Helena: History

Land of the Prickly Pear

Archaeological evidence shows that native Americans inhabited the valley in which greater Helena is situated more than 12,000 years ago. Although never serving as the permanent home of any particular tribe, the valley was a crossover area for Salish, Crow, Bannock, and Blackfeet tribal members.

In 1805, members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were the first white men to visit the valley. While investigating the area on foot, William Clark stepped on and had to remove 17 cactus spines from his feet. This caused him to name the nearby creek and valley Prickly Pear. In the early nineteenth century trappers came to the area, later to be pushed aside by groups of white settlers.

In 1862 a group of immigrants in a wagon train decided to build houses for the winter in Prickly Pear Valley, but this settlement proved temporary. In 1864, four ex-Confederate soldiers from Georgia discovered placer gold in Last Chance Gulch, the heart of Helena's present-day downtown. The gold strike attracted hundreds of miners eager to find riches. Over the next 20 years 3.5 billion dollars worth of gold was discovered in the gulch. By 1888 Helena was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Early settlers considered naming their new boom town "Pumpkinville" or "Squashtown," but instead settled on the suggestion of John Somerville, who named the place after his hometown of Helena in Minnesota. The inhabitants chose to pronounce it HELL-uh-nuh, with the accent on the first syllable. Its original residents were mainly of English, Scottish, Irish, and German descent.

Becomes Territorial, Then State Capital

By 1870, Helena, with a population of 3,106 people, had become the most important town in the Montana Territory. Other nearby settlements turned into ghost towns after gold supplies were exhausted. But Helena's geographical location helped it become a business hub for other mining communities such as Marysville to the west and Rimini to the southwest. It became a vital bank, trade and farming town.

In the late 1870s the discovery of rich silver and lead deposits in nearby Wickes, Corbin, and Elkhorn further stimulated development in the area and helped Helena grow and prosper. The fact that Helena was on an important stagecoach route also spurred its growth as a hub city.

In 1875 Helena was made the capital of the Montana Territory. When Montana became a state in 1889, citizens disputed whether the capital should be Helena or Anaconda, another popular mining town. Copper rivals Marcus Daly, who supported Anaconda, and William A. Clark, who supported Helena, spent more than $3 million as each fought to have his city chosen for the honor. Helena finally won the vote in 1894. The city soon saw a tremendous amount of new construction. In time, Helena became the center of Montana political, social, and economic life. Between 1880 and 1890, the population grew from 3,624 to 13,834 people.

City Experiences Booms and Busts

By the late 1880s, wealthy Helena citizens had erected pretentious mansions and constructed a streetcar to transport them to the outskirts of town where they lived. They also drove about town, first in coaches driven by top-hatted drivers, and later in electric cars that stalled on the hills. Their Italianate, Romanesque, baroque, and Gothic-style houses featured cupolas, turrets, and hand-carved trim. The inhabitants of the mansions were served by a small army of maids and butlers.

The good times for many of the city's more than 13,000 residents continued until 1893, when the price of silver fell and many of the nouveau riche moved away. The spacious mansions were then taken over by members of the middle class who sometimes had problems paying to heat them. Many of the Mansion District homes can still be viewed today.

Like other Montana towns, Helena experienced boom-or-bust cycles. Prosperity returned once again between 1900 and 1910 when gold mining activity geared up at nearby Marysville and with the construction of the Canyon Ferry, Hauser, and Holter dams on the Missouri River, which employed a number of Helena residents. Then came a slump that lasted until the war years of 1914-1918, when once again the mines worked to meet the demand for metals during World War I. But another slump followed.

Helena in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

In the first part of the twentieth century, Helena's population showed modest growth, rising from 12,515 people in 1910 to 15,056 by 1940. This growth occurred despite several major fires and a 1935 earthquake that caused four deaths and $4 million in damages. Shocks of lesser intensity occurred in 1936 and 1937 but did no further harm.

During the mid-1930s, at the time of the Great Depression, the federal government employed hundreds of Helena citizens to repair the State Capitol and the county courthouse and to landscape a city park. New federal monetary policies increased the price of gold and silver and stimulated mining, which once again regained its importance in the life of the city.

The city's population stood at 17,581 people in 1950. During the 1960s, urban renewal changed the face of downtown Helena, and a pedestrian mall was built to attract tourists. Preservation fervor and urban renewal programs in the 1970s resulted in further downtown development. In recent decades, Montana residents have begun to truly appreciate and make efforts to preserve the beautiful terrain of their state. In 1992, the Montana House of Representatives voted to protect 1.5 million acres of Montana from development, including some local Helena area sites. In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Helena one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations, recognizing the city as "unique and lovingly preserved".

Today, Helena is an attractive place that retains vintage residential and commercial structures while providing modern shops, distinctive restaurants, and modern entertainment centers for residents and visitors alike.

Historical Information: Montana Historical Society, PO Box 201201, 225 N. Roberts, Helena, MT, 59620-1201; telephone (406)444-2694; email mhslibrary@mt.gov