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Helena, Montana facts for kids

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State capital of Montana
Helena Montana 2006.jpg
Helena Cathedral1.jpg
Montana State Capitol by T. Elizabeth.jpg
Benton Avenue Cemetery (2012) - Lewis and Clark County, Montana.png
Carroll College Helena, Montana.jpg
from the top: skyline; Cathedral of Saint Helena; Montana State Capitol; Benton Avenue Cemetery; Original Montana Governor's Mansion; and Carroll College
Flag of Helena
Official seal of Helena
Queen City of the Rockies, The Capital City
Location within Lewis and Clark County, Montana
Helena, Montana is located in the United States
Helena, Montana
Helena, Montana
Location in the United States
Country United States
State Montana
County Lewis and Clark
Founded October 30, 1864
 • City 16.86 sq mi (43.66 km2)
 • Land 16.82 sq mi (43.57 km2)
 • Water 0.04 sq mi (0.10 km2)
 • Urban
11 sq mi (30 km2)
3,875 ft (1,181 m)
 • City 32,091
 • Density 1,907.91/sq mi (736.54/km2)
 • Metro
Time zone UTC−7 (Mountain)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−6 (Mountain)
ZIP code
59601-02, 59626; 59604, 59620, 59624 (P.O. Boxes); 59623, 59625 (organizations)
Area code(s) 406
FIPS code 30-35600
GNIS feature ID 802116
Waterways Tenmile Creek

Helena (;) is the state capital of the U.S. state of Montana and the county seat of Lewis and Clark County.

Helena was founded as a gold camp during the Montana gold rush, and established on October 30, 1864. Due to the gold rush, Helena would become a wealthy city, with approximately 50 millionaires inhabiting the area by 1888. The concentration of wealth contributed to the city's prominent, elaborate Victorian architecture.

At the 2020 census Helena's population was 32,091, making it the fifth least populous state capital in the United States and the sixth most populous city in Montana. It is the principal city of the Helena Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes all of Lewis and Clark and Jefferson counties; its population is 83,058 according to the 2020 Census.

The local daily newspaper is the Independent Record. The city is served by Helena Regional Airport (HLN).



The Helena area was long used by various indigenous peoples. Evidence from the McHaffie and Indian Creek sites on opposite sides of the Elkhorn Mountains southeast of the Helena Valley show that people of the Folsom culture lived in the area more than 10,000 years ago. Before the introduction of the horse some 300 years ago, and since, other native peoples, including the Salish and the Blackfeet, utilized the area seasonally on their nomadic rounds.

Early settlement and gold rush

Helena mo 1870
Helena, Montana in 1870

By the early 1800s people of European descent from the United States and British Canada began arriving to work the streams of the Missouri River watershed looking for fur-bearing animals like the beaver, undoubtedly bringing them through the area now known as the Helena Valley. Yet like the native peoples none of them stayed for long.

Gold strikes in Idaho Territory in the early 1860s attracted many migrants who initiated major gold rushes at Grasshopper Creek (Bannack) and Alder Gulch (Virginia City) in 1862 and 1863 respectively. So many people came that the federal government created a new territory called Montana in May 1864. These miners prospected far and wide for new placer gold discoveries. 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.

The original camp was named "Last Chance" by the Four Georgians. By fall, the population had grown to over 200, and some thought the name "Last Chance" was too crass. On October 30, 1864, a group of at least seven self-appointed 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. 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, as a number of settlers had come from Minnesota. Finally, a Scotsman named John Summerville proposed Helena, which he pronounced hə-LEE-nə 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 HEL-i-nə, after Helena, Arkansas, a town on the Mississippi River. While the name "Helena" won, the pronunciation varied until approximately 1882 when the HEL-i-nə 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 was established, Langford was appointed by the Department of Interior as its first superintendent.

Wealth boom

By 1888, about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any city in the world. They had made their fortunes from gold. 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. Much of the placer is now under the streets and buildings of Helena. (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 was the basis of developing fine residences and ambitious architecture in the city; its Victorian neighborhoods reflect the gold years.

The official symbol of Helena is a drawing of "The Guardian of the Gulch", a wooden fire watch tower built in 1886. It 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.

Helena capitol
The Montana State Capitol building.

In 1889, railroad magnate Charles Arthur Broadwater opened his Hotel Broadwater and Natatorium west of Helena. The Natatorium was home to the world's first indoor swimming pool. Damaged in the earthquake of 1935, it was closed in 1941. The many buildings on the property were demolished in 1976. Today, the Broadwater Fitness Center stands just west of the Hotel & Natatorium's original location, complete with an outdoor pool heated by natural spring water running underneath it.

Helena has been the capital of Montana Territory since 1875 and the state of Montana since 1889. In 1902, the Montana State Capitol was completed. 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. That year it was surpassed by Butte, where mining industry was developing.


The Cathedral of Saint Helena and the Helena Civic Center are two of many significant historic buildings in Helena.

Numerous Helenans work for various agencies of the state government. When in Helena, most people visit the local walking mall. It was 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. During the next decade, a three-block long shopping district was renovated that followed the original Last Chance Gulch. A small artificial stream runs along most of the walking mall, to represent 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.

With the mountains, Helena is the location for much outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing. It has a local ski area, Great Divide Ski Area, northwest of town near the ghost town of Marysville. Helena is also known for its mountain biking. It was officially designated as an International Mountain Bicycling Association bronze level Ride Center on October 23, 2013.

Helena High School and Capital High School are public high schools located in the Helena School District No. 1.


Helena Montana
2001 astronaut photography of Helena Montana taken from the International Space Station (ISS)
Sleeping Giant 2010
The iconic "Sleeping Giant" mountain formation located north of Helena

Helena is located at 46°35′45″N 112°1′37″W / 46.59583°N 112.02694°W / 46.59583; -112.02694 (46.595805, −112.027031), at an altitude of 4,058 feet (1,237 m).

Surrounding features include the Continental Divide, Mount Helena City Park, Spring Meadow Lake State Park, Lake Helena, Helena National Forest, the Big Belt Mountains, the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study Area, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Scapegoat Wilderness, the Missouri River, Canyon Ferry Lake, Holter Lake, Hauser Lake, and the Elkhorn Mountains.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 16.39 square miles (42.45 km2), of which 16.35 square miles (42.35 km2) is land and 0.04 square miles (0.10 km2) is water.


Helena has a semi-arid climate (Köppen BSk), with long, cold and moderately snowy winters, hot and dry summers, and short springs and autumns in between. The monthly daily average temperature ranges from 21.8 °F (−5.7 °C) in December to 70.0 °F (21.1 °C) in July, with average diurnal temperature variation exceeding 30 °F (17 °C) in summer, due to the aridity and elevation. Snowfall has been observed in every month of the year, but is usually absent from May to September, and normally accumulates in only light amounts. Winters have periods of moderation, partly due to warming influence from chinooks. Precipitation mostly falls in the spring and is generally sparse, averaging only 11.3 inches (287 mm) annually.

Subzero (below −18 °C) cold is observed 23 nights per year, but is rarely extended, as is 90 °F (32 °C) heat, which occurs on 19 days annually. Extremes range from −42 °F (−41 °C) to 105 °F (41 °C), occurring as recently as February 2, 1996 and July 12, 2002, respectively.

Climate data for Helena Airport (1981–2010 normals), Montana
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 63
Average high °F (°C) 33.3
Daily mean °F (°C) 23.2
Average low °F (°C) 13.0
Record low °F (°C) −42
Precipitation inches (mm) 0.36
Snowfall inches (cm) 6.2
Humidity 66.0 64.1 60.1 53.9 53.5 52.1 46.4 47.5 54.5 58.3 64.8 68.1 57.4
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 6.2 5.9 7.7 8.7 11.1 11.2 7.7 7.3 6.1 6.2 6.9 6.6 91.6
Avg. snowy days (≥ 0.1 in) 5.6 5.2 5.0 2.9 0.8 0.1 0.0 0.1 0.7 1.8 4.6 6.0 32.8
Sunshine hours 119.4 149.0 225.8 243.0 282.0 308.7 370.3 324.1 254.6 202.9 118.6 99.9 2,698.3
Source: NOAA (extremes 1880−present, sun and relative humidity 1961−1990)


Historical population
Census Pop.
1870 3,106
1880 3,624 16.7%
1890 13,834 281.7%
1900 10,770 −22.1%
1910 12,515 16.2%
1920 12,037 −3.8%
1930 11,803 −1.9%
1940 15,056 27.6%
1950 17,581 16.8%
1960 20,227 15.1%
1970 22,730 12.4%
1980 23,938 5.3%
1990 24,569 2.6%
2000 25,780 4.9%
2010 28,190 9.3%
2020 32,091 13.8%
U.S. Decennial Census

2010 census

As of the census of 2010, there were 28,190 people, 12,780 households, and 6,691 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,724.2 inhabitants per square mile (665.7/km2). There were 13,457 housing units at an average density of 823.1 per square mile (317.8/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 93.3% White, 0.4% African American, 2.3% Native American, 0.7% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 0.6% from other races, and 2.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.8% of the population.

There were 12,780 households, of which 24.3% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 38.2% were married couples living together, 10.6% had a female householder with no husband present, 3.6% had a male householder with no wife present, and 47.6% were non-families. 39.8% of all households were made up of individuals, and 13.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.07 and the average family size was 2.77.

The median age in the city was 40.3 years. 20.1% of residents were under the age of 18; 11.6% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 23.3% were from 25 to 44; 29.5% were from 45 to 64; and 15.6% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 48.0% male and 52.0% female.


Helena has a long record of economic stability with its history as being the state capital and being founded in an area rich in silver and lead deposits. However, this situation has resulted in a slow growing economy. Its status as capital makes it a major hub of activity at the county, state, and federal level. According to the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, the capital's median household income is $50,889, and its unemployment rate stood at 3.8% in 2013, about 1.2% lower than the rest of the state. Education is a major employer, with two high schools and accompanying elementary and middle schools for K–12 students as well as Helena College. Major private employers within the city of Helena include Carroll College and the medical community.

Fort Harrison
Fort Harrison (pictured in 1894) has been an economic stabilizer of Helena since it was first built.

Helena's economy is also bolstered by Fort William Henry Harrison, the training facility for the Montana National Guard, located just outside the city. Fort Harrison is also home to Fort Harrison VA Medical Center, where many Helena-area residents work.


Higher education

Carroll College, viewed from Mount Helena
  • Carroll College, a Catholic liberal arts college which opened in 1909, enrolls 1,500 students.
  • Helena College University of Montana, a two-year affiliate campus of The University of Montana, provides transfer, career, and technical education for more than 1,600 students. It opened in 1939.

Primary and secondary education

List of schools in Helena, Montana

  • Helena High School (1,674 students)
  • Capital High School (1,416)
  • C R Anderson Middle School (994)
  • Helena Middle School (720)
  • Four Georgians Elementary School (525)
  • Rossiter Elementary School (445)
  • Smith Elementary School (307)
  • Warren Elementary School (267)
  • Jim Darcy Elementary School (255)
  • Bryant Elementary School (253)
  • Broadwater Elementary School (253)
  • Kessler Elementary School (211)
  • St. Andrew School (162)
  • Central School (The first public school in Helena)
  • Jefferson Elementary School (250)
  • Hawthorne Elementary School (245)
  • East Valley Middle School


Helena has a public library, a branch of the Lewis & Clark Library.

Notable people

  • Stephen Ambrose, historian, author of Band of Brothers and Undaunted Courage
  • Dorothy Baker, madam
  • Max Baucus, former U.S. senator from Montana (1978-2014), and former U.S. Ambassador to China (2014-2017)
  • James Presley Ball, African-American daguerreotypist
  • Jean Baucus, historian, author, and rancher
  • Samuel Beall, Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin
  • Vice Admiral Donald Bradford Beary (1888–1966) (U.S. Navy), implemented Sea Replenishment during World War II
  • Dirk Benedict, actor (The A-Team)
  • Brand Blanshard, philosopher
  • H. Kim Bottomly, former president of Wellesley College
  • Isaac Brock, lead singer of Modest Mouse
  • Mary Caferro, Montana state senator
  • Thomas Henry Carter, United States senator from Montana
  • Lane Chandler, actor
  • William H. Clagett, congressman from Montana Territory
  • Liz Claiborne, fashion designer
  • Wilmot Collins, first black mayor in Montana since statehood
  • Kevin Michael Connolly, photographer
  • Mike Cooney, Montana state senator and former Montana Secretary of State
  • Gary Cooper, actor
  • Margaret Craven, author
  • Charles Donnelly, president of the Northern Pacific Railway
  • Pat Donovan, Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle
  • James Earp, saloonkeeper and brother of Wyatt Earp
  • Truman C. Everts, Assessor of Internal Revenue for the Montana Territory between July 15, 1864, and February 16, 1870
  • Casey FitzSimmons, tight end with the Detroit Lions
  • Cory Fong, Tax Commissioner of North Dakota
  • John Gagliardi, College Football Hall of Fame coach
  • Pat Gray, Host of Pat Gray Unleashed
  • Tyler Knott Gregson, poet and author
  • Russell Benjamin Harrison, son of President Benjamin Harrison and Indiana politician
  • Rick Hill, congressman from Montana
  • Norman Holter, biophysicist and inventor of the Holter monitor
  • Esther Howard, actress
  • L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of Scientology
  • Chuck Hunter, Montana state senator
  • Hal Jacobson, member of Montana House of Representatives representing District 82
  • Christine Kaufmann, Montana state senator
  • Brian Knight, Major League Baseball umpire
  • Nicolette Larson (1952-97), singer
  • Nathaniel P. Langford, U.S. Collector of Internal Revenue (1864–69), Montana Territory, and first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park
  • Dave Lewis, Montana state senator
  • James F. Lloyd, congressman from California
  • Myrna Loy, actress
  • Martin Maginnis, congressman from Montana Territory
  • Tony Markellis, bassist and record producer
  • Thomas Francis Meagher, Irish rebel, US Civil War brigadier general, Acting Governor of the Territory of Montana
  • Dave Meier, Major League Baseball outfielder
  • Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter of The Decemberists
  • Maile Meloy, writer
  • James C. Morton, actor
  • Bobby Petrino, current head football coach at Missouri State University
  • Paul Petrino, current head football coach at the University of Idaho
  • Charley Pride, country music singer
  • Glenn Roush, Montana state legislator
  • Henry H. Schwartz, chief of the U.S. General Land Office and U.S. senator from Wyoming
  • Leo Seltzer, creator of roller derby
  • Vida Ravenscroft Sutton, playwright and radio professional
  • George G. Symes, congressman from Colorado
  • Robert "Dink" Templeton, Olympic gold medalist in rugby
  • Decius Wade, the "Father of Montana Jurisprudence"
  • Thomas J. Walsh, U.S. senator from Montana
  • Henry D. Washburn, Surveyor General, Montana Territory, and commander of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition to Yellowstone in 1870
  • William F. Wheeler, U.S. Marshal, Civil War officer, Minnesota territorial Librarian and secretary to two governors, and founder of the Montana Historical Society, first in the West
  • John Patrick Williams, former congressman from Montana
  • Belle Fligelman Winestine, writer and suffragist
  • Molly Wood, executive editor at
  • Lt. General Samuel Baldwin Marks Young (U.S. Army), former Acting Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park
  • Dale L. Mortensen, member of Montana House of Representatives representing District 44

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