The sound of gold nuggets ringing in a prospector’s pan on the night of July 14, 1864, rang in the birth of Helena, which grew from a mining claim into Montana’s state capital.
Helena was the only Montana gold camp that would grow up to become a permanent, thriving city, according to historian Ellen Baumler, who works for the Montana Historical Society and has written an early history, “The Town that Gold Built: The First 150 Years.” (See box for details.) Other, early Montana mining camps mostly faded into ghost towns.
Helena’s founding fathers were four miners — John Cowan, of Georgia; Reginald (Robert) Stanley, of Nuneaton, England; D. J. Miller, of Alabama; and John Crabb, of Iowa — who came together from different mining parties in Montana, according to a letter by Stanley.
Stanley had spent the winter of 1863 in Alder Gulch and headed for the Kootenaie (Kootenia) Country with Crabb, but they learned on the way that the diggings had played out.
Stanley persuaded Crabb, Cowan and Miller to travel to the Little Blackfoot River, where he had seen a little color of gold when traveling through the fall before.
They found color in the Little Blackfoot, but nothing worth digging, he wrote. Scrambling through overgrown pine forests in rain and mist, he wrote, they reached a summit where the view “was enchanting in its beauty; across the mountain tops and across the wide valley the course of a distant river could be plainly marked bordered with a fringe of cotton woods with mountain range in the distance; there could be no mistake it must be the Missouri.”
Making their descent into what they called 10 Mile Gulch, they thought it a likely place for gold, but were disappointed — finding “colours only.”
He wrote that they frequently flushed coveys of pine hens that they easily “potted” with their revolvers, came across a “stately elk” that they killed for fresh meat and saw an abundance of antelope that circled around them, running in flocks of hundreds or more.
“It seemed as if the valley had never been disturbed by white men, and being a neutral zone between Indian tribes the game had taken refuge in it,” he wrote in a 1909 letter.
They camped one noon at the mouth of what they later called Last Chance Gulch and found always the same result — “colours, colours!” but nothing more, so they headed north — resolving to return if they found nothing more promising.
After six or seven weeks heading north to the head of the Marias River and finding nothing, he wrote, “we decided to return to our little gulch. As we approached the scene of our former efforts the common talk was ‘it is our last chance’ if we don’t find it rich through we’ll streak it straight for Alder Gulch and that is why we named it Last Chance Gulch.”
On July 14, 1864, he wrote, “while my partners dug some holes near the mouth of the gulch, I took pick and shovel and pan and made my way up stream looking for a promising bar on which to put down a hole likely to have bedrock. … (It was) a fine still evening with the charm of treading the unknown and unexplored. There was little to distinguish the gulch from many others we had seen, a tiny stream rippled under gravel banks, bordered with choke cherry and sarvice (service) berry bushes. … I commenced a hole on a bar … and put it down to bedrock, some six or seven feet deep — taking a pan of gravel from the bottom, I clambered out and panned it in the little stream close by — three or four little flat, smooth nuggets and some fine gold was the result; nuggets that made the pan ring again when dropped into it, and a very refreshing sound it was.”
Stanley was digging his prospecting hole in what is now the parking lot south of the Colwell Building (the former site of the First National Bank — which Stanley pinpointed as the prospecting pit location on a return visit to Helena).
It’s near this site that a plaque will be dedicated Monday, July 14, at 5:30 p.m. (see If You Go box).
An earlier historic plaque misidentified the site as being near the Montana Club.
Some of Stanley’s memories of those early prospecting times are captured in letters on file at the MHS research center library.
Not only did gold and game prove abundant in this valley, but also rattlesnakes. A giant rattlesnake with 10 buttons on its tail was nailed to a post, warning of the rattler dangers in the gulch, wrote Baumler in her book.
Miners trickled in, as word slowly spread, that the so-called “Georgians” had hit pay dirt. Their nickname came from the Georgian method of placer mining they used, Baumler said. Only one of the miners actually hailed from Georgia.
Stanley wrote in his later letter that while they dug and sluiced the gold, “Occasionally roving bands of Indians would pay us a visit, besides stealing our horses they did not interfere with us. They would perch themselves on the high bank of the gulch opposite us, and watch us for an hour at a time, toiling in the hot sun, and no doubt thinking what fools we were to do so.”
Before a stampede of other miners could arrive, the Georgians drafted a short code of laws outlining their claim and water right.
By Oct 30, 1864, the town’s official christening took place, according to several historic reports from eyewitnesses.
“(S)ome 30 miners crowded into the cabin of George J. Wood,” wrote Baumler. Chairing the meeting was John Somerville, a towering man who had arrived with the recent Holmes wagon train that had been on its way to Idaho, but had changed its destination to Helena.
The miners jokingly offered names such as Squashtown and Pumpkinville, along with the names of Winona, Rochester and Tomah.
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Somerville proposed Helena. Since it was a Union mining camp, the miners balked at naming it for a Rebel town in Arkansas. But once Somerville clarified that the name came from his hometown in Scott County, Minnesota, Helena (pronounced he-LEE-na) won by two votes.
By the time Reginald Stanley returned to visit Helena in 1883, he was surprised to find the city’s name was being pronounced HEL-i-na, apparently based on a hack driver misspelling it “Hellena,” on the door of his hacks.
Unsightly but rich
During its height as a gold camp, Helena’s population grew to as many as 7,500, mostly men between the ages of 25 and 40, according to a Department of Environmental Quality report on its history.
By the end of the 1860s, the wealth mined from Last Chance and nearby gulches was pegged at $18 million worth of gold, or $310 million converted to modern currency, according to Baumler.
John Koerth, a DEQ mining specialist, said that based on the 1860s price of gold of $20 an ounce, the mines would have yielded 900,000 to 1 million ounces of gold. Today, that yield at the current gold price of $1,300 per ounce would be worth well over $1 billion, he said.
How the Georgians cashed in their gold dust makes for a fascinating story in itself.
They sold their claim in 1867, Baumler said, and personally took their $40,000 in gold dust to the mint.
They enlisted friends, who reportedly helped provide an armed escort for the heavily laden wagon to Fort Benton and then to the U.S. mint in Philadelphia.
“That’s why an assay office built in 1875 (in Helena) was such a huge, huge deal,” said Baumler. Once it arrived, miners had a way to melt their gold dust into gold bars.
By late 1864, there were more than 200 log dwellings along the gulch, and by Feb. 2, 1865, this area was designated part of Edgerton County, one of Montana’s nine original counties. The county seat was originally Silver City.
The city’s odd layout, which at times seems to have streets wandering higgledy-piggledy, has been blamed on the need to divert routes around mining claims and mining drainage ditches.
Water was an early limitation to mining and settlement in the area, said Baumler and Koerth.
By 1865 the Yaw Yaw Ditch was transporting water from Ten Mile Creek, to primarily aid mining, said Baumler.
But water was also being transported from Park and Cox lakes and a lake above Unionville, which were created to provide water for placer mining, said Koerth.
Mining drainage ditches were put in relatively early, said Koerth. And, he believes that during this process, Last Chance Creek was diverted. Baumler said the creek was diverted underground in 1884.
By 1865 little Helena already had 14 saloons, seven restaurants, 45 grocers, 15 liveries and feed stables, 20 dry goods stores, 10 doctors and a short-lived newspaper, The Radiator, according to Baumler.
It would remain a mining camp town for some time to come.
An 1888 Harpers Magazine article reported, “Helena then entered upon its eventful and prosperous career. Discovery followed discovery, and the town, unsightly with its main streets occupied by sluice boxes and gravel heaps, became the centre of a mining district that proved richer every day.”
Memories of mining days lived on with folks like Stanley, who returned to Nuneaton, England, where he became a successful businessman, but he never forgot his exciting days as a fur trapper and later a miner in Montana.
And dreams of discovering more Last Chance Gulch riches lived on as well, as gold dust and nuggets were periodically dug up whenever a downtown building site was excavated.
And there are also tales and rumors of a mystery of a hidden channel of gold that flows beneath Helena, joining up perhaps with Last Chance Creek. No one has ever found the gold, said Koerth. However, some early Helenans died trying.
And the dream lives on, “that there’s something out there that no one has found.”