Queen City of the Rockies, The Capital City
Location within Lewis and Clark County, Montana
|County||Lewis and Clark|
|Founded||October 30, 1864|
|• Mayor||Wilmot Collins (D)|
|• State capital city||16.39 sq mi (42.45 km2)|
|• Land||16.35 sq mi (42.35 km2)|
|• Water||0.04 sq mi (0.10 km2)|
|Elevation||3,875 ft (1,181 m)|
|• State capital city||28,190|
| • Estimate |
|• Density||1,700/sq mi (660/km2)|
|Time zone||UTC−7 (Mountain)|
|• Summer (DST)||UTC−6 (Mountain)|
59601-02, 59626; 59604, 59620, 59624 (P.O. Boxes); 59623, 59625 (organisations)
|GNIS feature ID||802116|
Helena was founded as a gold camp during the Montana gold rush, and established in 1864. Over $3.6 billion of gold was extracted in the city limits over two decades, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the United States by the late 19th century. The concentration of wealth contributed to the city's prominent, elaborate Victorian architecture.
At the 2010 census Helena's population was 28,190, making it the fifth least populous state capital in the United States and the sixth most populous city in Montana. It is the principal city of the Helena Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties; its population is 77,414 according to the 2015 Census Estimate.
The Helena area was long inhabited by various indigenous peoples. Evidence from the McHaffie and Indian Creek sites on opposite sides of the Elkhorn Mountains southeast of the Helena Valley show that people of the Folsom culture lived in the area more than 10,000 years ago. Before the introduction of the horse 300 years ago, and since, other native peoples, including the Salish and the Blackfeet, visited the area seasonally on their nomadic rounds.
Early settlement and gold rush
By the early 1800s, people of European descent from the United States and British Canada began arriving to work the streams of the Missouri River watershed looking for fur-bearing animals such as the beaver, undoubtedly bringing them through the area now known as the Helena Valley. Yet, like the native peoples, none of them stayed for long.
Gold strikes in Idaho Territory in the early 1860s attracted many migrants who initiated major gold rushes at Grasshopper Creek (Bannack) and Alder Gulch (Virginia City) in 1862 and 1863 respectively. So many people came that the federal government created a new territory called Montana in May 1864. The miners prospected far and wide for new placer gold discoveries. On July 14, 1864, the discovery of gold by a prospecting party known as the "Four Georgians" in a gulch off the Prickly Pear Creek led to the founding of a mining camp along a small creek in the area they called Last Chance Gulch.
By fall, the population had grown to over 200, and some thought the name "Last Chance" too crass. On October 30, 1864, a group of at least seven self-appointed men met to name the town, authorize the layout of the streets, and elect commissioners. The first suggestion was "Tomah," a word the committee thought had connections to the local Indian people. Other nominations included Pumpkinville and Squashtown (as the meeting was held the day before Halloween). Other suggestions were to name the community after various Minnesota towns, such as Winona and Rochester, as a number of settlers had come from Minnesota. Finally, a Scotsman, John Summerville, proposed Helena, which he pronounced // hə-LEE-nə, in honor of Helena Township, Scott County, Minnesota. This immediately caused an uproar from the former Confederates in the room, who insisted upon the pronunciation // HEL-i-nə, after Helena, Arkansas, a town on the Mississippi River. While the name "Helena" won, the pronunciation varied until approximately 1882 when the // HEL-i-nə pronunciation became dominant. Later tales of the naming of Helena claimed the name came from the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon was exiled, or was that of a miner's sweetheart.
The town-site was first surveyed in 1865 by Captain John Wood. Many of the original streets followed the chaotic paths of the miners, going around claims and following the winding gulch. As a result, few city blocks are consistent in size; they have an irregular variety of shapes and sizes.
In 1870, Henry D. Washburn, having been appointed Surveyor General of Montana in 1869, organized the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in Helena to explore the regions that would become Yellowstone National Park. Mount Washburn, within the park, is named for him. Members of the expedition included Helena residents: Truman C. Everts - former U.S. Assessor for the Montana Territory, Judge Cornelius Hedges - U.S. Attorney, Montana Territory, Samuel T. Hauser - President of the First National Bank, Helena, Montana; later a Governor of the Montana Territory, Warren C. Gillette - Helena merchant, Benjamin C. Stickney Jr. - Helena merchant, Walter Trumbull - son of U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull (Illinois) and Nathaniel P. Langford, then former U.S. Collector of Internal Revenue for Montana Territory. Langford helped Washburn organize the expedition and later helped publicize the remarkable Yellowstone region. In May 1872 after the park was established, Langford was appointed by the Department of Interior as its first superintendent.
By 1888 about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any city in the world. They had made their fortunes from gold. About $3.6 billion (in today's dollars) of gold was taken from Last Chance Gulch over a 20-year period. The Last Chance Placer is one of the most famous placer deposits in the western United States. Most of the production occurred before 1868. Much of the placer is now under Helena's streets and buildings. (As late as the 1970s, when repairs were being made to a bank, a vein of placer gold was found under the bank's foundation.)
This large concentration of wealth was the basis of developing fine residences and ambitious architecture in the city; its Victorian neighborhoods reflect the gold years. The numerous miners also attracted the development of a thriving red light district. Among the well-known local madams was Josephine "Chicago Joe" Airey, who built a thriving business empire between 1874 and 1893, becoming one of Helena's largest and most influential landowners. Helena's brothels were a successful part of the local business community well into the 20th century, ending with the 1973 death of Helena's last madam, "Big Dorothy" Baker.
Helena's official symbol is a drawing of "The Guardian of the Gulch", a wooden fire watch tower built in 1886. It still stands on Tower Hill overlooking the downtown district. The tower replaced a series of observation buildings, the original being a flimsy lookout stand built in 1870 on the same site in response to a series of devastating fires in April 1869, November 1869, October 1871, August 1872 and January 1874 that swept through the early mining camp. On August 2, 2016, an arson attack severely damaged the tower and it was deemed structurally unstable. The tower is to be demolished but will be rebuilt using the same methods as in its original construction.
In 1889, railroad magnate Charles Arthur Broadwater opened his Hotel Broadwater and Natatorium west of Helena. The Natatorium was home to the world's first indoor swimming pool. Damaged in the 1935 Helena earthquake, it closed in 1941. The property's many buildings were demolished in 1976. Today, the Broadwater Fitness Center stands just west of the Hotel & Natatorium's original location, complete with an outdoor pool heated by natural spring water running underneath it.
Helena has been the capital of Montana Territory since 1875 and the state of Montana since 1889. In 1902, the Montana State Capitol was completed. A large portion of the conflict between Marcus Daly and William Andrews Clark (the Copper Kings) was over the location of the state capital. Until the 1900 census, Helena was the most populous city in the state. That year it was surpassed by Butte, where mining industry was developing.
In 1916, the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the construction of the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Hill Park. It was the only Confederate memorial in the Northwestern United States The fountain was removed on August 18, 2017, after the Helena City Commission deemed it a threat to public safety following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Many Helenans work for agencies of the state government. When in Helena, most people visit the local walking mall. It was completed in the early 1980s after Urban Renewal and the Model Cities Program in the early 1970s had removed many historic buildings from the downtown district. During the next decade, a three-block shopping district was renovated that followed the original Last Chance Gulch. A small artificial stream runs along most of the walking mall to represent the underground springs that originally flowed above ground in parts of the Gulch.
The Archie Bray Foundation, an internationally renowned ceramics center founded in 1952, is just northwest of Helena, near Spring Meadow Lake.
A significant train wreck occurred on February 2, 1989, in which a 48-car runaway freight train slammed into a parked train near Carroll College, setting off an explosion that blasted out windows up to three miles away, causing most of the city to lose power and forcing some residents to evacuate in subzero weather. There were no major injuries.
With the mountains, Helena has much outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. Great Divide Ski Area is northwest of town near the ghost town of Marysville. Helena is also known for its mountain biking. It was officially designated as an International Mountain Bicycling Association bronze level Ride Center on October 23, 2013.
In 2017, Helena voters elected as mayor former Liberian refugee Wilmot Collins, who was widely reported to be Helena's first black mayor. The Independent Record reported contested research indicating that in the early 1870s one E. T. Johnson, listed in the city directory as a black barber from Washington D.C., had been elected mayor, before Helena became an incorporated town.
Surrounding features include the Continental Divide, Mount Helena City Park, Spring Meadow Lake State Park, Lake Helena, Helena National Forest, the Big Belt Mountains, the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study Area, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Scapegoat Wilderness, the Missouri River, Canyon Ferry Lake, Holter Lake, Hauser Lake, and the Elkhorn Mountains.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 16.39 square miles (42.45 km2), of which 16.35 square miles (42.35 km2) is land and 0.04 square miles (0.10 km2) is water.
Helena has a semi-arid climate (Köppen BSk), with long, cold and moderately snowy winters, hot and dry summers, and short springs and autumns in between. The monthly daily average temperature ranges from 21.8 °F (−5.7 °C) in December to 70.0 °F (21.1 °C) in July, with average diurnal temperature variation exceeding 30 °F (17 °C) in summer, due to the aridity and elevation. Having December colder than January is a trait shared with much of the Pacific Northwest. Snowfall has been observed in every month but July, but is usually absent from May to September, and normally accumulates in only light amounts. Winters have periods of moderation, partly due to warming influence from chinooks. Precipitation mostly falls in the spring and is generally sparse, averaging only 11.3 inches (287 mm) annually.
Subzero (below −18 °C) cold is observed 23 nights per year, but is rarely extended, as is 90 °F (32 °C) heat, which occurs on 19 days annually. Extremes range from −42 °F (−41 °C) to 105 °F (41 °C), occurring as recently as February 2, 1996 and July 12, 2002, respectively.
|Climate data for Helena Airport (1981–2010 normals), Montana|
|Record high °F (°C)||63
|Average high °F (°C)||33.3
|Daily mean °F (°C)||23.2
|Average low °F (°C)||13.0
|Record low °F (°C)||−42
|Average precipitation inches (mm)||0.36
|Average snowfall inches (cm)||6.2
|Average precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in)||6.2||5.9||7.7||8.7||11.1||11.2||7.7||7.3||6.1||6.2||6.9||6.6||91.6|
|Average snowy days (≥ 0.1 in)||5.6||5.2||5.0||2.9||0.8||0.1||0.0||0.1||0.7||1.8||4.6||6.0||32.8|
|Average relative humidity (%)||66.0||64.1||60.1||53.9||53.5||52.1||46.4||47.5||54.5||58.3||64.8||68.1||57.4|
|Mean monthly sunshine hours||119.4||149.0||225.8||243.0||282.0||308.7||370.3||324.1||254.6||202.9||118.6||99.9||2,698.3|
|Percent possible sunshine||43||52||61||60||61||65||77||74||68||60||42||37||60|
|Source: NOAA (extremes 1880−present, sun and relative humidity 1961−1990)|
As of the census of 2010, there were 28,190 people, 12,780 households, and 6,691 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,724.2 inhabitants per square mile (665.7/km2). There were 13,457 housing units at an average density of 823.1 per square mile (317.8/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 93.3% White, 0.4% African American, 2.3% Native American, 0.7% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 0.6% from other races, and 2.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.8% of the population.
There were 12,780 households of which 24.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 38.2% were married couples living together, 10.6% had a female householder with no husband present, 3.6% had a male householder with no wife present, and 47.6% were non-families. 39.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 13.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.07 and the average family size was 2.77.
The median age in the city was 40.3 years. 20.1% of residents were under the age of 18; 11.6% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 23.3% were from 25 to 44; 29.5% were from 45 to 64; and 15.6% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 48.0% male and 52.0% female.
As of the census of 2000, there were 25,780 people, 11,541 households, and 6,474 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,840.7 people per square mile (710.5/km²). There were 12,133 housing units at an average density of 866.3 per square mile (334.4/km²). The ethnic makeup of the city is 94.8% White, 0.2% African American, 2.1% Native American, 0.8% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 0.4% from other races, and 1.7% from two or more races. 1.7% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 11,541 households out of which 27.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 42.5% were married couples living together, 10.4% had a female householder with no husband present, and 43.9% were non-families. 37.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.14 and the average family size was 2.83.
In the city, the population was spread out with 22.4% under the age of 18, 11.1% from 18 to 24, 26.6% from 25 to 44, 26.0% from 45 to 64, and 13.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39 years. For every 100 females, there were 91.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 87.6 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $34,416, and the median income for a family was $50,018. Males had a median income of $34,357 versus $25,821 for females. The per capita income for the city was $20,020. About 9.3% of families and 14.5% of the population were below the poverty line, including 16.4% of those under age 18 and 8.3% of those age 65 or over.
Helena has a long record of economic stability with its history as being the state capital and being founded in an area rich in silver and lead deposits. Its status as capital makes it a major hub of activity at the county, state, and federal level. Thirty-one percent of the city's workforce is made up of government positions with private sector jobs comprising 62 percent. According to the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, the capital's median household income is $50,889, and its unemployment rate stood at 3.8% in 2013, about 1.2% lower than the rest of the state. Education is a major employer, with two high schools and accompanying elementary and middle schools for K-12 students as well as Helena College. Major private employers within the city of Helena include Carroll College and the medical community.
Helena's economy is also bolstered by Fort William Henry Harrison, the training facility for the Montana National Guard, located just outside the city. Fort Harrison is also home to Fort Harrison VA Medical Center, where many Helena-area residents work. Within Lewis and Clark County, there also remains one mineral processing plant and several light manufacturing facilities, including a division of Boeing.
- Carroll College, a Catholic liberal arts college which opened in 1909, enrolls 1,500 students.
- Helena College University of Montana, a two-year affiliate campus of The University of Montana, provides transfer, career, and technical education for more than 1,600 students. It opened in 1939.
Primary and secondary education
List of schools in Helena, Montana
- Helena High School (1,674 students)
- Capital High School (1,416)
- C R Anderson Middle School (994)
- Helena Middle School (720)
- Four Georgians Elementary School (525)
- Rossiter Elementary School (445)
- Smith Elementary School (307)
- Warren Elementary School (267)
- Jim Darcy Elementary School (255)
- Bryant Elementary School (253)
- Broadwater Elementary School (253)
- Kessler Elementary School (211)
- St. Andrew School (162)
- Central School (The first public school in Helena)
- Jefferson Elementary School (250)
- Hawthorne Elementary School (245)
- East Valley Middle School
- Helena Independent Record (daily, morning)
- AM radio
- FM radio
- KUHM 91.7 (National Public Radio), Montana NPR
- KQRV 96.9 (Country), Robert Cummings Toole
- KHGC 98.5 (Adult Contemporary), Cherry Creek Radio
- KBLL 99.5 (Country), Cherry Creek Radio
- KZMT 101.1 (Classic rock), Cherry Creek Radio
- KMXM 102.3 (Adult Contemporary), The Montana Radio Company, LLC
- KJPZ 104.1 (Christian), Hi-Line Radio Fellowship
- KMTX 105.3 (Adult Contemporary), KMTX, LLC
- KKRK-FM 106.5 (Rock)
- Josephine Airey, madam and landowner
- Stephen Ambrose, historian, author of Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage
- Dorothy Baker, madam
- Max Baucus, former long-time U.S. senator from Montana (1978-2014), and former U.S. Ambassador to China (2014-2017)
- James Presley Ball, African-American daguerreotypist
- Jean Baucus, historian, author, and rancher
- Samuel Beall, Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin
- Vice Admiral Donald Bradford Beary (1888–1966) (U.S. Navy), implemented Sea Replenishment during World War II
- Dirk Benedict, actor (The A-Team)
- Brand Blanshard, philosopher
- H. Kim Bottomly, former president of Wellesley College
- Isaac Brock, lead singer of Modest Mouse
- Mary Caferro, Montana state senator
- Thomas Henry Carter, United States senator from Montana
- Lane Chandler, actor
- William H. Clagett, congressman from Montana Territory
- Liz Claiborne, fashion designer
- Wilmot Collins, first black mayor in Montana since statehood
- Kevin Michael Connolly, photographer
- Mike Cooney, Montana state senator and former Montana Secretary of State
- Gary Cooper, actor
- Walter A. Coslet, figure in science fiction fandom and Bible collecting
- Margaret Craven, author
- Charles Donnelly, president of the Northern Pacific Railway
- Pat Donovan, Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle
- James Earp, saloonkeeper and brother of Wyatt Earp
- Truman C. Everts, Assessor of Internal Revenue for the Montana Territory between July 15, 1864, and February 16, 1870
- Casey FitzSimmons, tight end with the Detroit Lions
- Cory Fong, Tax Commissioner of North Dakota
- John Gagliardi, College Football Hall of Fame coach
- Pat Gray, co-host of The Glenn Beck Program with Glenn Beck
- Tyler Knott Gregson, poet and author
- Russell Benjamin Harrison, son of President Benjamin Harrison and Indiana politician
- Rick Hill, congressman from Montana
- Norman Holter, biophysicist and inventor of the Holter monitor
- Esther Howard, actress
- L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of Scientology
- Chuck Hunter, Montana state senator
- Hal Jacobson, member of Montana House of Representatives representing District 82
- Christine Kaufmann, Montana state senator
- Brian Knight, Major League Baseball umpire
- Nicolette Larson (1952-97), singer
- Nathaniel P. Langford, U.S. Collector of Internal Revenue (1864–69), Montana Territory, and first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park
- Dave Lewis, Montana state senator
- James F. Lloyd, congressman from California
- Myrna Loy, actress
- Martin Maginnis, congressman from Montana Territory
- Tony Markellis, bassist and record producer
- Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, US Civil War brigadier general, Acting Governor of the Territory of Montana
- Dave Meier, Major League Baseball outfielder
- Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter of The Decemberists
- Maile Meloy, writer
- James C. Morton, actor
- Bobby Petrino, current head football coach at Missouri State University
- Paul Petrino, current head football coach at the University of Idaho
- Charley Pride, country music singer
- Glenn Roush, Montana state legislator
- Henry H. Schwartz, chief of the U.S. General Land Office and U.S. senator from Wyoming
- Leo Seltzer, creator of roller derby
- Vida Ravenscroft Sutton, playwright and radio professional
- George G. Symes, congressman from Colorado
- Robert "Dink" Templeton, Olympic gold medalist in rugby
- Decius Wade, the "Father of Montana Jurisprudence"
- Thomas J. Walsh, U.S. senator from Montana
- Henry D. Washburn, Surveyor General, Montana Territory, and commander of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition to Yellowstone in 1870
- William F. Wheeler, U.S. Marshal, Civil War officer, Minnesota territorial Librarian and secretary to two governors, and founder of the Montana Historical Society, first in the West
- John Patrick Williams, former congressman from Montana
- Belle Fligelman Winestine, writer and suffragist
- Molly Wood, executive editor at CNET.com
- Lt. General Samuel Baldwin Marks Young (U.S. Army), former Acting Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park
- Dale L. Mortensen, member of Montana House of Representatives representing District 44
A "Tour Train" on the walking mall that was designed during 1960s urban renewal
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- Wood, Anthony. "After the West Was Won How African American Buffalo Soldiers Invigorated the Helena Community in Early Twentieth-Century Montana." Montana 66.3 (2016): 36–50.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Helena, Montana.|
|Wikisource has the text of a 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Helena, Montana.|
- City website
- Vintage Images of Helena, Montana
- "Helena, Montana". C-SPAN Cities Tour. November 2013.