- History Articles
Although the Helena Valley served as a way-point for roaming bands of Blackfeet, Salish, Crow and Bannock, no real settlement existed in Helena until the gold rush. In July of 1864, four prospectors were travelling through the region at the end of a long and disappointing search for gold in western Montana. They camped in a gulch on the banks of a stream. With nothing better to do, they decided that prospecting the gulch would be their last chance of finding gold before they headed for home. Incredibly, they struck it rich, very, very rich. The prospectors-forever immortalized as the “Four Georgians,” this despite the fact that only one of the four hailed from Georgia-promptly named the place “Last Chance Gulch.” A gold rush had begun.
In October of that same year, residents met to give the town a permanent name. After much squabbling, and the suggestion of names like “Pumpkinville” and “Squashtown,” John Somerville spoke up. He proposed “Helena” after the town of his birth in Scott County, Minnesota.
Helena's star rose as those of the earlier mining towns of Bannack and Virginian City began to set. Its central location and position on the Mullan trail attracted merchants and bankers as well as miners and adventurers. Helena's emergence as Montana's commercial and financial center protected it somewhat from the boom and bust cycle common to mining towns, and it continued to flourish to the extent that the Territorial Capital moved there in 1875. The Northern Pacific Railroad reached Helena in 1883, and the town exploded. The population grew almost fourfold in the course of a single year. Helena clearly established itself as Montana's upper class neighborhood, to the point that in 1888, legend has it that the city boasted fifty millionaires-more millionaires per capita than any other city in America, a fact which has never been proven, but which gives some sense of the sheer wealth amassed in Helena. Montana became a state in 1889, and after a brutal, lengthy (and often humorously verbose) battle with the up-and-coming Anaconda, Helena became the state capital. Since then, the city's reliance on government sector jobs insulated it still further from the vagaries of economy, and the town continues to flourish.