Helena’s downtown sits in Last Chance Gulch. Its major street carries the same thoroughly Western name. This was not always the case. Changing the street name in the early 1950s excited the town for months.
Last Chance the gulch was named by the Four Georgians in 1864. Those prospectors were returning back through the Prickly Pear Valley of Montana with no gold to show for their long search. Stopping to water their horses, they told each other, Boys, this gulch is our last chance. They found gold and the rest is history — or, Helena.
Last Chance the street was named 90 years later, through efforts of the Chamber of Commerce. Prior to 1953, the main street of Helena’s downtown was called Main Street. Upgrading this name to something more “colorful” was the first public project of the travel bureau of the Chamber.
The Chamber’s petition drive to change the name immediately won “impressively favorable response,” according to the Independent Record. Within six days — during the height of the 1952 Christmas shopping season — the City Council was presented with petitions representing “more than 90 per cent of the people who work and own property on Main.”
Heading the project were Vern Cougill, general manager of Capital Motors, and John Quigley, who built Frontier Town outside Helena. Cougill explained, "Every town and city in the U.S. has a Main Street but only Helena has a Last Chance Gulch, a name with the lure of the west.” Quigley held it was the first step in a “long-range program to make Helena more attractive to the tourist trade.”
Support for renaming Main Street was not unanimous. The Last Chance Gulch Mining Association represented Helena’s original industry and it had objections. Association secretary Hugh Gaw maintained Fuller Avenue and the alley between Main and Park were the actual path of Last Chance Gulch Creek. Technically, he was right. But technicalities don’t attract tourists.
The president of Fligelman's Department Store, Norman Winestine, called on the City Council to “not be ashamed of the romantic glorious past of Helena.” “The spirit of our attitude is important. If we want to be stagnant, we can be what some articles have called us, a stagnant city.”
Ed Commers, “official state capitol guide who led ‘pack trips’ through the granite tepee,” said the out-of-state visitors weren’t interested in Main Street because “they wanted to get away from one of their own hundreds of miles away.”
Having heard both Gaw and the Chamber, Mayor J. R. Kaiserman delayed, ruling that the Council shouldn’t take “any arbitrary action until the factions had it settled.” Possibly he still was grumpy over having his office and the council voted out of existence the previous month. That was another Chamber-endorsed initiative, this one to modernize city government.
The switch to a commission-city manager form of government took place in March 1953. Four months later, the new commissioners held a night meeting for the first time so residents could join the discussion about changing Main Street’s name to something more modern in function if not form.
The Independent Record described the arguments as tense. The acting mayor, Amos Little, started by declaring the change was something the departed city council should have done back in December. Winestine followed, testifying that Fligelman’s had “risked our capital, our credit and our prestige” to use Last Chance Gulch as an address and never received a “sneering or derisive” response from outsiders.
K. Ross Toole, secretary of the Historical Society of Montana, rebutted remarks describing the past as something to get away from, saying, “The founders of Last Chance Gulch had dignity, fortitude and courage, all had something worthy of commemoration.”
Gaw testified in opposition. He cited the cost. He cited the confusion. He cited the topography. He was not successful. The Commission voted unanimously to make the change.
The Commission vote didn’t quite end the debate. Opponents mounted a petition drive to force a special election on the question of the name change. Petitions with 1,594 signatures were submitted by the August 26 deadline, short of the number needed. Reflecting the emotions the name change had provoked, Commissioner Little said tartly, “he doubted there was a was a legally valid protest petition in the lot.”
With that, Helena’s downtown street had a name that has drawn tourists ever since.
Paul Cartwright is working on a history of urban renewal in Helena. All quotes are from the Independent Record.