Monday, December 2, 2013

Last Chance Stream

Some Helenans dispute the fact that Last Chance Stream, or Creek, once flowed through what is now the downtown. But water was the one essential ingredient needed for placer mining, and we know that the discovery site was where the parking lot for the Colwell Building is today. Water had to be present in that immediate area. Further, the first historic Sanborn Maps of Helena, drawn in 1884, clearly show the water source, although by this time it has been diverted underground into a wooden flume.

Click the map for a bigger version.
The flume runs parallel and roughly between Clore Street (now Park) and Main Street (now Last Chance Gulch). The stream is still there. When it rains, the stream swells. You can see it and hear it flowing beneath the grates in downtown city streets. Richard Buswell has made a study of tracing the stream from its source south of town. One cold day a small group of us followed the stream’s historic path. There are several places where the stream re-emerges above ground. The most dramatic is in Nature Park, east of the Bill Roberts Golf Course. The City of Helena purchased the land in 1974 from the McHugh Land and Livestock Company intending to create “McHugh Park.” Gold dredges once worked the area, leaving behind huge round tailing piles in the destructive search for gold. Porter Brothers Corporation had dredged the location from 1935 until 1943 when gold mining was declared a nonessential industry during World War II. Dredging resumed briefly after the war in 1945. Porter Brothers reportedly took 2.5 million dollars in gold from the area. But the city left the spot undeveloped when the costs to turn the barren landscape into a park proved prohibitive. Vegetation began to regrow. Nature Park is now habitat for deer, fox, birds, and other wildlife.  Last Chance Stream emerges from a large culvert and gurgles merrily along. It runs a lovely crooked course through the park.


  1. My playground as a child.

  2. I have photos of the stream just southwest of the Colwell Building from back in 2005 when the archwork failed and had to be repaired. It flowed (I'm sure much still does) inside a brick arched tunnel. Where it collapsed they repaired the brick arch with something else and reburied it. Dan Stinson, Helena

  3. Great post! I've been having fun learning a lot about Helena's history online lately and was surprised to learn that Last Chance Creek still exists. I'd love to see Dan Stinson's photos as well, along with any others about the course of this stream and the tunnel it runs through. I've heard rumor that the tunnel has an entrance on West Main St., and that decades ago it was possible to walk along its length...

    1. Watch for the new Helena history, The Town That Gold Built, coming in August!