Main Street, Helena, ca. 1868

One of the few streets to be renamed from Main Street to another name, Last Chance Gulch got its name from the Helena Chamber of Commerce in 1953. The new name was created in the hopes of reconnecting with Helena's prospecting past, which began in 1864 with the discovery of gold in the eponymous gulch. Main Street is pictured in this 1860s photo during the height of Montana's gold rush.

Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives

This is the first in a series of monthly articles from the Lewis and Clark County Heritage Tourism Council, formerly the Historic Preservation Commission. Though the official name has gone through a change, the purpose of the group has remained the same since its formation in 1989: to preserve, promote and protect the city and county’s historic assets, and to educate the public on the significance and value of our community’s heritage. We will share interesting articles about our community, and we’d love to hear from you -- your stories and reflections about the historical changes and continuity that have shaped Helena's past and that will influence its future. Thanks to the Independent Record for giving us the space each month to present articles that will focus on Helena’s vibrant history.

That said, a new year is upon us and many Helenans have made New Year’s resolutions about changes they want to make in their lives. It’s time to leave behind what didn’t work and begin anew. New Year’s resolutions are an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned and to create goals for the coming year.

Helena has been through many changes since the summer of 1864 when miners saw color in the stream here, their last chance to find gold before the winter set in. With that discovery, they founded a town that would establish itself and grow, setting Helena apart from many mining camps that eventually become ghost towns. Over the next decade, more than $800 million in gold was extracted from Last Chance Gulch, and Helena had little to justify its existence after the gold was gone.

By the 1870s, the gold rush was over, a number of devastating fires had repeatedly destroyed the town, and a national recession threatened Helena. With the population declining and economy struggling, Editor Robert Fisk of The Helena Herald wrote, “Before Montana is steadily and permanently prosperous again, we who live here must change our habits acquired in flush times ... and come down to habits of steady, patient, persevering industry, wise economy and courageous enterprise.” Sounds like good advice for making solid New Year’s resolutions!

It was a time of transition from a chaotic mining camp to a city with focus and vision. Determined and uncompromising citizens like Charles Broadwater, Thomas Cruse, Samuel Hauser and many others persisted in keeping the city alive -- resolving to hang in no matter what challenges were presented. Many of the magnificent buildings and mansions built in the 1880s were the result of the wealth these enterprising entrepreneurs attained through mining, real estate, ranching, railroad and banking ventures. In 1883, Broadwater organized the Montana National Bank and installed a stone buffalo head over the entrance to the building in answer to the comment that he was foolish to spend so much money on the massive building when “buffalo will be grazing in the streets of Helena before long.” Some folks just didn’t think Helena would survive. Broadwater’s resolution and faith in the future of Helena built a community that thrives today.

Structures of the 1880s boom were built to last, like Helena’s positive belief in its future. However, during the ensuing 100 years, catastrophic fires, earthquakes and Urban Renewal destroyed many significant buildings, resulting in major changes to the “Queen City of the Rockies’” cityscape. We can celebrate the preservation of those buildings that were rehabilitated and saved, which, together with former buildings, comprise the basis and mosaic of our rich heritage and are the genesis for many stories and memories.

We invite you to think about some of the undocumented stories and memories generated from past New Year’s Eve celebrations in those buildings. Throughout the last 153 years, many in Helena have celebrated New Year's Eve by patronizing a bar or lounge that featured local musical talent playing rollicking tunes. This practice has seen many changes in venues as Helena has grown. Until the completion of the Helena section of Interstate 15, downtown Helena was the focal point for the end-of-the-year revelers, and Main Street, whose name was changed to Last Chance Gulch in the 1950s, was the nucleus of the New Year’s Eve party universe (before I-15, all east/west and north/south traffic passed through downtown Helena via the Helena Avenue/Neill Avenue and Last Chance Gulch intersection, sometimes referred to as “Mini-Malfunction Junction,” making downtown the epicenter of business and social activity, and a hopping place to be on New Year’s Eve).

For a moment, close your eyes and step back to the 1940s, '50s and '60s, a time some would argue was downtown Helena’s halcyon days; a time when the Gulch pulsated with live music on this most festive night of the year. Many bars (or as they were also called, “joints”) lined the Gulch, both on and off Main street. Picture yourself strolling by some of downtown Helena’s “joints”: the Blue Moon, situated slightly south of the Boston Block on the east side of the Walking Mall; the Bank Club, located on the west side of the Mall, approximately where the Holiday Inn is currently located; the Cabin, located on the east side of the Mall, directly north of the Securities Building; the Capri, situated where the Gold Bar is currently located; Matt’s Club, located slightly south of God’s Love; and The Montana Club, which remains to this day in its original location.

The New Year is an opportunity to begin again, learn from previous choices, and resolve to do our best to make the coming year one of positive change and progress for us as individuals, and as the remarkable community that is Helena. From all of us on the Heritage Tourism Council, Happy New Year! Anyone with stories and/or memories of these and other Helena “joints” are invited to share them with the Heritage Tourism Council at pattardo@lccountymt.gov or 447-8357.

Mary Jane Bradbury is a museum educator and historical interpreter, Mike Shields is a former state and federal employee, and Hal Jacobson is a former state legislator. All three are HPC members. 

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