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Strike Historic Gold in Helena

By Adriana Gardella Modified: April 19, 2013 at 10:50 am •  Published: April 19, 2013

Helena, Montana's capital and a former gold-mining camp, sits midway between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and offers rewards for those making the park-to-park road trip, anglers fly-fishing nearby waters or anyone with a passion for Old West history. Visitors who venture off the Interstate will find hidden treasures and a population of about 30,000 within the city's 14 square miles.

    Present-day Helena traces its roots to the 1864 discovery of gold by four down-on-their-luck prospectors. The stream where the miners made their find ran through an area that became known as Last Chance Gulch, around which Helena's original business district grew. In the first four years of mining, the gulch yielded $19 million worth of gold.
    Today a pedestrian mall follows the stream's path. Walk along it to view notable buildings that were mostly constructed toward the end of the 19th century. Be sure to look up to catch the elaborate and fanciful details atop structures that include the Atlas Building, built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style in 1889 to house an insurance company. Ornamental flames dance across the building's rooftop and reach toward salamanders, creatures impervious to fire in mythology. These features are a nod to a series of devastating mining-camp fires and are a not-so-subtle reminder of the importance of insurance.
    In its present incarnation, Last Chance Gulch offers a small collection of restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. The Atlas now houses the Upper Missouri Artists gallery, which sells the work of Montana painters, sculptors and photographers. A onetime brothel has become the Windbag Saloon and Grill. Open for lunch and dinner, the Windbag, which specializes in steak, fish and burgers, has been a Helena fixture since 1978.
    Just off the pedestrian mall sits Reeder's Alley, a tiny stretch of row houses built by Pennsylvania mason Louis Reeder to house miners. Constructed during the 1870s, the remains of Reeder's development are Helena's oldest intact cluster of buildings. Made of red brick and stone -- and incorporating a log cabin Reeder likely found on the land he purchased -- the area evokes a neighborhood transported from the East Coast.
    Two free-standing log cabins at the edge of Reeder's Alley are also notable. Yee Wau Cabin is the last remaining building associated with Helena's once sizable population of -- largely male -- Chinese immigrants. Many of them arrived during the gold rush and helped build the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s. The cabin is named for its first known occupants, the Yee Wau brothers, who lived there from 1876 to 1886.
    Pioneer Cabin, the other log structure, was built as one room by miner Wilson Butts in 1864. The following year his brother built a second room, where he lived with his wife and three daughters. The two rooms were eventually joined to form one simple and minuscule dwelling, which was restored in 1938.
    On the opposite end of the city's architectural spectrum stands the Cathedral of St. Helena, a Gothic structure with 230-foot spires visible from almost all points in town. Modeled after the Votive Church of the Sacred Heart in Vienna, St. Helena's was funded primarily by mining magnate Thomas Cruse. The elaborate interior features stained-glass windows designed by F.X. Zettler of Munich, Carrara marble statues and a sanctuary adorned with gold leaf. Construction of the cathedral lasted from 1908 to 1924.
    During this time period, about three miles away, Western Clay Manufacturing Co. was producing brick along Ten Mile Creek. The site, now on the National Register of Historic Places, had been a local brickyard operated by various owners since 1883. By 1915, under the management of Charles Bray, it was Montana's largest producer of brick.
    Today it is the location of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, a must-see for any visitor to Helena. The Bray's journey from brickyard to international arts destination began with Charles Bray's son, Archie. He worked for his father at the brickyard and went on to become a successful local businessman. At the same time he was a passionate arts patron who, with his own funds, brought world-renowned artists and performers, including Russian ballerina Marina Svetlova, to still-rustic Helena.
    Bray had long dreamed of establishing a pottery on the brickyard premises, a place where prominent resident artists could work. When the brick-making business declined with the advent of new building materials following World War II, he saw the chance to realize his vision. His foundation was born in 1951.
    The grounds of the Bray are a curious wonderland dotted with compelling sculptures and ceramic artifacts -- some freakish, some whimsical and all unexpected. Amid the ruins of the brickyard, where the doors to crumbling buildings are marked with signs that read "Danger" and "Keep Out," surprises await -- a carpet of blue ceramic balls rests beneath a tree, a winged figure straight from a horror movie stands sentry. Underfoot, shards of pottery create an intricately patterned walkway. In addition to these outdoor installations, visitors to the Bray can check out an onsite gallery that exhibits the work of resident artists, and, with permission, peek into their studios at works in progress.
    The quirkiness of the Bray contrasts with the majority of Helena's lodging options. The city is heavy on perfectly comfortable chains, including a Holiday Inn conveniently located on the Last Chance Gulch pedestrian mall. But those seeking a more authentic experience, may prefer a bed and breakfast. The Sanders, a Victorian near the Cathedral of St. Helena, is one good option. Built in 1875 by Wilbur Fisk Sanders, who went on to became one of the first U.S. senators from the new state of Montana in 1890, it allows guests to experience the interior of one of the city's historic mansions. The official Mansion District on the west side of town is worth a leisurely drive or stroll, but its houses are not open to the public.
    For general information and to download the walking tours app:
    Reeder's Alley:
    Cathedral of St. Helena:
    The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts:
    Holiday Inn:
    The Sanders:
    Adriana Gardella is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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