In following the direction of Resolution VII, signed 3 March 1819 during the second session of the Fifteenth Congress of the United States, which stated that U.S. Navy ships of the "third class" be named "after the principle cities and towns," the gunboat and two cruisers were each named for Helena, capital city of Montana.
(Gbt. 1. 250'9"; b. 40'11"; dr. 9'; a. 4 4" r., 4 6-pdrs., 411-pdrs., 1 3"r.)
The first Helena was launched by the Newport News Shipbuilding Co., Newport News, Va., 30 January 1896; sponsored by Miss Agnes Belle Steele, daughter of the mayor of Helena; commissioned at New York Navy Yard 8 July 1897, Comdr. W. T. Swinburne in command.
Helena's first assignment was with the North Atlantic Fleet, cruising primarily in home waters. During the Spanish-American War, she stood by in Cuban waters, where she saw action several times. On 2 and 3 July 1898 she exchanged fire with enemy batteries at Fort Tunas. On 18 July she was part of the squadron which closed the port of Manzanillo by sinking or destroying eight small vessels there during a vigorous attack.
The great problem facing the United States at the close of the Spanish-American War was the Philippine Insurrection. To aid in suppressing this rebellion, Helena sailed from Boston 3 November 1898, bound for duty on the Asiatic Station, via the Suez Canal, arriving Philippines 10 February 1899. On 21 May 1899 she was present at the evacuation of Jolo by the Spanish and the landing of American troops to replace them. During June she stood by with other vessels in Manila Bay to support the Army during its offensive south of Manila into Cavite Province. One of her landing parties brought troops ashore in an assault which carried strong defenses along the Zapote River 13 June. On 7 November 1899, Helena bombarded San Fabian in Lingayen Gulf, and covered the landing of 2,500 troops there. Just 45 years later, American troops would once more storm those beaches while American naval guns boomed in support.
Helena remained in the Far East for the rest of her naval service, engaged in protecting American lives and interests. She served in Chinese waters from October 1900 until December 1902, then returned to the-Philippines until March 1903 when she sailed back to the China coast. In December 1904, she moored once more at Cavite in the Philippines, where she was placed out of commission 19 April 1905.
Helena recommissioned 16 July 1906, and cruised on the Asiatic Station until June 1907. From that time on, with intervals for overhaul, Helena served both with the South China patrol and Yangtze River Patrol. She was placed in reduced commission 29 June 1929, but continued to serve on the South China Patrol until 27 May 1932 when she was decommissioned and struck from the Navy list. She was sold 7 July 1934.
USS Helena in a mud dock on the Liao River, China, during the winter of 1903 and 1904
25 October 2005