Last Chance Gulch may seem like a name straight out of a television western, but for Helena, Montana, the name is a legacy. Four prospectors on the brink of quitting their search for gold finally discovered ore in a Western Montana stream in 1864. They named that stream Last Chance Gulch, and from their camp, a town sprang to life. Today Helena is a vibrant little city of 28,000, and it has been the state capital since 1875.
When visiting Helena, tourists amble down Last Chance Gulch Pedestrian Mall, gawking at curiosities and perusing the locally owned boutiques and art galleries. Travelers relish sidewalk art, such as the eclectic Painted Bear About Town series. Equally delightful are the metal sculptures of a bullwhacker and two prospectors working a sluice. The city has certainly come a long way from its rough-and-tumble past!
No stroll down the pedestrian mall would be complete without a stop at the Parrot Confectionary. This charming little store has tempted passersby with hand-crafted chocolates since 1922. Step back in time to an era in which soda jerks mixed homemade sundaes, phosphates and a host of other treats for a steady stream of customers visiting Helena.
Perching on a hill a couple of blocks east of Last Chance Gulch lies one of Helena’s distinctive historic sites. Built in 1876 after a devastating fire, this old wooden fire tower merits its nickname, “Guardian of the Gulch.” It is the last remaining watch tower in the city. In fact, only five of its type remain in the country.
The best vantage point to see Helena, however, is not from the octagonal cab of the fire tower. Mount Helena rises 1,300 feet above Last Chance Gulch, providing a dramatic viewpoint. Six trails within the Mount Helena State Park offer a variety of hiking experiences to gain altitude. The 1906 trail is the easiest. The Hogback Trail is the toughest, but its spectacular vistas more than compensate for any additional effort in climbing. Wildflowers along the Prairie Trail entice hikers seeking the simple natural beauty of this mountain, and the West End Trail explores more remote areas in the park.
The Montana Historical Society Museum houses more than 50,000 artifacts, including a collection of 6,000 Native American items. Among the most significant pieces are an 1866 Henry rifle once owned by Sitting Bull, who defeated General Custer, and an 1870 Hawken rifle that belonged to famed mountain man Jim Bridger. An extensive art collection includes works by renowned Western artist Charles M. Russell. The Montana Historical Society also arranges tours of the state capitol.
Helena boasts more mansions and architectural treasures than most towns its size because so many early residents amassed fortunes almost overnight. By 1888, the tiny city was home to 50 millionaires. In that same year William Chessman erected his mansion, one of the Helena’s current historic sites. The state purchased this Queen Anne-style structure in 1913, and it served as the home of nine governors before becoming a museum.