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HELENA, TX

HELENA, TEXAS. Helena is near the intersection of State Highway 80 and Farm Road 81, on the east side of a bend of the San Antonio River in Karnes County. Although it is practically a ghost town today, its beginning was most auspicious, and for many years it was the most important city between San Antonio and Goliad. Since Spanish colonial times the La Bahía Road, later to be called the Chihuahua Road or Ox-Cart Trail, ran from San Antonio to La Bahía (now Goliad) and the Texas coast. Along this road was carried the rich trade with Mexico and points west. In 1852 Thomas Ruckman and Lewis S. Owings founded Helena at the site of an earlier Mexican trading post called Alamita. They renamed the town in honor of Dr. Owings's wife, Helen. Entering into a business partnership, they envisioned a metropolis arising at this important road stop. Ruckman opened a mercantile and built a gristmill. In 1853 a post office was established, and Ruckman served as first postmaster. The population in and around Helena increased so much that the two partners successfully promoted the organization of Karnes County in 1854, with Helena as the county seat. The first election of county officials was on the gallery of the Ruckman-Owings store. Much traffic of wagon freight and gold bullion traveled the trail, and Dr. Owings operated a stage line of four-horse coaches from San Antonio to Victoria via Helena and Goliad. The main incidents of the Cart War occurred in and around Helena.

During the Civil War Helena had a Confederate post office with its own stamp and mustered a company called the Helena Guards on May 4, 1861. Much cotton destined for Mexican ports passed through town. During its heyday, Helena had a courthouse, a jail, a church, a Masonic lodge, a drugstore, a blacksmith shop, two hotels, and several saloons and general stores. Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches were organized in town. In 1867 citizens started a coeducational school, Helena Academy, and its two-story rock building was completed in 1872. Two newspapers were published in Helena-the Helena Record, first published in 1879, and the Karnes County News, first published in 1887. In the 1880s the town's population reached a high of between 250 and 300. Though some accounts of the town stress its gracious living, others accent the first syllable of its name ("Hell"). According to local legend, Helena was "the toughest town on earth." The town was also the birthplace of the "Helena Duel," in which the left hands of two opponents are tied together and each fighter is given a knife with a three-inch blade. In 1884 the son of William G. Butler, a wealthy rancher, was killed in Helena, and legend tells that Butler vowed "to kill the town that killed my son." Apparently he contacted Benjamin F. Yoakum and gave right-of-way to the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway, thereby offering railroad officials an alternative route after Helena citizens flatly refused to raise money for a railroad through the town. Bypassed by the railroad in 1886, the town withered away. In 1894, after a hotly contested election, Karnes City became the county seat, after which the courthouse at Helena was made into a school. Most businesses moved to Karnes City or Runge.

By 1904 the population had fallen to 181 and by 1933 to 100. It increased to 200 by 1939, and Helena had seven businesses by 1952. Its school was closed in 1945, and its post office was discontinued in 1956. In 1990 and again in 2000 Helena had a population of thirty-five. The 1873 courthouse, the old post office, the John Ruckman Home, the Sickenius farmhouse, and the jail have been restored as museum pieces. Four historical markers are located in the area, commemorating the town, the courthouse, the Harmony Baptist Church and Cemetery, and the Helena Union Church (no longer standing). Each year, on a Saturday in December, the Helena post office operates for one day as part of a Christmas celebration along the Alamo-La Bahía route. The post office issues special cachets and postal cancellations for mail sent through Texas and the nation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Hedwig Krell Didear, A History of Karnes County and Old Helena (Austin: San Felipe, 1969). Karnes County Centennial (Karnes City, Texas, 1954). Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin. Robert H. Thonhoff, History of Karnes County (M.A. thesis, Southwest Texas State College, 1963).

Robert H. Thonhoff

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Robert H. Thonhoff, "HELENA, TX," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hnh18), accessed September 22, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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