The Helena area has provided the setting for thousands of years of Native Americans, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the wanderings of fur trappers & gold prospectors, homestead farmers, key transcontinental railroad lines, and the state capital. Helena is a community with a colorful history.
Archaeological evidence indicates that people have occupied the greater Helena area for approximately 12,000 years. Although the valley never served as the permanent home for any single Native American tribe, it became a “transitional zone” through which such tribes as the Blackfeet, the Salish, the Crow, and the Bannock moved regularly. Similarly, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, following the upper Missouri River, crossed the valley in both 1805 and 1806.
Fur trappers also traversed the area early in the 19th century. In 1864, “the Four Georgians” discovered placer gold in Last Chance Creek. The ensuing gold strike brought thousands of “get-rich-quick” miners to the fabulously rich Last Chance Gulch. These early residents considered the names of “Pumpkinville” and “Squashtown”. but settled on “Helena”.
Once the placer gold ran out, Helena could easily have become a ghost town. Its’ key geographical location, however, made it a vital redistribution center for businesses supplying scores of other gold-mining communities. The town soon became the territorial banking center, and home of such broad-based commercial enterprises as T.C. Power and Brother. Simultaneously, farms and ranches spread across the fertile Helena valley.
When Helena secured the territorial capital in 1875, the city also became the political focus of Montana. The city’s victory over Anaconda in the “Capital Fight” of 1894 only solidified that political dominance.
Helena’s population has grown moderately throughout the 20th century – despite such disasters as fires and the devastating 1935 earthquake. The city has not experienced the boom-and-bust cycles that have affected many other Montana communities because of its reliance on state government and on a broad-based economy emphasizing goods and services. During the 1970s an urban-renewal project changed the face of the downtown district, yet Helena retains many of its vintage commercial and residential buildings.
Today, Helena thrives as an educational, commercial, recreational, cultural, and political center for the entire state of Montana – while celebrating a real appreciation for the community’s colorful, storied past.