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Last Chance Gulch

Helena’s main street is like the hurdy-gurdy girls that once called it home: curvy, inviting, and tinged with a venially colorful past that both strengthened and emboldened.

When four disgruntled gold prospectors stumbled into the Prickly Pear Valley in 1864, they dubbed the area “Last Chance Gulch”. Their luck soon changed. Nuggets set their gold pans ringing. Soon other miners, many of them Civil War veterans, flocked to the rich diggings in the convergence of the Oro Fino and Grizzly Gulches. Log cabins and tents sprouted up on the weed-choked banks of the creek and within a year, more than 50 stores and saloons lined the rutted pathway through the gulch. Hurdy-gurdy music commingled with the smell of sweat and whiskey. It was a bawdy, noisy camp that exchanged pay dirt for hard play.

Fires were frequent and disastrous. On January 9, 1874, most of the business district along Last Chance Gulch was leveled by a huge conflagration that swept through the tinderbox dry structures. All that remained was determination. Businesses were rebuilt; hope was rekindled.

Gold strikes produced affluence, which in turn brought order and permanence to the mining camp. Streets were built, albeit meandering to accommodate mining claims and a winding streambed. The city developed. Majestic granite and brick buildings replaced slipshod wooden shacks. At that time, Helena boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Last Chance Gulch, the crown jewel of Montana’s capitol city, bustled with commerce and conviviality.

The Silver Panic of 1893, when the government removed silver price supports, dealt a blow to the mining industry, and nowhere was it felt more than in Last Chance Gulch. Commercial growth stopped, and the downtown area began a slow decline. Only the last vestiges of a boomtown economy – gambling and prostitution – continued to flourish. The “Gulch” was down, but it wasn’t out.

The twentieth century began. Railroad promoters and liberalized homestead laws enticed newcomers to Montana. State government grew, and Last Chance Gulch once again blossomed with office buildings and retail businesses.

While the area escaped the worst of the Depression, thanks to its substantial government work force, it couldn’t escape the hand nature dealt it in the fall of 1935. Over 700 earthquakes shook Helena that autumn, including a quake of major proportions. Walls tumbled, chimneys toppled, roofs collapsed. Last Chance Gulch was devastated, but as soon as the rubble had settled and the dust had cleared, rebuilding began.

Today, Helena’s downtown area is a scenic blend of sophistication and homespun charm, surpassing its own former glory. It is a virtual outdoor museum, complete with a restored streetcar, bronze statuary, a mural paying tribute to Montana women, a log play area for children, and more. Unique, elaborate architecture abounds. The sunlit pedestrian mall beckons you to join the fun. Find the lizard and salamander poised for battle atop the Atlas Building. Ponder the mysterious thumbprints carved into the Securities Building arches. Check out farmers markets, concerts and other local events in the handbills posted at the gazebo. Introduce yourself to the friendly shopkeepers. Nibble on the country’s best homemade chocolates. Walk the cobblestone streets of Reeder’s Alley.

A visit to Last Chance Gulch is a bonanza of good times, and you’ll take away memories as rich as gold nuggets!

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