Taking in the history & sights of Downtown Helena
We always try & get a bit of rest & relaxation on our rare days off the bikes, so Helena was a real treat as for the first time on our adventure so far we had consecutive rest days. We arrived at our hotel on Last Chance Gulch (pay attention to the name!) on Thursday afternoon & decided to get a couple of tasks out the way straight away – first up was washing our 3 sets of cycling kit, followed by a visit to Safeway to buy dinner for this evening & breakfast for the next 3 days.
Our kit had completed its wash cycle by the time we returned to the laundromat, so we just needed to throw it in the dryer & wait 20 minutes. We were both flagging & on the verge of falling asleep by the time our kit was dry, so we did the only sensible thing, we headed into town for a beer! In the end I had a couple of Scepter Head IPA’s & Sean went for a couple of Cold Smoke Scotch Ales. As we chatted about our highlights of the last 6 days, we could feel our energy returning enough that we could eat our supermarket dinners!
We had a room each for our time in Helena, so we could spread out & enjoy a bit of space both physically & mentally. We met at 10am on Friday & popped to The Fire Tower coffee shop (not the be mistaken for THE Fire Tower) for a pecan & caramel pastry & latte – it felt like a real treat to be able to sit down & just watch the world pass us by, rather than needing to get back on our bikes.
Helena is the State Capital of Montana & 32,655 people live within the city limits. Prior to Europeans arriving in the early 1800’s, the Salish & Blackfeet visited the area seasonally as part of their nomadic travels.
In July 1864, the discovery of gold by “The Four Georgians” prospectors led to the founding of a mining camp along a small creek in an area called Last Chance Gulch. Within 3 months, the population had grown to 200 & by 1888 there were 50 millionaires in the city – it’s estimated that $3.6 billion of gold in today’s money was excavated between 1864 & 1888!
We decided to start our expedition by visiting the cathedral. The site was purchased for $25,000 in 1905 & the cathedral was designed in a Gothic style, based on the Votiv Church of the Sacred Heart in Vienna. Building commenced in 1908 & was consecrated in 1924, some 10 years after the first Mass was celebrated.
The stained glass windows are stunning, as they enable the outside light to flood in – these next photos were taken on an overcast morning! The lighting fixtures are of hand-carved bronze with a special lacquer finish.
There are white marble altars, statues carved from the purest Carrara marble & genuine gold leaf decorates the sanctuary, while the pews & woodwork are all done in hand-carved oak. When the cathedral was finished, it had cost $625,000 to build & decorate.
As we left the cathedral behind we headed towards the pedestrianised area of Last Chance Gulch. This follows the path of the original creek where the first gold strike was declared.
I quite like a statue, so was pleased to see I had a good selection to view. First up was “Extra, Extra” where a young newsboy is proclaiming Capital City Prospers to his passing clientele. We then met The Bullwhacker, who was responsible for cracking the whip above the heads of the cattle to keep them moving & if that failed, he shouted & cursed them to move! The whip wasn’t used to hit the animals, according to historical references. Finally, we found our friends the gold prospectors, as they sluiced & panned the deposits through the early processing machinery.
As we continued towards Fire Tower Park, we passed a memorial devoted to the 4 warships named after the city of Helena. This included a gunboat (1896 to 1932), a warship that was damaged in the Pearl Harbour attack but was repaired – she was sunk in battle in 1943, a heavy cruiser bought with Montana war bonds that served from 1945 to 1972 & finally a fast attack nuclear submarine that was commissioned in 1987 & remains in service today.
We then took a short, sharp climb up to THE Fire Tower itself – known locally as The Guardian of the Gulch. It was built in 1876 after a huge fire had destroyed downtown Helena & was manned round the clock. It was last used in 1931, with it’s location giving commanding views over Helena in every direction, it’s one of only 5 remaining in the entire USA.
Later in the day as we were exploring some of the quiet backstreets, we passed the Federal Reserve Bank, where we were tempted to go in & beg for some dollars, as the GB Pound is so weak at the moment! Not long after Sean spotted a hover of 4 chinook helicopters overhead (I only managed to get 2 in the shot) – on our way into Helena yesterday we also spotted one with equipment being carried in a cargo net. A final treat was spotting a beautifully sculpted horse in a residential garden.
In addition to all the above excitement, I managed to get my first haircut of the adventure & I also had my cycling jersey repaired. The box at the bottom of the zip had fallen off, so my zip no longer stayed zipped up – not a sight anyone should have to see!! My new friend Katelynn (from The Sewing Bee) went out of her way to sort me out, by taking my jersey home with her, buying a new zip on the way & fitting it that evening, before going away for the weekend. Katelynn, you’re an absolute star, thank you so much – hopefully you’ll read how much your kindness meant to me.
After such an action packed day, we both needed to take the weight off our feet for a little bit – somehow we found ourselves back in The Rialto Bar (neither of us know how!), so we had a few beers, then a few more & eventually left at about midnight. Friday Night Beer Club lives on! Luckily Saturday was also a rest day – my only activity was to publish a new blog!!!