Helena Stories and Tips

Last Chance Gulch and Mall

Bullwhacker of Last Chance Gulch  Photo, Helena, Montana

Last Chance Gulch is where it all began, the heart of old Helena. For it was here that four guys known locally as the Four Georgians, though there's some speculation that there may have been more than four, and that not all of them were actually from Georgia, found GOLD. Prospecting does not a well-platted city make, and old south Helena's streets exemplify futile attempts at straight lines, succeeding less often, but providing more interesting geometry and adventure than any perfectly platted city.

Old buildings, new structures, and all ages in between are intertwined and side by side, making for an entertaining if not always consistent experience in architectural viewing. On the streets and walls, and in nooks and crannies, you'll find artwork, from the dynamic bullwhacker statue, whip raised high, to the Women's Mural honoring Montana's women through history. Bob and I spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering about Last Chance Gulch, a portion of which was converted to a walking mall in the mid-1970s. Many old-time Helenans rue the destruction of entire neighborhoods that took place during that 1970s wave of urban renewal. Yet many beautiful and unique historic buildings remain.

The heart of the Gulch runs roughly between 6th Avenue (north) to Reeder's Alley/State Street (south), and Park Avenue (west) to Cruse Avenue (east). A good place to begin wandering the Gulch and Mall, once you've found it, is from anywhere nearby you're lucky enough to find a parking place. This was somewhat challenging (finding the Gulch itself as well as a parking place) when we visited in September 2006. However, a new car park between 6th and Broadway, probably opening even as I write (October 2007), should be an easy place to park and start.

My tendency is to get up high and look around to gain perspective. A good place to do so is from the Guardian of the Gulch, the historic 25-foot tall fire tower that is also Helena's official city logo. The squat wooden not particularly elegant but highly beloved structure is visible from most of the Gulch. It's also one of the few fire towers of its kind still standing.

Just make your way over to Cruse Avenue across Broadway to find the trail that leads past the hillside pocket park and picnic area up to the tower. You can walk completely around the tower, but it's fenced off and climbing it is off-limits. It was utilized as a fire lookout from the 1860s to the 1930s. From the hill on which the Guardian stands, you'll be rewarded by panoramic views of the Gulch and more distant landmarks.

After taking in those views, I made my way down the hillside into the Gulch again. My checking out individual buildings, businesses, and artwork, was interrupted by a man's voice, seemingly directed at me. Hey, hippie... I ignore him. Tanja! OK, that's my name, so I suspiciously turn in his direction. Nice looking, reddish-blond hair, mustache, about my age; did I know this character from my dubious past? Surreptitiously, my husband Bob emerges from the shadows behind him, grinning. A typical Bob trick, very funny.

The two had started up a conversation when they bumped into each other, wandering the streets of Last Chance Gulch, and soon I was also engaged in conversation with Jim Fetzer, owner/operator/and chocolate artist extraordinaire, of Northern Chocolate Company in Milwaukee. He's visited Helena before, and had some good tips about things to do and see in and outside of town, including nearby and not-so-nearby ghost-town recommendations (Bannack highly recommended).

Thanking Jim, we continued our explorations. Kitty-corner from Bullwhacker's Western Grill, Saloon, and Casino, which advertises the largest steak in Helena, stands the Bullwhacker statue. With stoic expression and whip raised high to keep those oxen under control, he's a memory of Montana's frontier past. Another statue up the street commemorates a later time: a diminutive newsboy holding his paper high shouts out (mutely) "Extra! Read all about it!"

We spot a picturesque white and red Helena trolley. Though we didn't ride on one, they run routes downtown, during summers also to nearby trailheads, and apparently can even be rented for weddings. In front of Windbag Saloon and Ghost Art Gallery stands a restored Helena streetcar, painted cheerful yellow, now stationary. The building behind it housed one of Helena's last brothels, Big Dorothy's, until 1973.

Propeller, anchor, and bell of the third USS Helena (CA-75) are on display in a small park at the end of Last Chance Mall. She was a heavy cruiser who served during the Korean War. Her extensive naval career ended when she was sold for scrap metal in 1974. Gunner's Mate Earl Pullin describes the histories of all three USS Helenas, beginning with a gunboat built in 1896.

Finally, we make our way under a colorful spray-painted, tagged, and grafittied bridge to historic Bluestone House. Almost as much of a city landmark as the Guardian of the Gulch, this architectural gem was allegedly designed by architect James Stranahan for his bride, Leona, in 1889, out of locally quarried stone. The legend (as related on the plaque in front of the house) continues that James died before the house was finished, and Leona only resided there for a short time. Bluestone House was severely damaged by a 1935 earthquake, but reconstructed in the 1970s, thanks to urban renewal funds. It now houses a law firm, and some say it is haunted.

Treat yourself to Helena As She Was, a website that features a historic photo tour of Last Chance Gulch, and other old treasures of Helena.

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