Helena West Main Street Historic District

Tour curated by: The Explore Big – Montana's Historic Places Team

The physical link between the earliest settlement of Helena and the ceaseless efforts to fully exploit the area’s mineral potential is nowhere more clearly apparent than in this narrow district, settled on mining claims. After the first local gold strike in June of 1864, choice claims were quickly taken and by the following winter, newcomers had to be content with second-rate placers. Numerous claims were staked along this natural declivity, but mining soon became a secondary activity. While most continued to mine in their own backyards, residents turned to other livelihoods such as supplying firewood and livery services to their Helena neighbors. Log and frame dwellings, often built into the hillside to compensate for little space, represent 1870s settlement. Later brick homes and additions reflect the 1880s building boom while the scattered remains of outbuildings that housed domestic livestock demonstrate the self-sufficiency characteristic of West Main Street. Abundant lime deposits nearby also determined the industry that would leave its mark upon the neighborhood. The scarred hillside at the south end is ready evidence of the precious limestone quarried there. Attendant kilns, the first built in 1868, supplied the mortar and plaster for Helena’s earliest buildings. The Panic of 1893 and the lack of a nearby railroad spur eventually ended the once-lucrative West Main lime industry. The rustic landscape and simple dwellings, some still owned by descendants of early pioneers, reflect the practical lives of West Main’s first residents.

Contributing properties not pictured--Henry Hay Homestead

Locations for Tour

Early settlers along the gulch made use of the natural landscape by building their homes into the hillside for convenient, climate-controlled storage and maximum space. This gable-front-and-wing style home, built circa 1893, follows this practice. By…

Lime manufacture was an essential industry for building in brick and stone in the nineteenth century. The Grizzly Gulch outcrops and the kilns below them supplied the entire region with lime of the highest quality. Joseph O’Neill built the first of…