History of Helena Alabama
Early Settlers The initial settlers to Helena, initially named Cove, were veterans of the final campaigns of the War of 1812. Members of Andrew Jackson's army who cut through the brush were attracted to the quiet, peaceful valleys and streams after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. These first settlers were reported to arrive in 1849 and were predated by the Creek Indian tribes who these settlers had battled. By 1856, the Cove post office opened. Shortly thereafter, the settlers changed the name of the town to Hillsboro.
Civil War The onset of the Civil War brought the need for the South to increase its manufacturing output and add industrialization where there was none prior. Coal and iron ore mines were dug all throughout the area and the addition of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad infrastructure made Helena a center point for the wartime efforts. Around 1864 a rolling mill was built on Buck Creek, near the rail lines to process the Iron from Selma. Peter Boyle, an engineer for the railroad working on a new line, met and courted Helen Lee. He would name the burgeoning rail station that fed the rolling mill after her and, eventually, changing the town name to Helena.
Wilson's Raid As the final battles of the Civil War were being fought, the Union forces amassed a force to complete a Cavalry raid with the intent to drastically impact the South's warfighting capability as Sherman's march had done the previous year. Lead by James Harrison Wilson this force passed through the town of Helena on March 30, 1865, destroying much of the newly developed industry and residential buildings.
Reconstruction Within a few years of the end of the Civil War, industrialists were again developing the coal and iron ore resources that were in abundance in the area. The railroads were rebuilt and coke ovens established by the Eureka Company in 1870. The rolling mill was rebuilt, spurred by later two-term governor Rufus Cobb in 1873. Much of what was Hillsboro had been absorbed by the expanding Helena area. The town was surveyed by Joseph Squire in 1873 and incorporated in 1877. By 1880, Helena contained
six mercantile stores, one drugstore, two hotels, and several boarding houses…The rolling mill had been expanded and modernized and the number of merchants had increased.
Depression Era The town was reincorporated in 1917 after the initial incorporation paperwork was found to contain errors. Charles Hind was elected mayor the same year. Much of the industrial development began to decline as a result of the Great Depression in the 1920s. The rolling mill was closed in 1923 and many mine closures followed. The town fell on hard times and many of the residents left to find work elsewhere.
1933 Tornado Around 3 AM on May 5, 1933 residents were awoken to a massive tornado that ripped through the heart of Helena. Initially, 10 were killed with 2 more pronounced dead after arriving at the hospital and 75 people were reported as injured. Much of the original houses were completely destroyed and railroad cars were overturned. The property damage was estimated to be in the range of $100,000 to $150,000 (1933 dollars).
Modern Expansion Helena remained a small town in the largely rural county until suburban growth from Birmingham reached Helena in the late 20th century. Numerous residential and commercial developments spurred improvements in city facilities and services. By the early 21st century, Helena was experiencing large population gains, and growing pains, as a result of its convenient location and high quality of life.