Sunday, October 11, 2015

Last Change Gulch, aka Helena Montana

We made it to Helena around 2:30 pm, just in time to take this little train tour of the town. The hard wooden seats made me wish I'd brought a pillow but hey! it was probably pretty authentic. The conductor was focused on the old Victorian mansions but I found the early history of the town much more fascinating. We zoomed around the town at such speed that I didn't have time to take photos but the next day, we went back on a little exploring trip.

On July 14, 1864, the discovery of gold by a prospecting party referred to as the "Four Georgians", in a gulch off the Prickly Pear Creek led to the founding of a mining camp along a small creek in the area they called Last Chance Gulch. Now, I knew about the California Gold Rush and the Yukon Gold Rush but I didn't know about Montana's so now I can add a bit more knowledge about the West - all gained on this trip.

 Photograph by William H. Jackson. - National Archives Pictures of the American City

In their frenzy to get at the precious metal, miners soon stripped the landscape of everything green, churned up the soil, and built their buildings along the claims that followed Last Chance Stream through the gulch. In October, residents gathered to properly name the mining camp known as Last Chance. After some cantankerous discussion, they dubbed the new settlement Helena after the Scott County, Minnesota, hometown of one of the men.

Last Chance Gulch produced 19 million dollars’ worth of gold in the first four years. In fact, they still find gold in the sub-basements of the town. When the local bank rebuilt their facility, they found a vein of "placer gold" underneath the foundation - it if had been me, we would be digging it all out to the last nugget but I think that's probably not very cost effective.

Still GOLD! But like any pioneer camp, the "facilities" were primitive and the state of law and order non-existent. The Montana Heritage Society has rehabilitated the first two real cabins in the city: Pioneer Cabin and one other.

Pioneer Cabin.

In 1864, Wilson Butts followed the stampede to Last Chance Gulch. He staked his claim and built a one- room cabin. In the following spring, his brother Jonas arrived with a wife and three young daughters. Jonas added a front room and porch onto the cabin. But by 1867, the rowdy gold miners camp was too wild and crazy a place to raise a family and the Butts fled the gulch. Next, Stephen and Luella Gilpatrick moved into the cabin and their first son was born there.

You can't enter the rooms but you can get a good idea of the their furnishings from just looking through the glass door. Of course, a warm dry day in Helena doesn't give any indication of what it would have been like to live there with rain coming through the roof, snow on the ground and prostitutes and miners going at it, night and day.

"Caretaker's Cabin"
The cabin next door- now a homeopath's office - was built in 1865 by William Davenport who also built a tiny adjoining cabin. Sadie Davenport was eight when her family arrived from Missouri. Later she recalled that the cabin’s dirt roof “dripped for days” after a good rain. Twenty-eight year old Jeanette Parkinson kept house in the other cabin for her husband, a long time steamboat pilot.

The two tiny cabins served as interim housing and by 1875 had been incorporated into the single cabin which still stands. By the mid=1880’s the cabin marked the southern edge of Helena's low-rent red light district where a motley assortment of cabins and cribs stretched from here north to Montana’s Wall Street. The former house of ill repute was later rehabilitated for the caretaker of the Pioneer Cabin.

Reeder’s Alley and the Yee Wau Cabin (1875–1884)

Pennsylvanian Louis Reeder, who may or may not have been a reader but was certainly a developer, built this collection of tiny row house apartments that once housed miners and, later, single men of varied occupations. One of the tiny, ramshackle sheds attached to the back of a building probably housed a lady of ill repute who conducted her business from the "crib." This is probably how most of the prostitutes in the old West lived; not a glamours life by any standard, although there were a few exceptions.

At one time some thirty-two one-room apartments spread along the narrow alley in various buildings but less than half remain.

Some wonderful historic photos here

 The Yee-Wau Cabin is the only remaining Chinese-associated dwelling in Helena at the foot of Reeder’s Alley. It was the home of the Yee Wau brothers during the 1870s and 1880s, who ran a grocery store on South Main Street. I thought I had taken a photo of this but I didn't label all my photos so I'm not sure. (Bad Nancy). In any case, this is a photo from the 19th century which is a lot more accurate than anything of mine.

But there's more of the fascinating history of Helena to come - ostentatious Victorian mansions and tales of the wanton working ladies of the gold rush. 

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