A Visit to Helena, MT

Helena, MT

When we began planning this trip, we determined that we would travel as far north as Helena before turning the motorhome to the south.  Why Helena?  Well, why not?  We wanted to explore southern Montana and, since Helena is the state capitol, we thought we needed to check it out.  So we left the little town of Big Timber and headed west on I-90 then north on US 287.  The weather forecast had spotty rain showers predicted, but we decided to see if we could dodge the rain as we headed down the highway.  It has always been our practice to avoid traveling on rainy days, but we decided to take a chance.  Oops, that didn’t work out so well.  While we managed to avoid a number of downpours along the interstate, our luck ran out as we headed north on US 287 where we ran into a short, but heavy shower.  Upon arrival at our site at Lincoln Road RV Park, just north of the city, we found the motorhome covered with dirt, and the Jeep so filthy we had to find a spray car wash as we had difficulty seeing out the windshield.  The dirty vehicles is a good reminder why we don’t travel in the rain!

One of the most popular things to do while visiting Helena is a boat tour on the nearby Missouri River into what is known as the Gates to the Mountains.  In July of 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition struggled to move upstream in this section of the Missouri.  Steep rock embankments made towing their boats from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward.  At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage ahead of them, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near.  In his journal, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “I shall call this place: “Gates of the Rocky Mountains.”

In 1918, when Holter Dam was built forming Holter Lake, the water level of the Missouri River in the Gates was raised about 14 feet, taming the current and allowing small tour boats to explore the canyon.

Holter Lake – entrance to the canyon is on the left side of the lake

Gates of the Mountains Tour Boats located north of Helena about three miles from I-15, offers tours through the Gates of the Mountains.  They have two tour boats and run on a varied schedule from May to September.

Our tour boat

Our very capable and knowledgeable tour guide/pilot, Brian

Entrance to the canyon



Heading north into the canyon

The boat tour is a nice, relaxing ride down the river a few miles while the guide describes various points of interest.

Bald Eagle Nest

Cap Mountain in the distance

At one point we passed Mann Gulch, the site of the raging forest fire that killed 13 smokejumpers in August of 1949.  This tragedy was the main subject matter of Norman Maclean’s book “Young Men and Fire.”

Mann Gulch

At the point where the boat turns around, we had the same view as Lewis and Clark.  Without the dam the river was lower and narrower and they were more to the left side of the photo below.

As they proceeded up the river it appeared that the water ended at a solid wall of rock.  But as the approached, it looked to them as if the wall opened up like a gate.  That’s why Meriwether Lewis called the area the “Gates of the Rocky Mountains.”  The photo sequence below shows the illusion he observed of the opening of the gates.

The next day we drove into Helena for a visit to the state capitol.  Helena was founded as a gold camp during the Montana gold rush, and was established in 1864. Over $3.6 billion of gold was extracted in the city limits over a duration of two decades, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the country by the late nineteenth century.  At the 2010 census Helena’s population was 28,190, making it the fifth least populous state capital in the U.S. and the sixth most populous city in Montana.

North (front) view of the capitol building

South view

As with most capitol buildings, there is a large rotunda area in the center surrounded by art work representative of main activities and people of the state.  In the photo below you see a statue of two people.  They are Mike and Maureen Mansfield.  Mansfield represented Montana in the U.S. House and Senate from 1943 to 1977 and Ambassador to Japan from 1977 to 1988.  In 1999, Missoula’s daily newspaper chose Mansfield as The Most Influential Montanan of the 20th Century (bet you didn’t know that).

At the top of the stairs pictured above is a statue of one of the least known but most influential women of the twentieth century, Jeannette Rankin.   When he taught American History, John always highlighted her as an example of a person with the courage of their convictions.  In 1914 Rankin was a leader in the movement to give women the right to vote in Montana.  She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (the first woman) in 1916 and was there when Congress voted to declare war on Germany in 1917.  Rankin cast one of fifty votes in opposition. “I wish to stand for my country,” she said, “but I cannot vote for war.”

Rankin left the House in 1918 but returned in 1940, and was a member in December of 1941 during a vote to declare war on Japan soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  She was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration.  Hisses could be heard in the gallery as she cast her vote; several colleagues asked her to change it to make the resolution unanimous—or at very least, to abstain—but she refused.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”  The vote ended Rankin’s political career.  One wonders if anyone in Congress today would be willing to take such a courageous stand!

The Montana Legislature is bicameral, and consists of the 50 member Senate and the 100 member House of Representatives.  The legislature meets in odd-numbered years for 90 days, beginning the first weekday of the year. Senators serve four year terms, while Representatives serve two year terms.  All members are limited to serving no more than eight years in a single 16 year period.

House Chambers

Senate Chambers

We stayed in Helena for three days before turning the front of the motorhome to the south.  Next up on our journey is a visit to the city of Butte.

More on that later . . .

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20 Responses to A Visit to Helena, MT

  1. Diana says:

    Gorgeous photos of Gates of the Mountains, I’ve been through the area multiple times but I never knew there was a boat tour. Adding that to the to-do list… 🙂

  2. Jim and Barb says:

    What a beautiful capital! You cannot help what but wonder what it took to build a dam like that in 1918, it is quite a feat of engineering now but to build it back then is incredible!

  3. pmbweaver says:

    Beautiful views from the boat.
    “Gates of the Rocky Mountains” is a perfect name. I love anything Lewis and Clark. Can you image what they said when they saw all of this. Fantastic!
    Never made it to the Capitol. Another beauty.

  4. Laurel says:

    What a gorgeous boat tour! We’ll remember that one for sure. It’s wonderful how it looks impassable and then as you draw near, the gateway is revealed. Meriweather Lewis was quite poetic in his writings about their journey, wasn’t he?
    The capitol building is lovely, too. For such a beautiful state, Montana has a surprisingly small population!

    • placestheygo says:

      Definitely stop for the boat tour if you pass that way. You won’t be disappointed. It’s hard to believe such a large state has so few people. Lots of cattle, though!!

  5. The interior of the capitol building looks warm and homey with the color scheme of red and green, I like it. At least I’ve seen it through you since we won’t be back in Montana anytime soon.
    Thank you for the history lesson, I don’t think there is another woman such as Jeannette Rankin today.
    It must have been an interesting tour following the boat steps that Lewis and Clark sailed on plus all those beautiful cliffs. I even saw a little arch up there on the fifth picture.

    • placestheygo says:

      The capitol building had a homey feel since it was rather small but still very beautiful. Glad you enjoyed the history lesson. Traveling with a history buff makes these stops more meaningful. The arch you saw is a bat area. One of the many sights pointed out by our great guide.

  6. Thanks for the history lesson about our state–I (Janna) learned a lot this morning, the Cowboy knew most of it I think!

    • placestheygo says:

      Glad you enjoyed the history lesson, Janna. It is amazing how much I learn as I read our blog, as well! John always says he isn’t going to write much but it’s hard to hold a history buff back.

  7. Jodee Gravel says:

    Great post! We happened on the Gate but there wasn’t a tour that day. What a beautiful place, love the sequence revealing the gate. You’re right, I don’t remember learning about Jeanette Rankin, but I’m happy to know your students did – she sounds like an amazing woman and leader for the people. Thanks for sharing!

  8. We have yet to see any of Montana, but I can’t wait to explore. What a gorgeous state, and the boat ride sounds like a perfect way to experience that particular area! We have seen a couple state capitols, but missed many. This one seems well worth a visit. I had never heard of Jeannette Rankin, but won’t forget her now. The whole idea of anyone in our current congress having any convictions at all is sorda laughable, sadly…

  9. Jeff Pierce says:

    Get timing! We’ll be at “The Gates” mid-July and plan on the boat ride. It looks quite awesome, just what I hope it might be.

  10. placestheygo says:

    Montana is a beautiful state with lots to offer. Plan to spend some major time when you visit.

  11. Nancy says:

    What a great history lesson! Thank you! Beautiful state!

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