branch of the
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

1864 - Two years after gold is discovered in Montana, B.F. Allen and J.H. Millard open Montana's first permanent commercial bank in Virginia City. The bank had a shiny brass gold-dust scale that could weigh up to $5,000 worth of dust at one time.

1914 - Federal Reserve System is organized. Following earlier bank panics, the government created the Federal Reserve System as a means of centrally stabilizing the banking industry.

1921 - The Helena branch opens on Feb. 1 with a staff of 36 employees at the corner of Park and Edwards streets. Before the building can be used as a bank, considerable remodeling is needed to fill the sluiceways and tunnels beneath the building (relics of old gold mines) with concrete.

1935 - A series of severe earthquakes hits Helena causing extensive damage to the bank building. Cracked walls are propped up with timbers and braces inside and outside the building.

1938 - On June 17, a new bank building opens at what is now 400 North Park Ave. The new bank, a one-story building, also becomes the home of many Depression-era agencies.

1946 - In February, a second floor is added to accommodate the increased activity at the branch.

1988 —Lack of space in the old building and the advent of new banking technology indicate the need for a new building. Ground is broken and construction begins on a new, uniquely designed building to house the branch. Particular care is given to the design and location of the bank.

1990— New Helena branch building opens for business. Located at Neill Avenue and Front Street, the new bank anchors the north end of the Last Chance Gulch pedestrian mall.




Narayana Kocherlakota