Helena  began, as did so many other gold camps, as the cry went up, “Just one last chance before we leave.” In this case, four former Confederate soldiers were panning for gold in 1864 in a narrow gulch called Prickly Pear, just below the crest of the Continental Divide.
The “Four Georgians,” as they were later known, found color in their pans in the draw they called Last Chance Gulch . Word spread, and the rush was on. By 1876 the town had grown to 4,000 inhabitants.
At the time, Montana was a territory lacking a cohesive center. Because of the boom-and-bust nature of its initial settlements, the focal point of Montana moved from strike to strike. The earliest territorial capital, Bannack, was almost deserted by the time the center of government moved to Virginia City. In turn, Helena attracted the territorial capital in 1875.
Helena had advantages that the other mining centers lacked. The gold, then the silver and lead, were richer in Helena than in other early settlements.
Helena was midway on the stage routes between Fort Benton—the uppermost steamboat reach on the Missouri—and Virginia City and other mining areas in southwestern Montana. Newcomers quickly realized that wealth was in trade, not mining, and gravitated to Helena, the largest center of population in the territory. Trade quickly underpinned mining to support Helena’s economy. Onetime miners, now important captains of industry, built huge mansions on the city’s west side.