GRASS VALLEY – The Rose turns 100 next year, and it looks like she’ll be doing it in style.
The National Park Service announced in mid-July that Milwaukee Road Railroad Substation No. 10 – aka Primrose – has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The brick substation off Mullan Road west of Missoula once helped power sleek electric locomotives on the Milwaukee line.
Built in 1915, Primrose was one of 14 substations from Harlowton to Avery, Idaho, designed to get trains over the mountains of Montana and Idaho. Diesel locomotion shouldered the Milwaukee’s electric train era into history in 1974.
“The Milwaukee’s electrification, beloved by generations of railroaders, rail fans and travelers will be missed,” a railroad brochure read at the time. “It has long been a proud part of the railroad’s heritage, and its demise will leave a void. But the stories, the lore and the memories will live long after the last trolley wire is carted off for scrap and the last boxcab is broken up.”
How strange it is that no such tribute was paid to the substations.
They are certainly curiosities to travelers speeding past the four that remain – Primrose on the west end; Ravenna, 38 miles up the river between Clinton and Drummond; Gold Creek, another 35 miles or so in Powell County; and Loweth, which stands in a cow pasture west of Martinsdale in central Montana.
The substations serve as monuments to the golden age of railroads in Montana. All are privately owned.
Though most of the inner workings have long since been scrapped, Primrose is the most intact remaining example of the four in Montana, said Jon Axline of Helena.
“As far as I know, none of the others have ever been really recorded and nominated,” said Axline, who did just that earlier this year for Primrose.
He was commissioned by Alton and Erin Helm, who bought the substation two years ago and have big, long-term plans for it.
“We want to make it a historic landmark again, and we want to make it a community space,” Erin Helm said last week while showing off the 2 1/2-story building to visitors. “Our plan, our sort of business model, is to make it into a bed and breakfast and an event space for Missoula.”
Even as the overgrown storage shed Primrose is now, it’s easy to see the potential for weddings, parties, and conferences when fitted with the Wifi and high-tech amenities the Helms picture.
Hand in hand with that, they say, is an unusual farm-to-table model. Alton Helm, a sergeant with the Army National Guard who has served in Bosnia and Iraq, has a fledgling orchard of peach, plum, apple, apricot and cherry trees in the shadow of the substation.
Chickens, ducks and rabbits are temporarily housed near the old railroad workers’ quarters, which have been expanded and are now owned by Alton’s mother, Debbie Helm. Her parents, Alton and Marlene Johnson, help keep the place up when the Helms are at work.
“We want to grow our own food and have our own chickens, and so the farm-to-table aspect would be that the breakfasts would come from the farm,” Erin said. “That was like the first thing we did was we planted trees because we know they’re going to take a long time to grow.”
She was Erin Scott before she married Alton in 2011. A University of Montana graduate from Glendive, she’s been around Missoula for most of the past 10 years. She works as a civilian contractor with families of deployed military at the Montana National Guard armory at the Wye.
Alton Helm is a linguistics expert in training with the National Guard this summer in Arizona, but the two maintain an entertaining blog – primrosestation.com – on which they share the highs and lows of their fledgling enterprise. Its subtitle is “The Reinvention of a Historic Landmark Into a Modern Homestead.”
Well, it’s been a tough couple of weeks,” Alton wrote in early March. “If you’ve been following the blog, you know that we’re trying to build a legitimate homestead. Not only do we want to sustain ourselves and serve farm-to-table meals at our B&B, we want to build a real agricultural business as another revenue stream (albeit small) for the business. We’ve set numerous goals in this respect, and we’ve had some great successes and some disappointing setbacks.
First off, the bad news: I killed our rabbits. Not in like a crazy, Lenny kind of way, but because of my inexperience raising them I made a mistake. Apparently you can’t move rabbits to fresh veggies and fruits right after weaning, and though I thought I was being extra nice, what I was actually doing was messing up their digestive system.
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It’s the playing out of a dream that Alton, who grew up in Sidney, had first. He spotted the Primrose Station on the market while in training in Monterey, Calif., and broached the idea of buying it to his bride. At first it seemed way out of their reach, Erin said, but then the price dropped to within a doable range and the Helms jumped at it.
“Al loves history and he loves old houses,” his wife said. “So when we came into this, when we decided to build it as a legacy for the family and for the community, my plan is like a 25-year plan. We’re in year two.”
To keep out the elements, Alton has put protective covers over the square windows in front, a side of the building that includes a stairstep bay. Here was not only the control board to the generators when the trains were running, but the ticket office and waiting room when passenger trains like the Olympian Hiawatha pulled in.
Erin went to Missoula’s Startup Weekend this spring to pitch their idea and received favorable feedback.
“They all seemed pretty excited about having a nice, historic place they could have their clients stay in, so we think the market is there,” she said. “And once people see the building, especially once it’s restored, our hope is that people fall in love with it as much as we have.”
The historic component is an important one to the Helms.
“We wanted to restore it to its historic value, and because it’s one of the last standing (substation) buildings in Montana it felt like a big deal to us to preserve it,” Erin Helm said.
Seeking the national registry listing “was like a little chunk that we could actually bite off,” she added. “We can’t necessarily get the construction loan right now, financially, but we could work with Jon Axline and he could get the history of the building and we could start building its legacy that way. That was manageable for us.
“Because this is still a viable space we want to acknowledge the history of it and modernize the concept.”
The original concept of Primrose was fascinating to Axline. He’s an old hand at writing national registry nominations both in his day job as historian for the Montana Department of Transportation and, as in this case, a private consultant.
“I think a lot of people think these substations actually produced electricity for the railroad, and they didn’t,” Axline said. “I have to admit that’s what I was thinking going in.”
Primrose Substation housed two motor-generator sets, low-tension switching equipment and high-tension transformers.
“They were there because the electricity coming over the line needed to be recharged every 40 miles,” Axline explained. “They took whatever AC voltage was coming through and stepped it down to DC voltage for the locomotives. It was a continuous process because DC doesn’t carry long.”
Primrose was put into operation in 1916 with a staff of three men, each working an eight-hour shift, Axline wrote in the nomination. The men lived on-site with their families. The complex where the Helms and Johnsons live once included two residences on the west side, a two-story section house on the east, a stone house, ice house, outhouse, water tank and pump house.
Most of that is gone now, as are the fields of primrose that graced Grass Valley. But Primrose Station proper survives and “we have a plan” for the flowers, Erin said.
Axline said the substation qualified for the national registry under two criteria. One was its association with the Milwaukee Road and the road’s electrification, which “made the line one of the most technologically advanced in the United States at the time,” he wrote in the nomination.
The other was as a representative example of the standard design of Milwaukee Road substations developed by the railroad’s architects.
The Helms vow they’re in it for the long run.
“We like getting other people to appreciate it,” Erin said. “We really care about Frenchtown and the Missoula Valley and we’re both from Montana, so we want it to be a place that other people can come out and experience and visit.”
They know they can’t do it alone.
“We see its potential at this point and we’re working toward the vision, but we need the support of the community, obviously, to back it and to get excited about it too,” she said. “That kind of energy is dynamic and a lot of people just either don’t know this place exists or think it’s abandoned.”