Helena – a.k.a. Crabtown?
The History of our State Capital is so interesting. If you ever get a chance to take a tour around Helena, I highly recommend it. Like many other towns in Montana, Helena started out as a mining town and was almost named Crabtown!
Helena was founded by four men, all from Georgia, and known in the history books as the “Four Georgians”. These four men, rather desperate after searching throughout western Montana for gold and finding nothing, stumbled into the area that is now Helena. That night, on July 14th, 1864, the men decided to take one last chance in mining the nearby creek. As luck and fate would have it, the men found gold that evening. They named the stream they found the gold in, appropriately enough, Last Chance Gulch.
Word soon got out about the gold strike, and seemingly overnight, Helena became a boom town. In just a few short years, several hundred businesses had opened up shop in Helena and more than 3000 people called Helena home.
Unlike the gold rush, the name Helena for the new town did not arrive overnight. Initially, the new town had a less-than-inspiring name of Crabtown, named after one of the four Georgians who found gold. Soon, though, other names were bounced around, including Pumpkinville and Squashtown. However, many of the miners were from Minnesota. These miners soon began to call the town after another town in Minnesota, called Saint Helena. This name was soon shortened to Helena, which is the name today.
In 1883, the Northern Pacific railroad arrived in Helena, further fueling the cities growth.
Helena had to fight to keep the capitol. In 1894, the fight over the state capitol erupted between Helena and Anaconda (at the time, the Anaconda area was booming with the mining being done in nearby Butte). Helena won the fight, by popular vote, and has remained the state capitol of Montana ever since.
Helena also had to battle several fires that burned significant parts of the town. This led to the creation of the historic fire tower that still stands today over Last Chance Gulch.
Helena today is a much different town than it was 100 years ago. Yet, the smaller size of Helena, coupled with a very nice job of restoring the Last Chance Gulch area, makes Helena a very unique capitol city.
Helena basically has three parts to the city. The first part is what I call the newer shopping area. The second part of Helena consists of the Capitol Building and related state government offices. The third part of Helena today consists of the “downtown” area, which is located in Last Chance Gulch. Downtown Helena, which has been very nicely restored, sits in a very beautiful setting and is well worth seeing.