Article by Hope Good, Photos by LeRita McKeever
In 1864, four prospectors (called the Four Georgians) struck it rich in a gulch off Prickly Pear Creek, the second biggest placer gold deposit in Montana, producing some $19 million worth of gold in just four years. Overnight, the mining camp of Last Chance Gulch became a town as thousands of miners began to flood into the region.
Since many of the miners came from Minnesota, they began to call their town after one in Minnesota—Saint Helena. This name stuck and was soon shortened to Helena, the grandest and oldest of Montana’s grand, old cities.
Helena was able to survive and grow by serving the wider Montana mining industry. In 1875, the city became the capital of Montana Territory, and by 1888 legend has it the city was home to about fifty millionaires. Their mark is left today with the many ornate Victorian stone and brick buildings which they had the resources to build. Helena grew from south to north along Last Chance Gulch, its main street, where the evolution of these architectural styles can be traced. By 1894 Helena became the capital of the new state of Montana.
The thoroughfare which was built down Last Chance Gulch was originally named Main Street. It remained that way for some 85 years, until July 20, 1953, when acting Helena Mayor Dr. Amos R. Little, Jr. signed an ordinance officially changing the name of Main Street to Last Chance Gulch.
Today, visitors can appreciate what has been preserved. Last Chance Gulch is significant to the history of the community and helps present a fuller picture of the Helena that once was.
The Last Chance Tour Train, which provides hour-long tours of Helena, is a great way to experience the city’s spectacular architecture and fascinating—often quirky—history.
Nowadays, Last Chance Gulch meanders where the creek bed used to be with a walking mall in the restored historic business area. This includes several blocks of unique, eclectic shops and services, including art galleries, a former brothel, boutiques, restaurants, and microbreweries. Many of the great historic buildings date from the 1880s and 1890s, and Historic plaques provide deeper background information on the area. Statues depicting cowboys, gold miners, and Helena’s rich history adorn the area, with park benches to sit and breathe in the culture around you.
Take time to enjoy, explore, and make your own discoveries. The Last Chance Gulch Walking Mall in downtown Helena
is a great way to spend a day, learn some history, and do a