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Helena (pronunciation hel-LE-nah) is a city in Jefferson and Shelby Counties in the state of Alabama. Helena is considered a suburb of Birmingham and part of the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area. As of the 2010 census, the population was 16,793. Helena is highly regarded as a place to live and raise children; Business Week named Helena the 13th "Best Place to Raise Your Kids" in 2007. It has the eighth-lowest crime rate per population in the U.S., and the city was ranked in Money magazine's 2007 list of "Best Places to Live: Top 100" in the U.S., placing at number 91. The Alabama League of Municipalities awarded Helena the 2008 Municipal Achievement Award (population 10,001 to 20,000).
Helena initially incorporated in 1877, but reincorporated in 1917 after errors were discovered in the initial incorporation papers. It did not first appear on the U.S. Census until 1920, giving credence to the later date of incorporation.
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.
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.
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 war fighting 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.
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.
A rail yard was added by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company.
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.
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).
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.
Helena is located at 33°16′47″N 86°51′22″W (33.279715, -86.856060).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 17.1 square miles (44 km2), of which 17.1 square miles (44 km2) is land and 0.04 square miles (0.10 km2) (0.12%) is covered by water. The Cahaba River and its tributary Buck Creek run through Helena. Buck Creek is dammed upstream of Alabama State Route 261 in the Old Town area to form Lake Davidson, which was used for recreation and water wheel power at the turn of the 20th century. Fishing, wading, and canoeing are popular uses of both waterways.
Helena sits at the foothills of the very southern extent of the Appalachian Mountains as they descend into the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain. The area is largely rolling hills with numerous small streams, and undeveloped areas are primarily mixed woodlands.
The climate of Helena is typical of the Deep South, with long, hot, humid summers and short, relatively mild winters. Summer high temperatures are commonly in the upper 90s and low 100s F; winter lows are usually in the 20s F. Measurable snowfall is rare, occurring only a few times a decade. Thunderstorms are frequent occurrences during the summer. The Helena area experiences two severe weather peaks, early spring (March–April) and late fall (November), with tornadoes being frequent hazards during both peaks. Hurricanes coming ashore on the northern Gulf coast occasionally reach Helena with tropical storm-force winds.
As of the census of 2010, 16,793 people, 3,828 households, and 3,043 families resided in the city. The population density was 603.0 people per square mile (232.9/km²). The 3,983 housing units averaged 233.3 per square mile (90.1/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 82.5% White, 13.1% Black or African American, 0.20% Native American, 0.65% Asian, 1.1% Pacific Islander, 0.35% from other races, and 0.52% from two or more races; 3.3% of the population was Hispanic or Latino of any race.
Of the 3,828 households, 43.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 70.2% were married couples living together, 7.4% had a female householder with no husband present, and 20.5% were not families; 17.7% of all households were made up of individuals, and 3.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.69 and the average family size was 3.06.
In the city, the population was distributed as 28.7% under the age of 18, 6.0% from 18 to 24, 42.7% from 25 to 44, 17.5% from 45 to 64, and 5.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31 years. For every 100 females, there were 90.9 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.6 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $62,908, and for a family was $66,250. Males had a median income of $45,291 versus $32,431 for females. The per capita income for the city was $26,323. About 1.4% of families and 2.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 4.2% of those under age 18 and none of those age 65 or over.
The local economy is broadly diversified among professional, service, and manufacturing jobs. Many of the residents of Helena commute to work in other communities within the greater Birmingham area. No employer is dominant in the city, and recent economic growth has mainly come in the service industries to support the increased population. Well-known local industries include the Vulcan Materials Company construction aggregate quarry and the Plantation Pipeline depot and tank farm. A developed industrial park includes a wide variety of manufacturers.
Helena holds numerous arts and crafts fairs and musical performances throughout the year in public spaces. Helena's residents also benefit from the multitude of cultural attractions in the greater Birmingham area such as the Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham Museum of Art, McWane Center, and Vulcan statue and park. During 2005, Helena gained nationwide notice as the hometown of singer Bo Bice, who was a finalist on the popular Fox program American Idol.
Major annual community events largely reflect traditional small-town American life and include the Easter Egg Hunt, Buck Creek Festival, 4th of July Picnic, concert and fireworks, Fall Carnival, Spring Fling, and Christmas Parade.
Major points of interest include the Cahaba River, Old Town Amphitheater, and the Old Town district, which includes the 19th-century jail and railroad freight depot, as well as commercial structures from the 19th century. The Kenneth R. Penhale Museum opened in October 2011 in the Old Town district.
Outdoor sports are popular in Helena. Football attracts the most participants and spectators at all levels; golf, basketball, baseball, softball, and soccer are also popular among residents. Some children participate in city-sponsored sports and school-sponsored sports. Others participate in sports at the nearby Pelham YMCA.
Numerous minor-league sports franchises are located in the Greater Birmingham area, within which Helena is located. Local sports venues (in that area) include the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (Hoover Met), Regions Field in Southside of Birmingham, Legion Field in Birmingham, the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), and Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds. College sports, which are most popular in Helena, just like the rest of Alabama, use several of these venues. College sports fans in Helena most commonly support the Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn Tigers, UAB Blazers, and Samford Bulldogs, and many are alumni of those schools.
Numerous parks are provided within Helena by the city and Shelby County. These parks feature open green spaces, playground equipment, a fishing pond, and a baseball field complex often used for tournaments and recreational leagues. The Helena Sports Complex opened in 2003 and features a community center and spaces for baseball, softball, cheerleading, basketball, and soccer. The most popular parks in Helena include Joe Tucker Park and Cahaba Lily Park. The Old Town Helena Amphitheater, along the banks of Buck Creek, features a stage and grass seating area where numerous productions are staged, including the popular Summer Sundown Cinemas (free movies) and 4th of July celebration. The Cahaba River and its tributary Buck Creek run through Helena. Buck Creek is dammed upstream of Alabama Highway 261 in the Old Town area to form Lake Davidson. Fishing, wading, and canoeing are popular uses of both waterways.
The Current City Leadership who were elected in 2016 are:
The City operates the following departments:
The city enjoys full-time, paid public safety services through the Helena Police Department and Helena Fire Department. The Helena Fire Department has three fire stations and includes volunteer firefighters in addition to the paid staff. The Helena Police Department includes a K-9 unit, and along with the fire department, sponsors a very successful Law Enforcement Explorer Post with Learning-for-Life, a division of Boy Scouts of America.
Public education for students from kindergarten to 12th grade is provided by the Shelby County School System, including Helena Elementary School, Helena Intermediate School, Helena Middle School, and Helena High School. Helena has its long-awaited high school which opened in the fall of the 2014–15 year.
Helena is within the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa/Anniston media market. Its major local television stations are WBRC Fox 6, WBIQ APT (PBS) 10, WVTM (NBC) 13, WTTO CW 21, ABC 33/40, WIAT CBS 42, WPXH ION 44, and WABM MyNetworkTV 68. Helena is also served by all the Birmingham radio stations, including 100.5 WJQX, an ESPN Radio station licensed to Helena. The Birmingham News is Helena's major daily newspaper. It publishes a special Shelby County section, the Shelby News, in addition to the regular Birmingham edition, which is distributed to Helena subscribers. The Shelby County Reporter is a weekly newspaper covering Shelby County, including Helena. Additionally, the Helena City News is published monthly by the City of Helena as a public service and is mailed to all Helena residents. The Helena City News is a newsletter/news magazine-style publication, typically runs about 30 pages, and includes reporting on past and future community events, profiles on local businesses and residents, and monthly columns by area physicians and elected government officials.
Helena is conveniently located near two major interstates. I-459, which joins major east-west interstates I-20 and I-59, is located 9 miles to the north; north-south oriented I-65 is 3 miles east of Old Town Helena. AL-261 runs through the heart of Helena and connects Helena to neighboring city Pelham, where it intersects US-31, located 2 miles east of Old Town. Here it becomes Valleydale Road and continues to its terminus at US-280, ultimately connecting Helena with eastern Hoover. CSX Transportation provides rail service on two separate lines, the S&NA South subdivision between Birmingham and Montgomery, and the Lineville subdivision between Birmingham and Atlanta, Georgia. General aviation and private jet services are available at the nearby Bessemer Airport (EKY) about 8 miles north of Old Town. Extensive commercial flights are available at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM) about 25 miles to the northeast. Intercity rail service is available on the Amtrak Crescent 19 miles to the north.
Electric service is provided by Alabama Power Company; water, sewage and garbage pick-up by the city; and cable television by Charter Communications.
Numerous medical professionals practice in Helena. The city also benefits from its proximity to Birmingham's extensive medical community, including several major hospitals and University of Alabama at Birmingham medical schools. The closest hospital is Baptist Shelby in Alabaster.
Helena is the hometown of American Idol's 2005 runner-up Bo Bice and Olympic gold medalist Vonetta Flowers, the first African American to medal in the Winter Olympics. It is also the hometown of the Broadway star Rebecca Luker, who has appeared as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, Maria in The Sound of Music, Marian in The Music Man, Claudia in Nine, and Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. Luker has been nominated for a Tony Award three times. Helena native Liz Cochran is Miss Alabama 2009 competed in the 2010 Miss America Pageant
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