Around 1797, Sylvanus Phillips moved to the Arkansas Territory from North Carolina and purchased huge tracts of land along the Mississippi River. David Mooney and William Patterson arrived about the same time. Patterson built a small warehouse for storing goods and provisions. Flat boats were going down the river and he provided goods for these people. Helena was already starting to become a river port.
On May 1, 1820, the territorial county of Phillips, which was named for Sylvanus Phillips, was created and included most of eastern Arkansas making it one of the oldest counties in the state. The territorial capital was at Arkansas Post and Phillips became one of the first members of the legislature. Eleven other counties would eventually be formed from the original land of Phillips.
Sylvanus Phillips named a small village Helena after his daughter and it was made the county seat of Phillips county. One of the first buildings was a 2 story log structure that featured the county court house on the upper floor and the county jail on the lower.
The first steam boat stopped at the mouth of the St. Francis river in 1811. Helena became an important stop on the Mississippi River for boats between Memphis and New Orleans. The city of Helena was incorporated on November 16, 1833. The first school opened on April 25, 1836 on North Ohio Street and was operated by John Hornor.
Helena continued to grow through the lumber and cotton industry. By 1860, it was the largest Arkansas city on the Mississippi River and one of the wealthiest places in the state. The Civil War came to Helena hard though. Union forces occupied the city in 1862 and would retain control for the rest of the war. On July 4, 1863, the Battle of Helena took place.
In 1866 the last of the Federal soldiers left and the people of Helena started the rebuilding of the city. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Helena became the center of wealth because of it’s location on the river and strong agricultural industry. Many large mansions were built in the hills of the city.
The streets were bricked and there was a trolley running up and down Cherry street in downtown Helena.
In 1914, a new courthouse was built and it continues to operate today.
Helena continued to grow until the mid 20th century and, like many Delta towns, began to slowly decline as people moved elsewhere for opportunities.
West Helena was founded about 1909 west of Crowleys Ridge and it quickly grew. In 2006, Helena and West Helena consolidated. Today Helena-West Helena is a city that is slowly finding it’s way in a new future. Agriculture is still important, but increasingly other industries are coming into the city. It’s a new world and Helena will adapt.