Helena's hidden creek is the reason for the town's existence

Last Chance Creek
Posted at 5:12 PM, Feb 01, 2023

HELENA — A river runs through Missoula, but in Helena, a creek runs through the city, a very important creek.

“If it weren’t for gold in that creek, Helena wouldn’t be here,” Helena history buff Rich Buswell said. “I think that’s the succinct way of saying it.”

Buswell is talking about Last Chance Creek, the creek where the Four Georgians discovered gold in July of 1864. The creek is underground now, but it wasn’t at the time.

According to his research, Buswell said he believes gold was discovered on the southwest corner of the Colwell Building in downtown Helena.

“In the first four years, there were $19 million worth of gold—and this is $19 million in 1864,” Buswell said.

Adjust for inflation, and that’s worth $354 million today.

Last Chance Creek still runs through Helena, but it’s underground now, Buswell said he believes the creek was channeled underground in order to develop downtown Helena.

The creek starts where the Oro Fino Gulch and Grizzly Gulch drainages combine, and it eventually dumps into Tenmile Creek.

Buswell said he has used maps to trace the creek on its journey through Helena.

“You can see it if you go south from the library up toward Unionville in the springtime, especially because that’s when the drainage will be most obvious and you can see the creek running at that time,” Buswell said. “It’s channeled underground, and then it exits at Bill Roberts Golf Course. That’s where you can see it coming out and get an idea of the size of the creek.”

Last Chance Creek is also visible in the city of Helena—just look through some of the grates downtown.

“It still gives me goosebumps to see the creek running, because if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t be here,” Buswell said.

Buswell said there is likely still gold in Last Chance Creek, but it’s hard to get to with downtown Helena built on top of it.