HELENA — Gold hit just above $2,045 per ounce on March 8 according to APMEX.com, making it one of the most profitable days ever to sell or own gold.
For reference, according to the National Mining Association, an ounce of gold in 1864 was worth $18.93. That was also the year that gold was discovered in Helena.
The discovery of gold is what helped Helena grow explosively in the early years. In the summer of 1864, a group known as the Four Georgians discovered gold in the Helena area. The four men used what is known as a Georgian method of mining in which they dug around six-to-seven feet down to the bedrock in order to pan for gold.
“They came through this area on their way to buy supplies. They were hungry. They were down on their luck. And so, they took one last chance and came through this area and made that big discovery. And that's why this became Last Chance Camp and then pretty soon people thought they needed a better name for the camp. And so, it was renamed, Helena. Helena at first and then the accent shifted,” said historian Ellen Baumler.
Unknown to some, the plaque that designates the spot at which the gold was discovered near what is now Fuller Ave and West 6th Avenue is actually incorrect. The actual spot lies in the parking lot between the Colwell Building and the library parking lot.
By the fall of 1864, some 200 people had come to make their own fortune. And by 1869 — just three years later — about $18 million worth of gold had been extracted from the area. Then in the early 1870s, a stream was diverted underground, and settlements were built on top.
Baumler has a theory that gold could very well still lie below Helena, just waiting for a prospector to stumble upon it. In fact, in 1912 when the Placer Hotel was being built, they stumbled upon a whole pile of gold while excavating the basement.
“They found enough gold there to pay for the building and then some, supposedly. In fact, they called some old miner over as they were excavating, and he got down in the hole and showed everybody how to do, you know, proper placer mining,” says Baumler.