Last Chance Gulch
In the 1860s, Prickly Pear Creek snaked down from the mountains through a thicket of mining claims called Last Chance Gulch. As mining gave way to commerce, the gulch remained the main street; its winding path, and especially the one-claim-sized business buildings, still reflect its mining past. The old business district of Helena is still impressive, even after a 1933 earthquake destroyed some of its buildings.
Much of Last Chance Gulch is now a pedestrian mall, designed in the 1970s to make this historic main street more attractive to tourists and businesses. Have a look at the handsome empty storefronts and decide if it has worked.
The extensive infrastructure of historic business buildings in Helena proves that the capital’s most significant occupation was commerce, not mining. Several walking-tour maps to the Last Chance Gulch area are available from the chamber of commerce and from Downtown Helena (225 Cruse Ave., 406/447-1530).
Notable buildings not to miss include:
Reeder’s Alley (308 S. Park Ave.) is a winding series of one-room brick shanties built in the 1870s to house the mining camp’s many bachelors. Today, it’s a theme alley dedicated to shops and places to eat.
The Power Block (58–62 N. Last Chance Gulch) was built in 1889; note that on the southeast corner, each of the five floors has windows grouped in corresponding numbers of panes.
The Securities Building (101 N. Last Chance Gulch), built in 1886, is a Romanesque former bank with curious carved thumbprints between the first-floor arches.
The Montana Club (24 W. 6th Ave.) was Montana’s most prestigious private club: Membership was open only to millionaires. The club’s present building was designed by Cass Gilbert, who designed the U.S. Supreme Court Building.
The Atlas Building (7–9 N. Last Chance Gulch) is one of Helena’s most fanciful; on a cornice upheld by Atlas, a salamander and lizards do symbolic battle.
Visit the Wells Fargo Bank (350 N. Last Chance Gulch, 406/443-0136) to see the Gold Collection, displaying gold in many forms, from nuggets to leaves.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition