Other travel stories
Butte Lunches
Montana's Hot Spring Resorts
A Trip to Lewis & Clark Caverns
Ramblin' Around the World Museum of Mining
Retracing the Nez Perce National Historic Trail
Your Day in the Butte Silver Bow County Courthouse
 
Going For the Gold in Montana
by George Everett
Grasshopper Creek
Grasshopper Creek near Bannack where gold
was first discovered in Montana in 1862.

 In the Ruby Valley, the tall cumulus clouds cast long shadows across the alfalfa fields. A century ago, it might have been bunchgrass and sage broken up by badger holes, but it is not hard to imagine what it looked like then.There are more people in Montana now, but still less than a million, fewer than live in most American cities. And the state has thousands of miles of asphalt and gravel roads.

Still, the scenery hasn't changed too much since Montana was founded as a territory in the 1860s. That scenery brings millions of travelers to Montana every summer, but the first draw to Montana Territory in the 1860s was the lure of mineral wealth, the glitter of gold.

Thousands came in 1862 when John White announced that he had found gold in Grasshopper Creek. By 1863 Bannack boasted a population of more than 3,000. Most of these new residents simply came across the mountains from Idaho where gold had been discovered the previous season.

In 1863, Bill Fairweather, Henry Bogar, and Barney Hughes made a larger strike on Alder Gulch 70 miles to the east of Bannack and many of the miners in Bannack moved over to establish Virginia City.From 1864 to 1869, more than 30 million dollars worth of gold was extracted from Alder Gulch near the boomtown of Virginia City, Montana.

Lasting fortunes, however, were made for surprisingly few. Men like William Andrews Clark, who later became one of the richest men in the world, got his start by turning up traces of gold here but he started making real money came when he began hauling tobacco and other pecious goods to the miners. Most of the fortunes were made by men who saw the demand for goods and services to supply the miners. The lasting fortunes of the day were not established in gold but in cattle herds, flour mills, and freighting services that reaped huge profits by carrying supplies to the mines from Salt Lake City. Clark, for example parlayed his modest stake in gold to start a freight service that grew large enough to allow him to invest in banking and mines.

The lasting effect of the gold boom was that it brought settlement with everything that came with it. It brought out the best in the arriving miners who organized for the mutual benefit of themselves setting up a miner's court to peaceably settle disputes over claims. And many of the merchants and businessmen who followed the gold made long range plans to stay long after the bloom was off the rush. The Montana Historical Society was established in 1865 by these same men who sensed destiny in their work and sought to establish a historical record of what they had yet to do.

These earliest settlements became the cradle that rocked Montana into existence as a territory and then a state. A government was formed and businesses were established to supply the many needs of the miners.

But the gold strikes also brought along the worst of society who followed the lure of quick riches. Gamblers, thieves, and murderers were attracted by the wealth that was being pulled from the sands and gravel bars of Bannack and Alder Gulch and the lack of law protecting it. Their fortunes lay not in extracting wealth directly from the ground but extracting it at the second level in the fastest ways possible between the miners and the distant banks.

Victims like George Edwards had only themselves to rely on for protection and individuals were outgunned and outnumbered. When searchers by happenstance found the bloodstained clothes of Edwards stuffed into a badger hole, there was a general call to do something to stop the lawlessness in their midst.

Finally, when a hunter found the naked body of Nicholas Tbalt in a thicket of willow bushes, a citizen's Vigilance Committee was formed to eradicate the criminal element. They soon went on a hanging spree that sent outlaws spurring their horses elsewhere and making even true innocents nervous. At one point, a superstitious rancher named Baron O'Keefe near Missoula complained about using the three corners of his stable as hanging posts for a trio of captured Innocents. When the Vigilantes pointed out that there was still one corner left if he didn't have less to say, O'Keefe retracted his objections and made himself scarce. In all, the Vigilantes hanged 23 suspected "Innocents" throughout Southwest Montana without the fuss of judge or jury.

Today, Bannack and Virginia City not only preserve the flavor of frontier Montana, there is plenty to chew on as well. Bannack is now a ghost town preserved as a state park by Montana. The town is active throughout the year with special events such as lectures but it truly comes alive for Bannack Days each July.
 
Scheduled to take advantage of the short summer in the high mountain valley where Bannack is situated, Bannack Days last for a weekend in the middle of the summer. The festival highlights period crafts and skills such as mule wrangling and blacksmithing, and the ghost town comes alive as a living museum of culture and art. Children learn how to throw the houlihan from real wranglers. Mock shoot-outs erupt on the streets. The sweet sound of Gloria Clark's piano playing erupts from the long silent saloon. Rides are available on stagecoaches, horses, wagons, and carriages and combined with the period clothing on the riders, the town reveals what it may have looked like in its prime as the fledging teriitorial capital.

Seventy miles to the east, Virginia City has daily attractions throughout the summer that allow visitors to use more than their imagination to recall the gold mining frontier days there. For decades, Virginia City and Nevada City two miles down the gulch have been the home for the collection of historical artifacts of the Bovey family. For decades, Charles F. Bovey scoured the state for artifacts to display at his Nevada City frontier town exhibits. When he retired he handed the operation of the properties to his son, Ford.

With the prospect that the collection would be scattered far and wide through auction sales, the state of Montana purchased the Bovey properties for $6.5 million dollars in 1997 and now maintains the resources there for the pleasure of future generations of residents and visitors alike.
 
Between Virginia City and Nevada City, visitors can stroll through a recreated frontier town that includes a Chinatown jammed with authentic artifacts from a time when thousands of Chinese laborers came to the camps to rework the abandoned claims of Euro-American miners.

Visitors can pan for real gold and gems themselves at the Gold River Mining Museum. For $12 they can get a bucket with guaranteed gems and gold flakes and an introduction to the process of prospecting using pan and sluice box.

Seventy-five miles to the north is the old gold camp of Butte that grew into a metropolis of nearly 100,000 residents. When Butte went through its booms for gold and silver, its prosperity was linked to another precious metal - copper.

Butte's fortunes were built between the 1870s and the 1920s on the vast reserves of copper that continue to be tapped today. However, the city that grew into one of the largest settlements in the West with about 100,000 rowdy residents began in the 1870s as a humble gold camp and survived a silver boom and bust before copper emerged as the metal that would secure Butte's survival.

Today that brief era of Butte's history is preserved at the
World Museum of Mining on the western edge of town. Hell Roarin' Gulch recreates the mining life during that time with a restored town with shops and exhibits that interpret the period all built around the gallows frame of the Orphan Girl Mine, a defunct silver mine.Various exhibits demonstrate early mining technology and culture through the use of artifacts and an extensive photograph collection.
 
West of Butte near Philipsburg, gold seekers in the 19th century were disappointed in their search for the yellow metal but settled instead for one of the richest sources in the world for precious gems known as sapphires. Gem Mountain Sapphire was first developed in the 1890s and since than has produced more than 180 million carats of sapphires. The Original Mine there is still the source for every known color of sapphire and some colors that are found nowhere else in the world. Today visitors can stop on the Sklalkao Road between Philipsburg and the Bitterrot Valley can stop to wash gravel for sapphires or juts enjoy some of the most beautiful country in Montana between Yellowstone and Glacier Parks.

In fact, surrounding all of this history is Southwest Montana, the true treasure that the immigrants found when they came looking for gold. Mountains tall enough to have snow fields glinting in the summer heat and above it all the infinite blue of the summer horizon. Despite the played out placer mines and ramshackle ghost towns that mock the dreams of a past century, the golden light remains.

Visitors can stand in the same spot as prospectors did a century ago, and stop for a moment of wonder at the transitory treasure of bouyant light and color that infuses the day.

Getting There

Butte is a good place to begin a tour of Montana's Gold Country. First stop should be the Butte Chamber of Commerce Visitor and Transportation Center for information and to get oriented. The center is just off Interstate 90 at Exit 216 in Butte. Plenty of parking for RVs and the KOA Kampground next door offers spaces for overnight stays. From the visitor center, you can drive or park and take a historic trolley ride ($7 for 2-hour guided tour) around Butte's historic district, including the World Museum of Mining ($5 admission). Visitors heading west from Butte should take the Pintler Scenic Route through Anaconda and plan a visit to Gem Mountain Sapphire near Philipsburg (no admission charge).

For travelers from the west, east, and north, a recommended loop drive starts in Butte, then travels south to Dillon for 60 miles on Interstate 15. From Dillon, drive a few miles west on Route 278 to the entrance to Bannack State Park. There is a comfortable RV campground along Grasshopper Creek just outside of the park. After Bannack, you can backtrack to Dillon and then drive northeast on Montana Highway 41 to Twin Bridges and then on Route 287 to Nevada City and Virginia City, a drive of about 50 miles that takes you along Alder Gulch. Travelers can then drive north on 287 to Cardwell and rejoin I-90 to return to Butte.

Travelers coming from the south can begin this loop drive in the opposite direction from Dillon. If you travel this route, plan a stop to relax at Elkhorn Hot Springs (406) 834-3434, for good food and a soak in natural hot springs.
Where To Stay and Eat; What to Do

In Butte, stay at the historic
Finlen Hotel, 100 E. Broadway, (406) 723-5461 ($33 to $47) built in the 1920s on the model of New York City's elegant twin-towered Hotel Astor. You only need to look across the street for a good restaurant - The Acoma and a half block away is the five-star Uptown Cafe (406) 723-4735 at 47 E. Broadway.

The
Mai Wah Museum at 17 W. Mercury St. with its exhibits of Chinese who came to dig gold in the area and stayed to establish a bustling Chinatown is worth a visit. The Mai Wah Society at 17 W. Mercury St. ($2 adults, children free) operates the museum in the Wah Chong Tai Co. (literally "Announcing Beautiful Old China") building which served Butte's Chinatown as a community center, mercantile, and also housed a noodle parlor on the second floor. The museum coordinates exhibits and presentations to interpret the Asian heritage of Butte and the entire region. From here, too, you can arrange for a guided tour of German Gulch, an old mining camp about 15 miles from Butte. A few years ago an archaeological study revealed Chinese artifacts, including evidence of dried fish that had been imported from China.

Around the corner from the Mai Wah is
The Pekin Noodle Parlor (117 S. Main St.), a Chinese restaurant that has been operated by the same family for three generations. While Ming's Restaurant (116 W. Park St.) may not be as historic, the Szechwan and Hunan cuisine is superb and the steamed dumplings compare with any you will find from Hong Kong to New York.

Butte has a few excellent bed and breakfasts for travelers, too.
The Copper King Mansion ($55 to $95) at 219 W. Granite (406) 782-7580 is the Butte home of Copper King William Andrews Clark, one of the richest men in the world in his day. On the National Register of Historic Places, the home is an attraction in its own right and tours of the mansion are conducted regularly.

The Scott Inn ($65 to $85) at 105 W. Copper, (406) 723-7030 is situated on the northern side of Butte's historic district, close to restaurants and historical attractions, including the Butte Archives across the street.

In Virginia City, try Just An Experience ($48 to $68), (406) 843-5402, a bed and breakfast on Highway 287 just west of Virginia City. Located between Virginia City and Nevada City, the management will arrange for horseback riding, guided four-wheel drive tours, or whitewater trips for their guests.You can stay right at Nevada City itself at the Nevada City Hotel and Motel ($45 to $60), (406) 843-5377, in a restored sod-roofed miner's cabin or inside the hotel with more modern amenities.Within Virginia City, stay at the restored Fairweather Inn Hotel ($37 to $45) or check in at The Stonehouse ($50), 306 E. Idaho, a bed and breakfast in the middle of the historic town.

In Nevada City, the artifacts were salvaged many years ago from Butte and Helena, and put on display in authentic cabins in 1972. Since then several movies have been filmed in the recreated frontier village, including Little Big Man, The Return of Lonesome Dove, and A Thousand Pieces of Gold. Tickets for self-guided tours are available at the Nevada City Hotel and Motel desk. ($5 for adults; $3.50 for children under 12).

The Thompson-Hickman Museum at 217 Idaho (406) 843-5346 in Virginia City has a display of gold rush era artifacts. The Virginia City-Madison County Historical Museum at 225 W. Wallace, ($3 for adults, $2 for children under 12) (406) 843-5500, is worth a visit, as is the Beaverhead County Museum in Dillon (15 S. Montana), (406) 683-5027, which includes a display of artifacts that bring alive the history of the gold rush era.

Help planning a trip to anywhere in Montana is available by calling toll-free 1-800-847-4868 to have a free travel planner kit mailed to you. Or, you can visit Montana Online at
http://visitmt.com.
For Virginia City, call 1-800-829-2969, for a free brochure, or visit their web page at http://pages.prodigy.com/virginia.

For details about Dillon, call (406) 683-5511 or visit the Beaverhead County Chamber of Commerce web page at
http://bvhd.bmt.net/~chamber.
This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2002 by George Everett. All rights reserved.
 
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