Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Camp at Last Chance

After the four discoverers staked their claims at Last Chance, Helena’s early story continues. The Georgians christened the new diggings “Rattlesnake District” for the snakes that were everywhere. A monster rattler with ten buttons on his tail, nailed to a post, warned of the danger. A monstrous grizzly bear that made nightly visits at the gulch’s south end, gorging on the chokecherries along Last Chance Creek, inspired the name Grizzly Gulch.  The howling and barking of wolves and coyotes, discoverer Reginald Stanley recalled, “made the nights hideous.”

Other miners joined the Georgians to pitch tents and mine claims during the summer of 1864.  Some stayed but more moved on, discouraged by the scant supply of water.  In mid-September, the first group of emigrants arrived with the Thomas A. Holmes wagon train from Shakopee, Minnesota. The train included several hundred men and fourteen women. Only half of their names were recorded. Many hailed from Minnesota, but emigrants also came from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and some were European-born immigrants. The incomplete roster includes a number of pioneers who stayed and became citizens of Helena. Among them were longtime Helena attorneys John H. Shober, his partner Thomas J. Lowry, and pioneer rancher Nicholas Hilger. John Somerville, who would soon play a key role in naming Helena, was also part of the group.

The hill in the center of this early Helena panorama, circa 1866, is where the fire tower stands today.
Sketch by A. E. Mathews. Montana Historical Society Research Center.
Most of the emigrants had no experience as miners, and the Montana Post poked fun at them, noting that they used blunt picks and worked “like chickens on a grain pile.” But some had good luck. John Marvin Blake of Wisconsin found one of the largest gold nuggets in the area, worth $2,300. With his fortune Blake studied dentistry in Philadelphia and returned to practice in Helena for fifty years. Others opened businesses and made places for themselves in the new community.

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