Why Is Helena the Capital of Montana?

(Last Updated On: November 20, 2019)
Why Is Helena the Capital of Montana?

Located along the northern border of the US is the large state of Montana. With over 147,000 square miles of land, Montana is only slightly smaller than Alaska, Texas, and California. But despite being such a large state, Montana is actually fairly small when it comes to population. Its population density of 7.09 per square mile ranks third among the other states, behind only Wyoming and Alaska.

There are two very different types of landscapes throughout Montana, with just under half of the state being covered in the Rocky Mountains while the rest of it is made up of the Great Plains. Agriculture has been a main feature of Montana even before its entry into the Union back in 1889. The state also boasts a strong mining tradition, with many natural resources and minerals to be found.

The biggest city in the state is Billings, which has a population of just over 100,000 people. Surprisingly, this is actually significantly more people than any other city in Montana. This is partly why Billings is home to many popular attractions and is a regional hub for trade.

But despite the fact that it is by far the most populated city in the state, and objectively one of the most well-known, Billings is not actually the capital of Montana. Instead, that title goes to a little city called Helena.

So, the title question remains: why is Helena the capital of Montana? 

The Capital of Montana

As we’ve seen with other capital cities, the decision to make Helena Montana’s capital has a lot to do with location. Sitting amongst the Rocky Mountains, Helena owes a lot of its significance to gold mining.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, Helena remained a relatively quiet town that most people outside of Montana were not even aware of. However, that all changed in 1864 when a group of four prospectors (John Cowan, Daniel Jackson Miller, Robert Stanley, and John Crab) first discovered gold at the site of Helena’s current main street. 

These men work together under the collective name of the Four Georgians and quickly claimed this source of gold as their own, even going so far as to name the dig site “Last Chance Gulch.” After a few years of collecting gold, the four men headed back to the eastern part of Montana in order to sell their supply. 

Upon hearing that Helena contained a large amount of gold that was available for the taking, countless prospectors packed up and headed out to the incredibly underdeveloped location. Just like that, the area of Helena experienced a significant increase in its population and saw hundreds of businesses open up within the next couple of years. 

Up until this point, the town still had no official name. Therefore, the Four Georgians got together and decided to go with the name Crabtown, which was directly influenced by the last name of one of its members. However, this name did not last long since many miners from other areas begin to call the city “Saint Helena,” which is also a separate town located in Minnesota. 

Why Is Helena the Capital of Montana?

The Saint Helena name slowly began to catch on and soon people had shortened it down to just “Helena”. This was quickly adopted as the official name of the town and it remained one of the most popular locations in the entire state. But it would not become capital of Montana until several decades later.

It was when Montana officially became a state that there was a need to declare a capital city. The two shortlisted choices were Helena and Anaconda. As both towns were located among the Rocky Mountains and had vast amounts of minerals to be gathered, it made sense for these two places to be the possibilities for the new state capitol. After a fierce competition between the two cities, Helena managed to pull ahead and was officially declared the capital of Montana at the end of 1898. 

Helena Today

As happens with most natural resources, there is only a finite amount of product to be harvested in any particular area. Therefore, after extracting an approximate $3.6 billion in today’s value of gold from the Helena area, miners quickly begin to realize that the supply had dried up. Although this did not completely kill the growth of Helena, development has significantly slowed down since. That is why Helena only now contains a population of just over 30,000 people.

Since the end of the gold rush, Helena has had to look for other industries to diversify into. They have found a fair amount of luck as a common distribution point thanks to the number of highways and railroads that go through the city. It is also a big agriculture setting, with many of the residents taking up hillside farming. 

Education plays a big role in this city–it has two separate colleges and the unemployment rate is incredibly low at only 3.8 percent. Nowadays, Helena’s big claim to fame is the many businesses that have preserved historical elements of the city’s early years as well as being home to the training facility of the Montana National Guard.


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