Helena is the capital city of the U.S. state of Montana and the county seat of Lewis and Clark County. The 2010 census put the population at 28,190. and the Lewis and Clark County population at 63,395. Helena is the principal city of the Helena Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties; its population is 76,277 according to the 2012 U.S. Census.
The local daily newspaper is the Independent Record. The Helena Brewers minor league baseball and Helena Bighorns Tier III Junior A hockey team call the city home. The city is served by Helena Regional Airport (HLN).
Helena was founded with the July 14, 1864 discovery of gold in a gulch off the Prickly Pear valley by the "Four Georgians". The city's main street is named Last Chance Gulch and lies close to the winding path of the original gulch through the historic downtown district.
The original camp was named "Last Chance" by the Four Georgians. By fall, the population had grown to over 200 and the name "Last Chance" was viewed as too crass. On October 30, 1864, a group of at least seven men met to name the town, authorize the layout of the streets, and elect commissioners. The first suggestion was "Tomah," a word the committee thought had connections to the local Indian people of the area. Other nominations included Pumpkinville and Squashtown (as the meeting was held the day before Halloween). Other suggestions were to name the community after various Minnesota towns, such as Winona and Rochester. Finally, a Scotsman named John Summerville proposed Helena, which he pronounced in honor of Helena Township, Scott County, Minnesota. This immediately caused an uproar from the former Confederates in the room who insisted upon the pronunciation , after Helena, Arkansas, a town on the Mississippi River. While the name won, the pronunciation varied until approximately 1882 when the pronunciation became dominant and has remained so to the present. Later tales of the naming of Helena claimed the name came variously from the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon had been exiled, or was that of a miner's sweetheart.
The townsite was first surveyed in 1865 by Captain John Wood. However, many of the original streets followed the chaotic paths of the miners, going around claims and following the winding gulch. As a result, few city blocks are consistent in size, rather they have an irregular variety of shapes and sizes.
In 1870, Henry D. Washburn, having been appointed Surveyor General of Montana in 1869, organized the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in Helena to explore the regions that would become Yellowstone National Park. Mount Washburn, located within the park, is named for him. Members of the expedition included Helena residents: Truman C. Everts - former U.S. Assessor for the Montana Territory, Judge Cornelius Hedges - U.S. Attorney, Montana Territory, Samuel T. Hauser - President of the First National Bank, Helena, Montana; later a Governor of the Montana Territory, Warren C. Gillette - Helena merchant, Benjamin C. Stickney Jr. - Helena merchant, Walter Trumbull - son of U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull (Illinois) and Nathaniel P. Langford, then former U.S. Collector of Internal Revenue for Montana Territory. Langford helped Washburn organize the expedition and later helped publicize the remarkable Yellowstone region. In May 1872 after the park's creation, Langford was named its first superintendent.
By 1888, about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than any city in the world. About $3.6 billion (in today's dollars) of gold was taken from Last Chance Gulch over a 20-year period. The Last Chance Placer is one of the most famous placer deposits in the western United States. Most of the production occurred before 1868 and much of the placer is now under the streets and buildings of Helena (but even as late as the 1970s, when repairs were being made to a bank, a vein of placer gold was found under the bank's foundation). This large concentration of wealth made for a large amount of culture, much of which still exists and is also evidenced in the varied architecture of the city and its Victorian neighborhoods. The period also marked the rise of a thriving red light district, populated by well-known local madams such as Josephine "Chicago Joe" Airey, who built a thriving business empire between 1874 and 1893, becoming one of the largest and most influential landowners in Helena. The brothels of Helena were a successful part of the local business community well into the 20th century, ending with the death of Helena's last madam, "Big Dorothy" Baker, in 1973.
The official symbol of Helena is a drawing of "The Guardian of the Gulch", a wooden fire watch tower built in 1886, that still stands on "Tower Hill" overlooking the historic downtown district. This fire tower replaced a series of observation buildings, the original being a flimsy lookout stand built in 1870 on the same site, built in response to a series of devastating fires: April 1869, November 1869, October 1871, August 1872 and January 1874 that swept through the early mining camp.
In 1902, the Montana State Capitol was completed. Helena has been the capital of Montana Territory since 1875 and the state of Montana since 1889. A large portion of the conflict between Marcus Daly and William Andrews Clark (the Copper Kings) was over the location of the state capital. Until the 1900 census, Helena was the most populated city in the state.
Helena High School and Capital High School are both public high schools located in the Helena School District No. 1. Being the state capital, a large number of Helenans work for the state government. When in Helena, most people visit the local walking mall, completed in the early 1980s after Urban Renewal and the Model Cities Program in the early 1970s had removed many historic buildings from the downtown district, taking nearly a decade to renovate, a three block long shopping district following the original Last Chance Gulch. There is a small artificial stream running along most of the walking mall, mirroring the underground springs that originally flowed above ground in parts of the Gulch.
The Archie Bray Foundation, an internationally-renowned ceramics center founded in 1952, is located just northwest of Helena, near Spring Meadow Lake.