We only decided to spend Labor Day weekend in Helena because we needed to delay ourselves a few days in order to end up in Yellowstone the weekend of the 12th. However, Helena was an absolutely delightful place to visit, and I am so glad we ended up here!
Our Airbnb was located in a rural area about ten miles west of the city. We had lunch at Benny’s Bistro, and then I headed to the grocery store while Jim and the kids visited Last Chance Park. The kids spent the rest of the day exploring the property and playing with the wood pile.
Helena was originally called Last Chance Gulch; however, after gold was discovered in 1862, the town was soon renamed Helena in order to sound less crass. Interestingly, by 1888, 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than anywhere else in the world at the time. The city’s late 19th century wealth is seen in the beautiful Victorian architecture throughout the valley.
Our first full day in Helena was spent at the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine. We were able to dig our own “sapphire gravel,” but I also bought a bag from their more successful mine. We then panned and sifted through the rocks looking for anything resembling “broken glass.”
We found quite a few small sapphires and one small garnet stone.
On Sunday, we enjoyed worshiping at Emmanuel Church, a reformed Presbyterian church that is part of the CREC. The members were warm and invited us to the church luncheon afterward, which we happily accepted.
The luncheon was at a members’ home about 15 minutes south of town. They had a gorgeous house on several acres, including a creek. We enjoyed learning about life in Montana from those in attendance. They uniformly said they love living here, especially because of the freedom it affords their children.
We left the lunch to drive to the other side of Helena in order to take the Gates of the Mountain River Cruise on the Missouri River. The source of the Missouri River – and the Continental Divide – is very near Helena. As Lewis and Clark were searching for a path across the Rocky Mountains, Meriwether Lewis was in the group poling up the Missouri River. As he approached the Rockies, he was surrounded by 1200′ cliff faces and named the area the “gates of the Rocky Mountains.”
The boat’s captain provided a lot of interesting history, including the fact that Lewis measured the distance journeyed (from St. Lewis to the mouth of the Columbia River) correctly within 20 miles using only a rope and sextant! Wow! We also learned about and saw Mann Gulch, the site of the worst smoke jumping accident in American history. Thirteen firefighters lost their lives in this gulch in 1949.
We also saw Native American pictograph art dating back to around 1300BC.
The captain was kind enough to let our children (the only kids on the boat) drive the boat for a time.
We then headed to dinner at Nagoya Japanese Restaurant to end a very long and fun day!
We had planned to take a train tour on Labor Day, but a cold front canceled the trip. We did, however, enjoy seeing September snow and wild turkeys!