There are many things Texas is known for: cowboy boots, cattle, oil, and the occasional president of the United States. Oh, and the myth of the wild frontier—old Texas towns that once housed beautiful women and vicious outlaws. Surely you’ve seen at least one John Wayne movie.
Despite Hollywood’s interpretations, those old Texas towns were real. Some of them, like San Antonio or Austin (which used to be called Waterloo), stood the test of time and continue to sculpt the future. Others weren’t so lucky and died off not long after they appeared, becoming ghost towns, empty shells. One such town, located between San Antonio and Goliad in Karnes County, was famous because of its rough and dangerous attitude and sweet, inviting name: Helena. Like most towns, Helena (often pronounced HELL-ena by many people of the day) had innocent beginnings. In 1776 Karnes County was part of a Royal Spanish Land Grant; the land unspoiled. Eventually, people began to settle on the land. In the summer of 1852, Pennsylvania native Thomas Ruckman was traveling from San Antonio to Goliad when he happened upon the small town, then named Alamita (actually, it was more of a village; it did, after all, have only one general store and a blacksmith). Ruckman fell in love with the place and moved there with his partner, Lewis S. Owings. The two established a store and then a gristmill and a sawmill. The growing town was renamed Helena, after Lewis’ wife, Helen.
Within no time, Helena became the biggest town for miles, making it an attractive destination for transients and outlaws. Helena continued to grow: two hotels, two newspapers, a stable, a harness shop, a boot shop, mercantile stores, and about thirteen saloons. After the Civil War, Helena was so packed with rustlers, gunfighters, outlaws, and drunks that it soon earned the name the "toughest town on earth." Fights were so common in Helena that people cheered their outcome. One in particular became known as the Helena Duel—two men had their left wrists tied together (although some say it was the right) and each was armed with a three-inch blade, ensuring that the fight would last as long as possible because one single strike would not kill a man but merely wound him.
The most famous brawl in Helena led to the town’s demise. There are many accounts, but the basic story is that Emmett Butler, the son of one of the richest ranchers in Karnes County, was shot one night by a drunk outlaw who was attempting to flee town after he had killed the town sheriff (he died after being hit by several bullets fired by people trying to stop his attempt at flight). Butler’s father, William G. Butler, was enraged and came back three days later with a posse of 25 men, demanding to learn the identity of his son’s killer. When no one spoke out, he vowed to kill the town that had killed his son. In 1885 the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad began building in Karnes County and wanted to lay track through Helena. But the city would not pay for the construction or donate the land. This impasse—coupled with Butler’s stature, power, and persuasive tongue—solidified the argument to reroute the railroad west of the San Antonio River, thus making Karnes City bloom while slowly allowing Helena to choke. Shopkeepers began to shut down their stores and saloons, and even the outlaws, many of whom were dependent on the free transportation provided by train cars, stopped coming. On December 21, 1893, voters elected to move the county seat from Helena to Karnes City. But Helena hasn’t been forgotten. In 1990 Helena had about 35 residents. Interested folks can even take a tour of the place. See, the myth lives on.