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Scenic Helena

View of Helena
Helena.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Kayaker in Canyon Ferry Lake
Kayaking at Canyon Ferry Lake.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

Sailboat in Canyon Ferry Lake
Sailing at Canyon Ferry Lake.
Photo courtesy Montana Office of Tourism

"My dog caught several today, as he frequently dose."

- Lewis
21 July 1805

The expedition passed through this region on its way to the Missouri Headwaters in late July 1805. The region was then covered with prickly pear cactus, making it difficult to camp, or even find a spot to lie down. On July 21, Lewis made special note of intense heat, measured at 80 degrees, and remarked that it was the second hottest day they had yet experienced. They were continuously assaulted by clouds of mosquitoes and gnats so dense and vicious that they were compelled to sleep under nets. Lewis noted more than once that attacking mosquitoes caused his dog to howl at their abuse.

Away from the stagnant waters that bred the pests, Lewis' dog Seaman occupied himself by chasing geese during their passage through the Upper Missouri valleys. Lewis commented on the explosion of fresh game and berries that filled the area. It was their first experience of lush beauty and greenery away from the grassy plains and rocky passages. They sighted otter, beaver and a wild horse. All were hopeful signs of their approach to lands west of the mountains.

The expedition members were cheered by Sacagawea's recognition of the land and anticipated arrival at the headwaters of the Missouri. She identified one creek, near modern-day Winston, as a spot where her tribe occasionally came to gather powder for white paint. Lewis named it White Earth Creek, later called Beaver Creek.

These lands were rich in gold. In a ravine they called "Last Chance," the "Four Georgians," made an 1864 strike that brought miners flocking to the future state capital of Helena. The city literally grew around the first strike, with hilly streets leading down to its central location. By 1876, 4,000 citizens resided there. Millionaires were common, and elegant buildings, mostly built in the 1880s, lined the streets. The nature of the Missouri was altered drastically with the construction of Canyon Ferry Dam east of Helena and the Holter and Hauser dams to the north. The dams formed three reservoirs within the span of 60 miles to tame the river and put it to electrical and agricultural use. The construction of the second Canyon Ferry Dam in the 1940s set the stage for Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management area, establishing a safe haven for birds and animal life. Osprey, loon and beaver gained secure habitat. One consequence, though, was the immersion of some of the original campsites created by the Corps.