A brief history of Mount Helena

Posted at 8:55 AM, Sep 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-14 11:41:31-04

HELENA — MTN took a look at what’s happened to and on Mount Helena in the past 150 years or so, and how the town’s relationship to the space has changed.

“The unique view that you have if you hike up and you look at the town, you can actually see how the town grew along the gulch, you can see how it's spread out, you can see where its newer parts are, where its older parts are,” says historian, Ellen Baumler.

Mount Helena sits at 5,468 feet tall and boasts an impressive 680-acre large modern-day park. Throughout its time looking over the town of Helena, it has served many purposes ranging from military training grounds to a picnic spot for those catching a glimpse of the first train to enter the Prickly Pear Valley. For over 150 years this mountain has served those who have come to Helena searching for a better life, and for many more years before that for those who are native to this land.

Beginning around 1864 those looking to get rich from gold and eventually limestone began to deforest the mountain and surrounding areas. The timber was used for fuel and to create shelter and slough boxes for panning gold. So much timber was harvested that only stumps and grass remained for many years.

Folks used the mountain not only for resources but for picnicking to catch an elevated view of the town and surrounding area, and the first train that ran through town in 1883. The townspeople of the time even lit a bonfire on top of Mt Helena in 1894 to celebrate Helena becoming the capital of Montana.

At the end of the 19th century, reforestation efforts began when schoolchildren from throughout Helena were enlisted to help plant new trees.

“In 1899 on Arbor Day, school was called off. And each child received a bucket of seedlings and an orange for a snack, and they hiked up the slopes of Mount Helena and planted trees,” says Baumler.

Even a violin was played by Fred Kuphal for the children as they planted trees.

In 1903 the first official trail was created on the mountain, now known as the 1906 Trail. But some still took to driving up the mountain. It wasn’t until years later that more trails were added. In 1904 a shelter house was built at the top of the mountain which was gone by the 1930’s.

And in 1906 30,000 trees were planted in an aggressive reforestation effort backed by the Helena Improvement Society in partnership with the newly created Forest Service.

Before World War II, special services from Fort Harrison trained on the mountain and eventually in the 1990’s Mount Helena City Park was put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mount Helena has dealt with its share of natural disasters such as wildfires and wood-eating beetles. For example, a wildfire ravaged 18 acres of land during the summer of 2022. In the 2000s, wood-eating beetles impacted trees throughout the area.

Today, the City of Helena is working to combat similar beetles that destroy Douglas Firs by utilizing 900 pheromone capsules.

Historian Ellen Baumler says that Mount Helena allows folks the opportunity to see the change that not only the mountain has undergone throughout the past 150 years, but the change that the area has gone through, as well. The mountain continues to evolve along with the city and the needs of its people.

“You can hike up the mountain and you can see how Helena changed from a mining camp to a settlement to a town and to a capital city. And you can really see all of those changes, not only on the mountain but looking down, looking in your overview,” says Baumler.