- Going For the
Gold in Montana
- by George
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
(406) 723-4735 at 47 E. Broadway.
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.
($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
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.