To understand the culture of a town, you must immerse yourself in the history of the area, and Helena offers a rich history for visitors to explore. Helena was founded, by four men, seemingly by accident.
Southwest Montana, formerly known as Gold West Country, drew people far and wide to the major gold strikes in the region. Prospectors traveled across the country, while others immigrated from Europe, to stake their claims in Territorial Montana. Specifically, Alder Gulch promised transplants a rich life. Soon the area was over-populated, and the claims were no longer producing at the same rate.
Having spent months exploring western Montana in search of the next big claim, Reginald Stanley of Nuneaton England, John Cowan of Georgia, DJ Miller of Alabama, and John Crabb of Iowa, made it to present day Helena.
They set up camp along the stream, and unfortunately found little more than ‘colour,’ making the decision to continue on their way toward the Marias River. Continuing on, the men had little luck and decided they would return to their little gulch to give it one last chance.
On July 14, 1864, the men were desperate, knowing that if they did not strike it rich soon they would need to return to Alder Gulch. On that final attempt, as luck would have it, they found a claim of Placer Gold in the stream, naming it Last Chance Gulch. Word began to spread of the success of the Four Georgians and miners flocked to the area.
Now, the nickname, Four Georgians, may seem odd since only one of the miners hailed from the great state of Georgia, however, this nickname did not come from their hometown, but rather the method of mining they used. The “Georgian Method of Placer Mining” speaks to the method of digging pits several feet into the bedrock before filling a pan and making their way to the stream.
By the end of the 1860s, the discoveries in Helena had produced nearly $18 million (At that time, gold went for $20/ounce – today gold is ~$1,300/ounce). The Four Georgians chose to sell their claims after about four years of toiling and moved back East. Others continued to mine in the area and soon the town of Helena built up around the mining camp.
The nature of mining, with its spontaneous finds and equally unpredictable decline often leads to ghost towns. With the strike of a valuable mineral (gold, silver, zinc, copper, etc), thousands flock to an area. Houses, saloons and schools begin to pop up and for a time the community thrives. Unfortunately, as the claim begins to run dry, the miners (their family and friends) pick up and move on to the next site, leaving behind hastily built structures and memories of the “good ol’ days.” This is the destiny of nearly all mining towns. Take Elkhorn, Marysville, Bannack, or Virginia City for example; tourists can visit the old town sites but there is little more than a memory of what was once a bustling community.
Helena on the other hand was different. Due to the growing population (nearly 7,500) the Territorial Capital was moved from Virginia City to Helena in 1875, sealing the fate of Virginia City to fade into the background. Helena was also located in the center of an important stage route that connected several mining towns, and in 1883 the Pacific Railroad would lay track through the town. It was due to these circumstances that Helena became an established town, unlike so many of the other boom towns of the era.