Helenans were so excited on the evening of June 16, 1883, that they climbed Mount Helena to catch a glimpse of their future. They were looking for steam, pumped out by an engine rattling toward the territorial capital on a new set of iron tracks that stretched from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Portland, Oregon.
Though they did eventually see steam on the horizon, they couldn’t have foreseen the incredible impact the Northern Pacific Railroad would have on Helena.
“That’s what caused the city to experience an economic boom in the 1880s, probably like nothing we’ve ever had before, or since,” said Jon Axeline, a historian with the Montana Department of Transportation.
Helena was founded by the placer gold miners who discovered the precious metal in Last Chance Gulch. Time and again, some miner would discover gold, other miners would flock to the site and a town would pop up. And when the gold disappeared, so would the miners, off to the next strike.
That’s why Montana Historical Society historian Ellen Baumler said records show the same people who first appeared in Bannack showed up in Virginia City, and later in Helena. The first two faded to ghost towns — but Helena was different.
From early in its history, Helena was a town rooted in government. In 1875 it became the territorial capital after a series of controversial votes in which many were accused of ballot stuffing. The third time around, the territorial supreme court decided Helena won, in part, Baumler said, because the railroad was slated to be built through town — and that railroad meant growth and prosperity.
It meant large plate-glass windows and other materials were more readily available to transform the old gold-camp buildings into cosmopolitan feats of architecture, which helped earn Helena the title Queen City of the Rockies.
It meant famous performers could arrive in Helena to put on a show at the Ming Opera House.
It meant the arrival of large industrial machinery that could be used to dig deep into the mountains to find silver after gold no longer proved lucrative.
All of that was a direct result of Helena’s fortunate location. One of the best passes over the Continental Divide is the Mullan Pass west of Helena, Robert Swartout, emeritus professor of history at Carroll College, said.
Since Helena was also in a central location between Great Falls and Butte, James J. Hill built a line through town in 1887 connecting the Great Northern Railroad that ran through Great Falls and down to Butte.
“Helena becomes this critical transportation hub,” Swartout said.
And one of the goods being transported through Helena was silver, the key precious metal in Montana with value between that of gold and copper. From 1890 to 1893, Montana produced roughly one-fourth of all the silver mined in the United States, according to Swartout.
Because of Helena’s prosperous location and connections along the railroads, powerful investors began arriving in town. Men such as T.C. Power, Samuel Hauser and Samuel Word — the same famous names who founded the Montana Club and were determined to make Helena a cultural center of Montana — were among them.
But in 1893, an economic panic broke, and the Sherman Silver Act was repealed. Through the act, the federal government purchased huge amounts of silver, and when it was repealed, the effects on silver mining were disastrous even in faraway Helena.
“It’s so drastic it cuts the legs out of the silver mining industry in America,” Swartout said.
Though the silver mining industry was hurt, the Montana Club was determined to maintain an image of a prosperous Helena.
Eddy O’Connell, who came to Helena with nothing and built Eddy’s Bread empire, used to love to tell a story about the recession following the Panic of 1893. O’Connell would tell of the Montana Club inviting a powerful investor to town in the hopes he would pour money into Helena’s economy. He arrived by train at the beginning of the night, and Montana Club members whisked him to their building, and showered him with drinks until the bar closed.
To keep the party going, they escorted the investor to Helena’s red light district, where he was entertained until morning. And when the sun rose, he boarded a train and left town.
At the time, Helena’s population was only about 13,000, according to Baumler. But when the investor returned to the East and was asked about the size of Helena, he replied, “Well from what I saw at least half a million.”
“The Queen City of the Rockies made a good impression on people,” Baumler said.
Perhaps those good impressions paid off after Montana became a state in 1889. After statehood, the fight for the state capital was between Helena and Anaconda. A contentious election led to Helena’s victory in 1894 and provided the city with the security that was taken by the Panic of 1893.
In 1895, Baumler said, legislators started meeting in the empty Merchants Hotel, which was outfitted with a bar. When the Capitol building finally opened in 1903, legislators complained about the lack of alcoholic drinks, a small factor when considering the Capitol building permanently marked Helena’s significance in Montana.
Helena is a government town started by the discovery of gold but kept alive by its geographic center as a transportation hub.
“Transportation will always be important to Helena, and we’re still in a good spot,” Axeline said.