Finding Gold & Gunfights in Helena

A century and a half later, folks in Montana are still racing for gold. Or something. That idiot in the Taurus almost ran me over on East Broadway. You live in Montana, buddy, one of the most spectacular places in the West. What’s
your hurry?

This is Helena, where, on July 14, 1864, the “Four Georgians” staked their last claim and hit pay dirt. “Last Chance Gulch” paid off beautifully, and Helena became the “Queen City of the Rockies,” taking the territorial capital away from Virginia City in 1875.

I’m here, searching for gold. I could take the walking tour to check out the discovery site and the pioneer cabin built in 1864-65, but I’m going to hold off for now. That Taurus has proved Helena’s no place for pedestrians.

So I step inside the state Capitol to see a wonder of the West. Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’s Hole hangs behind the speaker of the house of representative’s rostrum.

When Charles M. Russell created this 12-by-25-foot oil-on-canvas, he had to remove and enlarge the ceiling in his cabin studio in Great Falls. He delivered the completed work in July 1912.

This is worth more than gold—a Russell original, complete with snowcapped Bitterroot Mountains and dozens of Flathead Indians. And a wolf, among others, which appears to be giving the speaker of the house the evil eye.

“I think it’s just a coincidence,” says Kirby Lambert, the Montana Historical Society’s program manager. “But it is the kind of thing Russell would have done if he had thought about it.”

While I tour the Capitol, another guide points out what schoolchildren consider the building’s most interesting exhibit: phone booths where news reporters once hurried to dictate stories. “Children today know only cellphones,” she says.

I find even more gold at the Montana Historical Society’s museum. Founded in 1865, this gem houses a great collection of Russell originals, plus exhibits paying tribute to the natural world that Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery found, to frontier photographer F. Jay Haynes, to buffalo, I mean, bison.

Yet my biggest and best discovery takes place on—where else?—Last Chance Gulch.

I’ve stepped inside the Parrot Confectionery, a Helena institution that has been family-owned since 1922. Now this is what I call color. Chocolate-covered caramels, almond butter toffee, Turkish delight. The candy counter is every mom’s and dad’s worst nightmare, but every dentist’s greatest joy.

I think I know where that Taurus was speeding to reach, and now, I can’t really blame the driver.

Reinvigorated by my sugar high, I head out for the Last Chance Gulch walking tour. The app helps me find the Clarke, Conrad & Curtin hardware store. On Main Street, between this store and the now-gone Bank Exchange Saloon, John Bull killed gambler Langford Peel in 1867.

You’ll discover that this year is great for prospecting Helena’s rich frontier history of gunfights and gold, not only because of the 150th anniversary of the gold strike. It’s also Montana Territory’s sesquicentennial and the centennial of Montana’s passage of women’s suffrage. Even more, 2014 marks the 150th birthday of Russell, the greatest Western artist of all time.

Sorry, Bob Boze Bell, but you’ll always rank No. 2 with me, providing I get my check in time.

 

Johnny D. Boggs recommends you look both ways, six or seven times, before crossing any street in downtown Helena…then run like crazy.

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