History of Helena, Montana

Helena, Montana’s state capital and the state’s third territorial capital, became known as the “Queen City of the Rockies” with the boom brought on by the 1864 gold strike. In 1864, a group known as the “Four Georgians” (consisting of John Cowan, Daniel Jackson Miller, John Crab, and Reginald - or Robert - Stanley), stumbled upon gold in what is now Helena’s main street. The claim was staked and named “Last Chance Gulch.” The “Four Georgians” worked the gulch until 1867, at which time they went back East.

Once the news spread about the gold discovery, Helena became a boom town seemingly overnight. In only a few short years, several hundred businesses opened up shop in Helena, and more than 3,000 people called Helena home. Also, many previous mining strikes in other areas of Montana began to play out. As a result, many miners in these areas gravitated toward Helena.

As the gulch began to fill up with people, the miners decided they needed to come up with a name for the town. The name “Helena” was not immediately bestowed upon the town. The “Four Georgians” originally named it Crabtown after John Crab, one of the founders. However, many of the miners from Minnesota began to call the town Saint Helena, after a town in Minnesota. The name was eventually shortened to Helena, its current name.

Montana became a United States territory in 1864. In 1875, Helena became the capital of Montana Territory. When Montana became a state, the fight for the location of the state capital pitted “Copper King” Marcus Daly of Anaconda against rival William A. Clark, who supported Helena. Helena won, and ground was broken in October 1898 for the new capitol. Helena continues to serve as the seat of Montana’s state government and politics.

In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in Helena and further fueled the town’s growth. With establishment of the territorial capital in Helena, the town slowly began its transition from a typical mining town, which prevented the town’s collapse when gold ran out in Last Chance Gulch.

By 1888, an estimated 50 millionaires made Helena their home. Last Chance Gulch produced an estimated $3.6 billion (in today’s dollars) in gold over a 20-year period. Helena continued to prosper despite the depletion of gold. The town’s central location in Montana, coupled with its designation as the state capital, continued to bring in new people and roads. Helena also functioned as a distribution point (due to the transportation hub of roads and railroads that developed) for outlying mining towns and other nearby resource extraction industries. Agriculture in the valley also helped sustain Helena’s growth.

The downtown area of the capital city is situated in a steep gulch, with parts of the city perched on surrounding hillsides. This picturesque setting opens up into a wide valley to the north. On the upper eastside sits Montana’s state capitol. Helena’s glorious past is celebrated today with the spectacular 19th-century mansions, historic Last Chance Gulch businesses, and restored pioneer dwellings.