Helena was the location of one of Montana’s earliest gold discoveries. Although discoveries at Bannack (1862) and Virginia City (1863) resulted in the first major gold rushes to Montana territory, the strike at Helena resulted in the establishment of what became one of the West’s most important cities.
Gold was discovered in Last Chance Gulch in the summer of 1864 by four prospectors that came to be known as “the Four Georgians”. The men kept their discovery quiet so as to avoid a rush to their new diggings but nonetheless a small population of miners arrived at the gulch by the fall. A meeting was held where the name Helena was agreed on for the settlement, streets were laid out, and a primitive government based on mining law was outlined.
The 1867 publication Beyond the Mississippi described the author's impressions of the young boom town:
This city is the legitimate successor of Virginia, as is Virginia of Bannack. It has now outgrown the anxious stage, which comes to all new settlements, and in which every arriving stranger is instantly asked: 'Well sir, how do you like our town?’
Helena is about three years old, with a population of four thousand. Its two principal streets are in the form of a cross. At my visit [in 1865] it did not boast a hotel. Now it has several, with pleasant residences, ample business blocks, and a thriving trade.
It is the supply point for the rich placer mines of the Black-foot country and other northern gulches. I have never been in any other region where gold dust in the hands of working miners circulated freely in so large quantities. Several nuggets, worth from two to four thousand dollars have been taken out... Single claims have produced one thousand dollars per day. These are very unusual cases; but Montana is the richest placer mining region ever discovered in the United States.
Within a few years, hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents occupied Helena. In 1875, the Montana territorial capitol moved from Virginia City to Helena. 1883 saw the arrival of the first railroad. Helena's fortunes reached a peak in 1883, and it is said that there were more millionaires per capita in Helena than anywhere in the world. Helena became the capital of the new state of Montana in 1889.
An article from an 1888 edition of Harpers New Monthly Magazine describes the splendor of late 1800s Helena:
To the younger generation Helena is a Parisian-like center which he hopes in time to see. Capitalists may make their money at Butte or elsewhere, but are moderately sure to spend it at Helena; and the miner or ranchman is never so happy as when he finds himself in what, without question, is the metropolis of the Territory. I know of no city in the extreme middle west that could so well satisfy one who had learned to appreciate Western life as Helena.
It's climate, its surroundings, even its society, largely composed of Eastern and college bred mean and young wives fresh from older centres, are delightfully prominent features. The city has a population of nearly 15,000 and considering its great wealth, it is not surprising that it should have electric lights, a horse-car line, and excellent schools.
Helena's role as territorial capital, and position as supply center to surrounding mining areas, allowed the town to prosper after the gold ran out. However, in 1894 Helena's role as state capital was politically challenged by Anaconda. Helena won the popular vote and remained capitol of Montana permanently.
Today, Helena still has much of the charm of a 19th century mining town. Many of the old buildings have been renovated and hundreds of 19th century Victorian homes and mansions fill Helena's old neighborhoods. Helena is one of the best preserved mining towns on the Western frontier and is well worth a visit if you are in Montana.