Historic Helena, Montana

Walking mall, Helena

by Susie Wall 

Montana’s capitol city has a long and rich history from the native peoples that lived off the area’s abundant resources to the group of gold miners who founded the town in 1864 after taking one last chance to strike it rich, to the stream of politicians flowing through since it’s designation as the capital in 1875. You can learn about this history by touring numerous historical sites, almost all of which are within walking distance of each other. Park the car and spend the day immersing yourself in historic Helena.   

Start at the Montana Historical Society Museum. Several galleries highlight the animals and people that have called this area of Montana home. The Montana Homeland Gallery chronicles the state’s history beginning with the mammoths that once roamed the land and extends to the citizens of Helena as they struggled through the Great Depression. Montana at the Time of Lewis and Clark focuses on the daily lives of the Native Americans the expedition encountered on their journey.   

Head next door to walk the halls of the Montana State Capitol. Gaze up at the soaring rotunda and admire the surrounding four paintings that depict Montana’s history through the Native American, the trapper, the miner and the cowboy.   

A short walk from the capitol takes you past historic homes to the Original Governor’s Mansion. A tour guide will regale you with personal stories of Montana’s first families as he leads you through the 9,000-square-foot mansion that housed ten governors. The tour is free and, during the winter, runs only on Saturdays.  

Continue your stroll to Last Chance Gulch, the spot where the aforementioned gold miners struck it rich. Today, Last Chance Gulch is a pedestrian mall full of public art displays, boutique shops and restaurants housed in historic buildings and marked by signs detailing each site’s history. Be sure to stop for a drink or bite at Windbag Saloon & Grill. Above the saloon, “Big Dorothy” Baker ran Helena’s last bordello until its closing in 1973.   

A block from Last Chance Gulch lies Reeder’s Alley. In the 1870’s, brick mason Louis Reeder erected small but comfortable bunk houses for single men working in Helena’s mining industry. Many of those buildings still stand today. A short hike up the steep alley allows you to explore these buildings in Helena’s oldest intact historical site.   

For more information and self-guided walking tour maps, visit helenamt.com.