Helena is a city in Jefferson and Shelby Counties in the U.S. state of
Alabama. Helena is considered a suburb of Birmingham and part of the Greater
Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan area. It is also one of three cities, along with
Alabaster and Pelham, that make up the area known as "North Shelby" or "North
Shelby County". As of the 2000 census the population was 10,296. 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).
“Old Town” Helena during a rare snowfall on January 19, 2008. These buildings date to the late 1800s.
The community that would become Helena started in 1845 as the town of Cove. In 1856 the town changed its name to Hillsboro, at the same time as a rolling mill was built. This rolling mill would produce arms for the Confederacy and would later be destroyed by Union raiders at the end of the Civil War.
During Reconstruction, railroads would be extended through Helena as part of the post-war development of central Alabama’s mineral resources. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad sent an engineer named Pete Boyle to survey a route south from Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama. The station established near the town of Hillsboro was named Helena after Boyle’s sweetheart, Helen Lee. After the area around the station developed and encompassed the town of Hillsboro, the community incorporated to become the City of Helena. The City's first mayor was M.H. Williams, a railroad agent.
The steel mill was subsequently reopened and the City flourished during the late 1800s and into the early 20th century with numerous industrial facilities such as steel mills, a cotton gin, a grist mill, coal mines, and a rail yard, along with residences, stores, and hotels. Fire swept through the city in 1895, destroying many structures in the downtown area and along Buck Creek.
Around 1920 the boom ended with the closing of the coal mines and the relocation of the steel mill. The population declined as residents moved in search of jobs. The Great Depression dealt Helena another blow, as did the devastating 1933 tornado which killed 13 and destroyed 110 homes.
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.
Buck Creek flows over the dam at Helena, Alabama during a rare snowfall on January 19, 2008
Helena is located at 33°16′47″N 86°51′22″W / 33.27972°N 86.85611°W / 33.27972; -86.85611 (33.279715, -86.856060).
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 17.1 square miles (44.3 km²), of which, 17.1 square miles (44.2 km²) of it is land and 0.04 square miles (0.1 km²) of it (0.12%) is 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, 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 months The Helena area experiences two severe weather peaks, early Spring (March-April) and late Fall (November), with tornados 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 2000, there were 10,296 people, 3,828 households, and 3,043 families residing in the city. The population density was 603.0 people per square mile (232.9/km²). There were 3,983 housing units at an average density of 233.3/sq mi (90.1/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 93.25% White, 5.00% Black or African American, 0.20% Native American, 0.65% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.35% from other races, and 0.52% from two or more races. 1.00% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 3,828 households out of which 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 non-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 spread out with 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 the median income 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. There is no dominant employer 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.
Arts and culture
Helena holds numerous arts and crafts fairs and musical performances throughout the year in public spaces. Helena’s residents also benefits from the multitude of cultural benefits 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 in the popular Fox program American Idol.
Annual cultural events
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 the Christmas Parade.
Museums and other points of interest
Major points of interest include the Cahaba River, Old Town Amphitheater, and the Old Town district which includes the 1800s jail and railroad freight depot as well as commercial structures from the 1800s.
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.
Numerous minor league sports franchises are located in the greater Birmingham area. The neighboring city of Hoover is the home of the Birmingham Barons, the area’s oldest professional sports franchise.
Parks and recreation
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 as well as recreational leagues. 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 movie) 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 City of Helena is governed by a Mayor and City Council under a Mayor-Council form of government. The five member City Council and Mayor are each elected to four year terms on an at-large basis. The mayor for over 40 years is Charles "Sonny" Penhale.
The City operates the following departments: Administrative, Streets & Sanitation, Finance, Planning and Building, Public Safety, and Utility Board
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 also includes volunteer firefighters in addition to the paid staff. The Helena Police Department includes a K-9 unit and sponsors a very successful Law Enforcement Explorer Post with Learning-for-Life, a division of Boy Scouts of America.
Kindergarten through 12th Grade public education is provided by the Shelby County School System. Helena Elementary School and Helena Middle School (opening July 2008) lie within the city limits, high school students attend Pelham High School in the neighboring city of Pelham, Alabama.
Helena is within the Birmingham media market. Major local television stations are ABC 33/40, WIAT CBS 42, WBRC Fox 6, and WVTM NBC 13. The Birmingham News is Helena’s major daily newspaper. The News 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 approximately 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.. A popular website for Helena residents is HelenaBoards.com where they discuss everything from their favorite Helena restaurants to local politics.
Alabama Highway 261 bridge across Buck Creek in Helena during a rare snowfall on January 19, 2008
Helena is conveniently located to two major interstates. I-459 is located 9 miles to the north which joins major east-west interstates I-20 and I-59; north-south oriented I-65 is 3 miles to the east of Old Town Helena. 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 service is 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) approximately 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, Alabama.
Notable natives and residents
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 played some of the most prized roles on Broadway such as: Christine in The Phantom of The Opera, Maria in the Sound of Music, along with several others. Rebecca Luker has been nominated for a Tony award three times. Helena native Liz Cochran is Miss Alabama 2009 and will compete in the 2010 Miss America Pageant.