Sylvanus Phillips with William Russell and Nicholas Rightor laid out the town of Helena in 1821 and named it for Phillips’s daughter, Helena. The town was made the county seat in 1830 and incorporated in 1833, and it became an important commercial stop along the Mississippi River. In the Civil War, Helena was an important supply depot for the Union campaign against Vicksburg, and a battle was fought here on July 4, 1863 (the same day as the battle at Gettysburg), when the Confederate army attempted and failed to retake the town. At Beech and York streets is a nearly full-size replica of the earth and wood Fort Curtis, where one of the battles in Helena took place. Freedom Park (700 Biscoe Street) has five exhibits that explore African American experience in the Civil War and is one of the sites in the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
In the late nineteenth century, the railroad began to rival river transportation, but the latter revived in World War I through the agency of the Federal Barge Lines in order to supplement rail transportation to move essential goods. Today, Helena retains its importance as a shipping center. The Phillips County Port Authority has developed a 2.3-mile-long slack-water harbor and industrial park. The city has also focused on the restoration and reuse of its historic fabric, and several buildings make up what is now the Delta Cultural Center (PH2, PH6, PH10). The Visitors Center (141 Cherry Street), housed in a pair of late-nineteenth-century brick commercial buildings, features exhibitions on the region’s culture and its musical heritage and a live radio studio for the weekly King Biscuit Time broadcast. The city annually sponsors a blues festival.
West Helena, founded in 1909, grew as an industrial town west of Helena, with sawmills, wood product factories, and other plants. Residential neighborhoods for the workers were laid out on a grid on both sides of the industrial buildings. In 2006 Helena and West Helena combined their governments and their names.
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