Helena owes its existence to the discovery of placer gold, quartz gold, silver, and lead. Helena became the "Queen City of the Rockies" with the boom brought on by the 1864 gold strike. The first gold strike came in 1852 in Deer Lodge Valley; however, the rush for gold in Montana didn't start until 1862 with the strike at Bannack. In 1864 a group known as the "Four Georgians" (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, when they went back East, taking large amounts of dust with them.
As the gulch began to fill with people, the miners decided they needed to come up with a name for the town. The "Four Georgians" originally named it Crabtown after John Crab, one of the founders. Searching for a new name, the miners decided on a name of a town in Minnesota, pronounced Saint Hel-E-na. The pronunciation changed, emphasizing the first syllable of Helena, and "Saint" was dropped from the name.
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 in October 1898, ground was broken for the State Capitol Building.
The historic 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. The State Capitol building is an excellent example of Greek Renaissance architecture, and the murals inside depict Montana historical themes. Helena's glorious past can also be seen in the spectacular 19th-century mansions, historic Last Chance Gulch businesses, and restored pioneer dwellings. The Last Chance Tour Train features informative, entertaining tours of the city. The tour begins at the Montana Historical Society. A one-hour train ride provides a spectacular tour of the Capital City, complete with a lesson in Helena's colorful history.
The St. Helena Cathedral, an imposing edifice, overlooks the downtown area. Modeled after the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, and a replica of the Votive Church in Vienna, the cathedral is a magnificent addition to its Rocky Mountain setting. Stained glass windows, white marble altars, statues, and genuine gold leaf decorate the sanctuary. Outside, majestic twin spires rise 230 feet above the street.
Regularly conducted tours of the Original Governor's Mansion constructed, in 1888 concentrate on the history of the house and its furnishings. It contains 20 rooms and seven fireplaces, all restored to turn-of-the-century elegance and furnished with antiques.
The Montana Historical Society, founded in 1865, houses one of the country's most important collections of Charles M. Russell art in the Mackay Gallery; the Haynes Gallery features the life and work of noted frontier photographer F. Jay Haynes.
The Museum of Gold collection at Norwest Bank displays gold dust to nuggets as big as 244 ounces. This tribute to Montana pioneers is valued at $600,000. The Helena area is known for sapphires as well as gold. 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. The Spokane Bar Mine is one of half a dozen digging sites, and numerous old mines and settlements exist nearby.
The Archie Bray Foundation was established in 1951 on the site of a brick factory and attracts artist from around the world. Tour the studios and grounds of this unique endeavor in the ceramic arts.
The Helena area offers countless recreation opportunities. The Missouri River flows nearby with several lakes within a short driving distance. Holter and Hauser Lakes, created by two of the three dams on the Missouri River in the Helena area, are perfect for outdoor recreation including fishing, swimming, camping, water-skiing and boating. Canyon Ferry Lake, just 20 minutes east of Helena, is a large reservoir on the Missouri River that offers recreation in all forms. Camping, sailing, boating, swimming and fishing are just the start. You'll also see ice boaters here in the winter. Gates of the Mountains; as Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River in this area, Meriwether Lewis was struck by the steep canyon walls and noted "the Gates of the Mountains" in his journal. Boat tours are available at the Gates of the Mountains, 16 miles north of Helena off I-15.
Helena is just eight miles from the Continental Divide, and it is surrounded by mountains and National Forest Service land. The Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area, managed by the National Forest System, is a 129,000-acre area that is home to many indigenous animals, including big game.
Courtesy of www.TravelMT.com