City History

                          "Arkansas' Only Mississippi Riverport"

Our city began as a small town along the mighty Mississippi River called Helena.  However, our history is centuries old dating back to the days of explorer Hernando DeSoto when he crossed the Mississippi River near Friars Point in 1541.  Spaniard Hernando DeSoto, likely the first white man to visit what is known as Eastern Arkansas, observed a flourishing Native American civilization including Casqui and Pacaha Indians.  The city now known as Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, is situated in Phillips County, with the protecting hills of Crowley Ridge to the west and the sometimes friendly, sometimes menacing Mississippi River on the east. It was a natural location for Indian tribes to choose for their homes. 

During the 16th century, two tribes were known to be in the county—Casqui south of Helena and Pacha north of the present city. The Casqui braves described by Spaniards as tall, strong "Greek Gods in bronze" lived in a walled town, building their rude houses on high ground. The village of Pacaha was surrounded by a man-made moat.  Mounds found in and around the present town, filled with pottery, bones and arrowheads have caused much interest and speculation among collectors and students, who have placed many of the best specimens in museums over the nation.  Visit the Helena Museum to see Indian artifacts.

A legend, generally believed to be true, is that in 1541 Hernando De Soto and his band visited the two Indian towns. Before leaving Casqui, the mighty explorer ordered the erection of a high cross of pines on a mound and there held the first Christian service in the state of Arkansas.  Read about Hernando De Soto's Route Through Arkansas.

When the white men reached Pacaha, the story goes, the frightened warriors had left, but were soon persuaded to return and take part in a great feast with the first white men to set foot in the state and the powerful Casqui tribe, their ancient enemy.

During the next century the French appeared and in 1763 Father Marquette and Joliet visited the Indian settlements along the river which were now a part of the great Louisiana empire LaSalle had taken in 1682 for his emperor, King Louis XIV of France.

In the summer of 1800, William Patterson built a rude warehouse for storing goods and provisions for the accommodation of the barge shipping—the first river terminal.

White settlers soon began to make the rich delta land into civilization, and the first white child of American parents to be born in Arkansas was born about five miles below Helena. He was John Patterson, son of William Patterson. Two other settlers came about the same time, Daniel Mooney, and Sylvanus Phillips, after whom the county was named.  In 1820 when the county was given a name, the town was named Helena for the daughter of Mr. Phillips. Miss Phillips died in early childhood.  In 1830, the year that Mr. Phillips died, the town was made the county seat; in 1833, it was incorporated a town, and in 1856 it found itself a city.

Nicholas Rightor came from New York state and made a survey of the town. His map made in 1820 shows the city laid out as it is today with the exception of two streets.

The county, of course, was an agricultural district with cotton being the chief crop, but as the town grew other businesses and professional men appeared. People began to build something other than rude log cabins.  Many of the homes built during this period are still standing, some in their original forms. The owners possess many priceless articles of furniture that have been handed down through generations.

The Mississippi River has always played an important part in the growth of the city. In 1811 the steamer New Orleans, the first built for western waters, came by Helena en route to New Orleans, and that began the change on the mighty river. A year or more later steam boating was born and in 30 years it grew to a full sized important activity.  

Down the river came many distinguished travelers, among them Mark Twain who wrote, "Helena occupies one of the prettiest situations on the river."  The first and only road in and out of Helena was for a long time the old military road, which was built by General E. Pendleton Gaines, and is still a landmark.

By the time Helena was incorporated in 1833, it was the second oldest city in the state and flourished as a river port.   Even though the land around Helena used to have periodic flooding due to poor drainage, the land was well suited for cotton production even more so as farmers learned to build small levees that helped drain the land.  Over time another industry developed using the timber of the land and continued into the 20th century.  But the early growth of Helena can also be attributed to the steamboat age with Helena being a stopover between Memphis, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Steamboats transformed the river into a form of transportation for delivering supplies, cotton, finished goods, fuel and timber gathered by local wood cutters.

The first church erected in the city was a Methodist Church built in 1840. The Presbyterians had a building in 1850, the Baptists in 1851, the Episcopalians in 1861, and the Jews in 1867. In 1858 the Catholics were here and the Sisters of Mercy had a school.

The City of Helena played an important role in the War Between the States. Federal troops occupied the city strongly fortified by the Union. The purpose was twofold: one, the United States wanted control of the Mississippi life line; and two, by keeping the Union troops here it was necessary for the Confederacy to keep armies in Arkansas to prevent an invasion from the Helena fort.

In July, 1863, with the battle of Vicksburg raging, the Confederates planned an attack on Helena to divert Union troops. Soldiers were placed to surround the town and seize strategic points. Detailed plans were made, and fighting began at 4 a.m. on July 4, and lasted until 3 p.m. The general with troops in the north was ill-informed as to plans and the foray failed, leaving the city in Union hands.

Seven generals were given to the Confederate cause by Helena: Maj. Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne, Mai. Gen. Thomas G. Hindman, Brig. Gen. James C. Tappan, Brig. Gen. Dan G. Govan, Brig. Gen. Lucius C. Polk, Brig. Gen. Charles W. Adams, and Brig. Gen. Arch S. Dobbins.  Learn more about them all and more at Civil War Helena.  

Reconstruction days were dark, but after a time ruined homes and plantations were renovated and government and business slowly began building back to normal.

Public schools became a necessity with the increasing population and in 1885 a grammar school was built. The high school was erected in 1913. One of the first African-American schools in the state is located at West Helena. It was named for Eliza Miller, a public-spirited woman, whose efforts and money made it possible.

Over time, business leaders started to develop land to the west of Helena and connected it to Helena with a new trolley system.  With the completion of the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad in 1907, it was obvious there was a need for a new community.  Land three miles northwest of Helena was purchased which was the beginning of West Helena, officially incorporated May 23, 1917.  

In 1917 the patriotic citizens arose to the defense of the nation.  No county in the state sent as many men in proportion to its population as did Phillips County. The county was over the top in the third Liberty Loan drive, its conservation program in flour and sugar was outstanding, and women gave many hours of their busy lives to Red Cross work.  After the armistice was signed, a statue was erected in memory of the lost ones; and in 1923 the Richard L. Kitchens Post of the American Legion dedicated its hut.

Early on the hardwood lumber industry provided many jobs in Helena and West Helena but several events caused the industry to decline. Five companies that manufactured barrel staves lost their primary customers when the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages, went into effect in 1920. Automobiles replaced wooden wagons (although early models were made with many wooden parts that were manufactured in Helena and West Helena), and metal buckets replaced wooden buckets. Finally, the floods of 1927 and 1937 severely damaged the infrastructure of Helena and West Helena, causing them to forfeit their place in the nation’s lumber market. The Depression also severely damaged the industrial and agricultural vitality of the area. 

Great public work began after the war and continued until World War II stopped building. City streets were paved and a river terminal was built. A museum was constructed adjoining the city library. A recreational park with facilities for swimming, ball games, picnics, training track and tennis courts was completed.

With the coming of World War II, Helena mobilized its forces again. Its men went to war and some of its women. Those who remained at home were engrossed in their Red Cross work, and war bond drives were given support by the entire population.

During the war, an army air force training station was placed a few miles out of the city. The hundreds of young airmen who passed part of their army career at Helena Aero Tech were charmed with the town. They found its people friendly and its setting, picturesque avenues lined with arches of maple and magnolia trees, the entrance winding through the vine covered hills of Crowley's Ridge.

After World War II, the citizens of Helena began making plans for civic improvements to meet the needs of the increasing population and industries. To solve the housing problem, Helena Housing Inc. was organized by public spirited citizens and several new sub-divisions were developed.

Helena Hospital, now Helena Regional Medical Center, was the only hospital in Phillips County. It used to be located between Helena and West Helena but is now on the Hwy. 49 Bypass.  It is a modern hospital and approved by the American Medical Association and the American College of Surgeons.

Eventually in the 1970’s, as is the case with many towns in the delta region, persistent economic trials compelled some to believe consolidation of the twin cities would better meet the needs and problems of the area.  With such a major change and fear of losing authority by opponents, initial efforts to merge were quelled.  There were several attempts and lawsuits to merge as conditions continued to deteriorate.  Finally in 2005, the citizens of Helena and West Helena voted to merge and a new city, now known as Helena-West Helena began on January 1, 2006.  

The 2010 Census shows a population of 12,282.
Helena was the site of a flying school during World War II.  
Eventually renamed Thompson-Robbins Field in honor of Lt. 
Jerome P. Thompson and Lt. Jack Robbins, killed while flying 
for the Army Air Force.
59th Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment Helena Aero Tech c.1943.
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Actual photo of the train ferry "Duncan" at Helena and a steamboat in the background headed up river out of Helena.
Union Soldiers (mostly freed prisoners) on the Sultana at Helena Harbor 1865.  The Sultana was destroyed in an explosion on April 26, 1865 & was the greatest Maritime Disaster in US history.
Steamboats taking on cargo and passengers at Helena in the early 1900s. Courtesy Thomas E. Tappan, Jr. Collection, Special Collection, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.
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Street car approaching the intersection of Oakland and Neil roads c. 1910
Street car passing the home of C. E. Hornor c. 1915
Cherry Street c. 1920.
Helena's electric trolleys. From Cherry street to West Helena and back at the turn of the century.
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Old Helena Hospital is now apartments.
Cutting timber
Hauling timber
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Click image to enlarge.
American Legion Hut
Solomon Building
Transporting cotton
Penny Postcards
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