History of Helena
Helena was founded in 1864, following the discovery of gold in the Prickly Pear Valley. The original gulch where the gold was found was located at the site of the present-day main street in Helena called Last Chance Gulch. The town was originally called Last Chance, but it was clear that such name was not appropriate. Someone suggested “Helena,” after a township in Minnesota, but the former Confederates in town insisted that, while the name was fine, it should be pronounced differently, like Helena in Arkansas - Hel-i-na, instead of Ha-lee-na. People in town used both pronunciations but the one used for the city in Arkansas gradually became dominant and is still used.
The city was first surveyed in 1865. The structure of the city was, and still is, quite irregular, based on paths following the winding gulch. As the result, the blocks in Helena have various shapes and sizes. In 1870, the Surveyor General of Montana Henry D. Washburn organized an expedition with the purpose to explore the areas that later became Yellowstone National Park. The expedition had several members from Helena and one of them became the first superintendent of the park upon its establishment.
Helena became the capital of Montana Territory in 1875. By the late 1880s, Helena had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world, thanks, of course, to the gold in the city area. The city was rich and it showed as the locals invested in beautification, in architecture, institutions and improvements. Many of the original structures from the era, especially the Victorian neighborhoods, are still standing in the city. That particular period marked the beginning of the red district era in the city, which lasted well into the 20th century. The madams in the city, such as the legendary Chicago Joe Airey, were very wealthy and influential. The last of them, Big Dorothy Baker, died in 1973.
One of the best-known buildings in Helena, and also the official symbol of the city, is a wooden watch tower built in 1886, called “The Guardian of the Gulch.” This single tower replaced a series of fire watch towers after several devastating fires that struck the city in 1869, 1871, 1872 and 1874.
The famous Hotel Broadwater and Natatorium was built in 1889 and had the world’s first indoor swimming pool. Helena became the state capital after Montana was admitted to the Union in 1889 together with North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington. The Montana State Capitol was built in 1902.
Geography and Climate of Helena
Helena lies at an altitude of 4,058 feet and is one of the highest state capitals in the USA. Some of the prominent geographic features in the city area include Mount Helena City Park, the Continental Divide, Helena National Forest, Lake Helena, the Sleeping Giant Mountain with a wilderness study area, the Big Belt Mountains, Holter Lake, Hauser Lake, Elkhorn Mountains, Canyon Ferry Lake, Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Scapegoat Wilderness and the Missouri River.
The climate in the city is semi-arid. The winters are long and cold, with moderate snowfall. The summers are hot and mostly dry. Springs and autumns are short. Most of the precipitation occurs in the springtime.
Population of Helena
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 Helena had a population of 25,780. The majority of the population is white (94.8%), and other groups include Native Americans (2.1%), Hispanics or Latinos (1.7%), Asians (0.8%) and Pacific Islanders (0.1%).
In 2010, the median household income in Helena was $34,416 and the per capita income for the city was $20,020.
Helena is an economically stable city. It is a major center of government institutions, both for the county and for the state. It is also a distribution center for agricultural enterprises in the area, where livestock, farming and mining are the main activities. Helena was once rich in gold and today it depends on silver and lead. The city and the surrounding towns have a number of smelters, zinc reduction works and quartz crushers. Helena is also a telephone communications center, not only for the county but for the entire state.
City Symbols and Culture
Culturally, the most important part of Helena is the 17-block Historic Downtown District, with historic buildings, galleries, restaurants, shops, cafes and clubs. Another important city feature, and one of its most recognizable symbols, is the State Capitol Building with its beautiful classic dome made of radiant copper. Other attractions in the city include the Governor’s Mansion, Helena Civic Center, Fort Harrison, St. Helena Cathedral and the Guardian of the Gulch.
Major cultural facilities in Helena include the Myrna Loy Center, the Carroll College Theatre, Grand-Street Theatre, Performance Park Square, Holster Museum of Art and the Ghost Art Gallery.
Many festivals and events take place in downtown Helena every year, most notably the Western Rendezvous of Art, Last Chance Bluegrass Festival, Oktoberfest and the Mt. Helena Music Festival. The local daily newspaper is the Independent Record.
Education and Sports
Helena has two institutions of higher education: Carroll College and the University of Montana-Helena College of Technology.
The city is the home of the Helena Brewers, a minor league baseball team of the Pioneer League. The city also has a NAHL hockey club called Helena Bighorns.
Most of the passenger air traffic goes through Helena Regional Airport, the largest airport in the area. Major highways to and around the city include I-15, U.S. Highway 12 and U.S. Highway 287. Intercity bus service is provided by Rimrock Trailways.