THE BLOG
11/14/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Havre Beneath the Streets: Montana Hi-Line's Underground City

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Built primarily to serve as a major railroad center, Havre is the largest city on the Hi-Line of Montana. Incorporated in 1893, it's a community that was instrumental in the harnessing of the Wild West. Indeed, there are many voices telling multitudinous stories in this old rebellious railroad town.

A century ago the picture here was profoundly different: Railroaders and bootleggers, mountain men and cowboys, living midst common violence, with barrooms and saloons as the stage and marker of tested manliness. Close your eyes tightly and it's almost as if you can taste the city's rambunctious past.

Throughout the decades much of old Havre has been razed or fallen into utterly unrecognizable disrepair. One preserved piece of evidence testifying to the city's unique history, however, is still very much apparent.

On this slate-gray November morning, small, lustrous grids of purple colored squares can be seen embedded in the sidewalks of Havre's downtown area -- a short six-block section enveloping the north side of the city. At one point, these "skylights" -- transformed purplish over time due to the sun's frenzied rays -- supplied and controlled the ebb and flow of illumination for the underground city built below more than one hundred years ago. Throughout its history, this underground expanse has been host to riotous debaucheries, including a bordello, a Chinese laundry mat, a saloon, a drugstore, at least three opium dens and rooms used for smuggling alcohol during Prohibition.

Today, Havre's cavernous city operates as its major tourist attraction.

"Our underground area brings more people here than anything else we've got. We've had visitors come from all over the world, including a couple from Australia last summer who came to the U.S. solely to visit us," says Margie Deppmeier, CEO of the incorporated entity known as "Havre Beneath the Streets."

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Havre Beneath the Streets is a presentation of original and embellished exhibits in the subterranean passages of Havre used and inhabited by the city's earliest residents. Waltz back in time into the Sporting Eagle Saloon, a turn-of-the-century honky-tonk where cowboys gambled, cussed, puffed cigars, kicked up their spurs and swigged good old-fashioned frontier hooch. The barroom's wooden floors and oak bar and four poker-playing tables are all original items. Saunter along the streets beneath Havre and see a cramped opium den, an ethnic restaurant and a meat market thronged with old wares such as meat hooks, an original smoker and other machines used in the sausage making process.

The bustling happenings of north central Montana life in the early 1900s are displayed honestly. Havre was a melting pot of races, and racism was ubiquitous. The ethnic mixtures of black, red, yellow and white triggered an explosive atmosphere and Chinese "safe houses" -- places of sanctuary and security for Asian railroad workers and their families -- were common, indeed necessary, creations.

Part of this eclectic social mix entailed the refinement of a lavish society of people whose tastes drew them to the concert hall and theatrical productions. Other sights of interest include Dr. Wright's 1920s dental office, replete with hot wax molds used to make dentures, Tamale Jim's kitchen and the Gourley Brothers Bakery.

"A cross-section of the melodrama of times is presented in the historical underground tours. People are fascinated by the fact that there's so much to see down here," says Deppmeier.

Havre's business district flourished during the the city's beginning days. Many of these establishments were located in what, today, is called Havre Beneath the Streets. The passageways, which span 10 blocks, first came into use in the early 1900s after a devastating fire on June 14, 1904 destroyed most of the city's businesses, affecting a total of 55 property owners.

The great Havre fire started in the early morning hours inside the Gross and Lebert store, present site of the Triangle Hotel. The fiery furnace moved east to west and finally made a circle aided by a veering Chinook wind to the northwest, eventually sweeping away the entire block. The Old Security State Bank (a large stone building now Johnson Jewelry and an insurance office), the vault of the old Bank saloon (now the Eagles Hall) and the tall spire-like chimney of the Havre Hotel, were the only landmarks left.

Instead of losing revenue due to the massive construction projects happening above, many businessmen moved below the ashen city streets to set up shops. The underground was also heavily used for bootlegging during the 1920s and early '30s, but that practice discontinued once Prohibition bans were lifted in 1933.

Decades later, in 1990, north central Montana residents Lyle Watson and Frank DeRosa, along with a group of volunteers possessing the greatest of breadth and ambition, organized Havre Beneath the Streets, intent on cleaning out the cluttered, long-neglected underground and developing it into a tourist attraction.

Their work was taxing and toilsome: They needed to move entire rooms, create entire rooms, diffuse live electrical wires and haul out detritus, rusty pipes and large rocks with wheelbarrows. Then, once all the removal work had been completed, they needed to convince safety officials that the distant metropolis wasn't going to be too precarious or structurally unstable for tourist dealings. The project took more than four years to finish, eventually opening to the public in 1999.

Although Havre was born more than a century ago, when it comes to tourist marketing, Deppmeier admits that the city is still only a fledgling, but she hopes that tourism to the region will continue to grow despite all the severe scorchings and economic setbacks to which the area has been subjected.

"Havre's been up and down, up and down, but the railroad is once again booming and so is mining, so hopefully tourism here will boom, too, with the underground city as the main point of interest," says Deppmeier.

Havre Beneath the Streets remains largely self-financed. Unfortunately, a project of this magnitude takes more than the amount of modest revenue derived from tours and requires a sizable financial commitment. As the city looks ahead to renewed financial strength, it draws energy from the prosperity and pride of folks like Christy Owens, office manager of Havre Beneath the Streets.

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"I love Havre. It's a great place to be. I like to share my enthusiasm for it, but sometimes being so far off and away can be a challenge to attract visitors. We just need to accentuate our historical positives more," says Owens.

In its fourteen years of operation, 200,000 tourists have walked the dusky underground halls of Havre's history. While folks such as Deppmeier and the initial band of locals who gathered to turn an underground zone of refuse and rubble into a sparkling sliver of historical significance, have succeeded in safeguarding and perpetuating the historical mystique of the early Montana pioneers, true ownership of Havre Beneath the Streets, she says, is all encompassing.

"The people of Montana own this place, or more specifically, the folks of northern Montana," says Deppmeier.