Helena, Montana

Helena is the city that gold built. Prospectors, erroneously called the “Four Georgians,” discovered fabulously rich gold placers on rattlesnake-infested Last Chance Gulch in July 1864. Within weeks, thousands of would-be millionaires stampeded to the new diggings, establishing what would become, in the end, Montana’s most important gold camp. Businessmen and women, teamsters, and a few scoundrels followed closely on the heels of the miners to mine them for the gold they retrieved from the winding gulch. In October 1864, the camp may boasted a population of around a few hundred people and had officially named itself Helena.

Unlike Bannack, Blackfoot City and dozens of other mining camps in southwestern Montana, Helena didn’t fade away once the gold played out. Instead, the community prospered as an important transportation hub, regional trading center, and political epicenter for the territory. With its stable economic base and adjacent farms and ranches, Helena prospered and grew while other mining camps became ghost towns. Helena became the territorial capital in 1874 and, after a hard fought and exciting battle between copper kings William A. Clark and Marcus Daly, the permanent state capital in 1894. The arrival of the Northern Pacific and Montana Central railroads in the 1880s sparked a boom in the Queen City that is everywhere evident in the architecture of its business blocks and upper west side mansions.

Devastating fires were once a common occurrence in Helena. In 1876, the city’s leaders erected a tower overlooking the gulch to sound the alarm if the watchman spotted a fire. The fire tower still stands sentinel over Last Chance Gulch, a reminder of the days when Helena’s prosperity could be endangered by an errant spark from a wood stove. At one time, the fire tower also overlooked a vibrant red light district that included saloons, dance halls, and more than a few brothels. In Helena, the affluent residents of the west side mansion district were within earshot of Helena’s earthier citizens. Over all this towers Mount Helena. The site of stone quarries for the city’s foundations and timber for the underground mines, the mountain is now a city park, one of the largest in the United States.

During the twentieth century, Helena’s history mirrored local, state, and national events. Prosperity and hard times characterized the city. Helena’s architecture is representative of that cyclical progression and boasts some of the most interesting architecture in the American West. While in Helena, take time to ride the tour train from the Montana Historical Society. During the course of 2-hour round trip around the town, you’ll learn much about the city’s history and enjoy Helena’s architectural gems. You’ll be impressed by imposing State Capitol Building and the Moorish Revival civic center with its unique minaret. You’ll also see the distinctive 1889 Atlas Block, Security Bank Building, and Power Block on Last Chance Gulch, the 1864 Pioneer Cabin, and Reeder’s Alley to name just a few of the treats. Helena’s iconic fire tower and St. Helena Cathedral are also prominent Helena landmarks. Completed in 1924, the cathedral was gift to the city from an illiterate Irish immigrant named Thomas Cruse. A true rags to riches story, Cruse discovered the fabulously rich Drumlummon Mine at nearby Marysville in 1876.

For over 150 years, Last Chance Gulch has been Helena’s focal point. Urban Renewal in the late 1960s and early 1970s profoundly changed the appearance of the downtown area, but the core of the historic downtown survives and thrives today. The narrow gulch is lined by a diverse mixture of historic and modern buildings that tell the story of Helena’s past from the 1860s to the 21st century. Helena is also a vibrant arts community. The Archie Bray Foundation is the home of world class ceramicists and the Holter Museum of Art just below the cathedral displays some of the finest modern art in the region.

Above all, Helena is acutely aware of its 150-year history. You’re never far from it, it surrounds you, and there are more than a few individuals in town who can tell you something about Helena’s exciting past. So take some time to stroll down the gulch, enjoy the sights, and read the many historical markers that dot the gulch. Walking tour brochures are also available at many of the downtown businesses.

Jon Axline
Historian
Environmental Services
Montana Department of Transportation