A Brief History of Montana's Gold West Country
Promoters characterize Gold West Country as the place where Montana began. In a sense, that’s true. Gold and other minerals jump-started the state as we know it today. Montana’s first territorial capital was at Bannack, the state’s pioneering gold rush town.
For centuries, these mountains, valleys and plains supported a thriving Native culture. Lewis and Clark’s 1805-06 expedition opened the region to white exploration. Beaver thronged the rivers and creeks, attracting legendary fur trappers and traders.
Modern Montana was born in 1858, when brothers James and Granville Stuart saw the glint of gold in placer deposits at Gold Creek, east of present-day Drummond.
The trio couldn’t have had a clue to the ramifications of their find. But then, the site never amounted to much. The big rush occurred four years later when one John White found sizeable deposits of placer gold on Grasshopper Creek, northwest of present-day Dillon. The hell’s-a-poppin’ town that sprang up on the site came to be called Bannack.
Bannack might have seemed a mite unsuitable as the seat of the spanking new Territory of Montana, what with scandalous goings-on such as the Plummer Gang robbing and murdering wayfarers. However, Bannack’s lack of civilizing influences was typical of that rip-roaring era. Given the no-holds-barred political climate of the day (and for many a day well into the 20th century), Bannack’s elevation to territorial capital fit like a wet moccasin.
Permanence not being a virtue of 19th-century gold towns, the boom soon rolled over Bannack and stampeded on to new and richer digs. It reined up short at Alder Gulch, a 14-mile stretch of rich diggin’s between the Tobacco Root and Gravelly Ranges discovered by William Fairweather. Diggin’s, it was. Here, the gold was underground; not easily panned placer gold. Shafts and tunnels soon honeycombed the gulch, setting a precedent that would be followed in countless mining areas (Butte comes to mind) and sorely scarring the face of Montana.
Virginia City, one of several settlements that sprang up along Alder Gulch, became one of the great gold towns of the American West. Now owned by the State of Montana, the town courts visitors. It awaits on MT 287, between Alder and Ennis.
The next big 1864 strike occurred at Last Chance Gulch, soon to bear the respectable name of Helena. These gold deposits proved to be th most extensive in the territory, producing some $19 million over the next four years. The seat of Montana’s political life soon shifted north to Helena, with that city serving as territorial capital until 1894, when it won state capital status.
The starting gate for Montana’s headlong race into the mining age stood wide open. Taking the bit in their teeth, those early prospectors and their inheritors soon transformed themselves into world-class mining moguls. Out front, neck and neck on the long stretch, galloped William Andrews Clark and Marcus Daly.
In the 1860s, Butte was a marginal gold mining camp. In the 1870s, it enjoyed a flirtation with silver, the metal that then dominated the Montana mining scene. As the digs deepened, it became apparent that the Butte mines were incredibly rich in copper. This, at a time when new technologies were demanding large quantities of copper. Prices shot into the blue Montana sky. One of Butte’s biggest investors was an Easterner-cum-Montanan named William Andrews Clark.
In 1882, an Irishman named Marcus Daly located a rich copper vein in the Anaconda, a Butte silver mine. The word was soon out: the Anaconda contained the world’s richest bodies of copper sulphate.
The Anaconda’s success set off a mining boom that would dominate Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front for decades and still does. With mining came strikes, riots and disasters that rent the fabric of the community and claimed hundreds of lives.
Mining’s impact on the environment is incalculable even today. The effects are being cleaned up and covered over even as open pit mining continues and factions wrangle over permitting further exploration. In 1985, Butte and environs were declared the biggest Superfund cleanup site in the country. In 1986, the pumps that kept Butte’s giant strip mine dry were turned off and the Berkeley Pit was allowed to fill with toxic waters seeping from a maze of old mine tunnels and shafts. The waters rise steadily year after year, creating a “lake” deep enough to swallow an 80-story building.
Mining is but one chapter in Gold West Country’s past. Lewis and Clark’s expedition had a dramatic impact on much of the region, laying down landmarks you can see today. The Lewis and Clark Trail resembles the meanderings of a confused rabbit seeking a hole. It was here, along these rivers, that members of the Voyage of Discovery forged ahead, backtracked and explored wrong routes before Nez Perce guides led them over the Bitterroots.
There is no Indian reservation in Gold West Country, but these mountains and valleys variously sustained the Shoshone, Flathead and Piegan (Blackfeet) tribes. The Nez Perce (Ne Mee Poo) National Historic Trail traverses a portion of the region. After the August 9, 1877 Battle of the Big Hole, Chief Joseph and his people followed the Bitterroots south to Bannock Pass and thence into Idaho. The battle site has been awarded National Battlefield and Nez Perce Historical Park status.
Wherever you might wander in Gold West Country, the dramatic events of yesterday will reach out and grab your attention in ways you will long remember.
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