Historic Organ at St. Paul's

Excerpted from an article by George L. Grice, Jr. c.2002

In the fall of 2002, Clinton Meadway, the pipe organ repair and maintenance expert who had cared for St. Paul’s organ for some years, visited the church, accompanied by Carl Dodrill, PhD, official of the Pipe Organ Foundation. These authorities assured St. Paul’s organist, Mary Grice, of the value and historical significance of the church’s organ. The men expressed hope that the church would preserve the instrument as originally constructed with its splendid tonal and mechanical characteristics. They said there is only one similar instrument west of the Mississippi, and very few left in the world- this is an historic organ!

St. Paul’s Church itself is historic. It is the first Episcopal church in the Territory of Montana. It was started by the first Bishop of the Territory, Daniel S. Tuttle. That took place in 1867, shortly after the “Alder Gulch Gold Rush” began, and when Virginia City was the territorial capital of Montana. In 1901, following the death of her husband, Mary B. Elling, gave a new masonry building to replace the original frame structure. Henry Elling was an original settler of Virginia City, and became a prominent banker and businessman in the state. The new church had a granite exterior and a finely furnished interior with Tiffany windows and a pipe organ.

The organ was ordered in 1902 from the Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, VT, and installed in 1904. The instrument is recorded in the company’s records as Estey Opus #96. It was shipped around Cape Horn to San Francisco by vessel; traveled from there to Dillon, MT, by rail; and went on to its final destination by wagon. The exact details of its movement cannot be traced because church records were destroyed by a fire at the diocesan archives.

The instrument has 482 pipes, 9 stops, 9 ranks of pipes, and pneumatic action. The original hand pump and feeders are intact and operable, although an electric motor to drive the pump was installed in the mid 1950’s. The instrument is housed in a beautiful cherry case and located in the front of the church on the left (Epistle) side. Especially important to the instrument’s historical significance is the fact that it has pneumatic action.

Most pneumatic action pipe organs turned out not to be very successful; the organist felt a loss of “touch” (that is felt with “tracker action”), and repairmen had more trouble keeping the instruments working properly. However, the Estey instruments with pneumatic action had good reliability and seemed to produce fewer complaints about “lack of touch” from organists. Hence, the Estey instrument at St. Paul’s has special significance in pipe organ history as an example of the most successful type with pneumatic action.

Clint Meadway says the St. Paul’s organ “is an original installation, and happily, remains tonally and mechanically unmolested.” In the dry Montana climate, it has remained in relatively good condition, having had only one known major repair (re-leathering in the 1950’s) since it was put in use. In addition, the instrument has the distinction of being the only pipe organ in Madison County, Montana.

In the January 21, 1904 issue of The Madisonian (Montana’s oldest newspaper), it is reported that the new pipe organ has arrived in Virginia City and will be installed immediately. The April 7, 1904 issue of the paper recorded St. Paul’s “new church and pipe organ used for the first time,” under a headline “A Glorious Easter.” Then, on July 21st, The Madisonian and the Anaconda Standard tell of the consecration of the new St. Paul’s church building by Montana’s 2nd Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Leigh Richard Brewer. All these articles mention the church’s new instrument and the special music for the occasions reported. Clearly, in its first year, the significance of the church’s organ in the life of Virginia City had been established.

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