Helena, Montana (pop. 26,784), state capital and the Queen City of The Rockies, is a city born in the wilderness. Today it still offers one of the most scenic visits in America, an exciting blend of the natural beauty of America and the charming hospitality of down-to-earth life.
In 1860, there was only one four letter word that caused shouting and fainting in America. Gold. The gold rush and the subsequent Civil War had led many prospectors to head out West to find fortune in the hills and mountains of uncharted territories. Although the first Montana gold was struck in 1852, it was not until the major strike at Bannack in 1862 that prospectors headed to the The Big Sky State.
In 1864, four men from Georgia (John Cowan, D. J. Miller, John Crab, and Robert Stanley) stumbled upon a huge gold reserve near a large gulch. They quickly settled down in the area, naming their land "Last Chance Gulch" and spending three years mining gold dust from the land. Soon, other men came to settle around the valley and get rich as well.
The town grew in size very quickly, and eventually the town was given the name Crabtown, after John Crab. Later the name was changed to Saint Helena, after a Minnesota town of the same name. At some point in the 1870s it was decided that the Saint was unnecessary, and it was summarily dropped.
The gulch proved to be one of the largest gold finds in the country, bringing in over $3 billion in gold (by today's values). In 1875, the town was named capital of the Montana Territory, and over 50 millionaires claimed the town as home - more than any other city at the time. When the territory had enough people to request annexation, a fight broke out between the citizens of Helena and Anaconda as to where the state capital would be. Eventually a few bribes were paid here and there and Helena won, and the state capitol was erected in the center of town in 1898.
On July 26, 1928, at the break of dawn, a small home near the main commercial center of Helena caught on fire. Soon the fire spread throughout the entire city, gutting buildings. Few of the town's main shops survived. Many people moved away after the fire, but the town itself persevered. The town has also suffered its share of earthquakes - including a series of them in October 1935 which destroyed the high school, the courthouse clock tower, and the town's Masonic temple (it also destroyed was what is now known as the Blue Stone House - allegedly haunted!)
1949 marked more tragedy in Helena when 13 smokejumpers dealing with a fire in Mann Gulch to the southern outskirts of town perished during the fight.
Famous residents of Helena have included star of 1962's The Music Man Timmy Everett, minor country star Nicollette Larson, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, actress Myrna Loy, actor Dirk Benedict (who replaced our beloved Roninspoon in Battlestar Galactica!), the painter Charles M. Russell, and the legendary actor Gary Cooper.
For some great pictures of Helena both past and present, check out http://www.johann-sandra.com/helena/more.htm.
Things To Do
Helena has kept its reputation of being a town that is very proud of its past. That having been said, most of its tourist attractions are ... well ... old. First there is the magnificent St. Helena Cathedral, modeled after the Votive Church in Vienna. Its looming presence amongst the northern hillside of town is a photogenic sight. Another popular attraction is the Norwest Bank Gold Museum, where you can see gold in all shapes and sizes - from dust to 15 pound nuggets! For those you of who are particularly interested in Helena's history, take the Last Chance Train Tour (approx. 1 hour) around the town its citizens call "Capital City." At the end of tour you can visit the original Governor's Mansion of 1888, as well as the Mackay Art Museum, filled with frontier art from all periods.
For those of you more interested in the great outdoors, your best bet is taking a trip to Hauser Lake, located just 10 minutes east of town. Formed as an oxbow to the Missouri River, there are many camping amenities, and the lake is great for water skiing, swimming, and boating. You can also take a boat ride through what Lewis and Clark termed "The Gates Of The Mountains" - the craggy canyon walls that lie on either side of the River. For your hiking needs, there's the million-acre Helena National Forest, and The Great Divide Ski Area has many snowmobile trails and ski runs for winter fun.