Montana has a rich history of gold, silver, copper, and coal mining. It ranks 8th in total gold production among the Western states. For more than a century, miners and the mining industry have brought untold wealth and class to Montana. The Mining Law of 1872 still allows speculators to remove minerals from public lands for just a small fee so even today new prospectors are scouting properties.
Our history began with the discovery of gold in 1862 by John White on Grasshopper Creek. As news of the strike spread, many prospectors and businessmen rushed to Bannack hoping to strike it rich. By the following spring the town had grown to 1,000 and was named the first Territorial Capital of Montana.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼In 1863 Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar discovered gold near Alder Creek about 60 miles from Bannack. Planning on keeping their discovery to themselves, the men traveled to Bannack for supplies where their secret got out leading some 200 miners to follow them. From there news spread quickly and before long Alder Creek, which ran the length of the gulch, was flooded with prospectors living in makeshift shacks. The “Fourteen Mile City” as it became known, included the towns of Junction City, Adobe Town, Nevada City, Central City, Virginia City, Bear Town, Highland, Pine Grove, French Town, Hungry Hollow, and Summit. By fall of 1863, an estimated 10,000 people had moved in and the state capital was moved from Bannack to Virginia City, where it remained until 1875. Virginia City housed the state’s first public school and first newspaper.
The early prospectors who could afford it came first by steamboat to Fort Benton in the 1860s. All roads led to Fort Benton and the town boomed as a transportation hub for the entire Upper Missouri region. Others came by overland routes traveling traditional pathways that native people had been using for thousands of years, most frequently traveling across the Mullan Road, a 624-mile dirt track from Walla Walla, Washington, through the Deer Lodge Valley, to Fort Benton crossing under the pass and the Continental Divide at an elevation of 5,566 feet.
The early claims were predominantly placer mines, which required hand tools such as sluice boxes to separate gold from gravel.
In 1867 hydraulicking was introduced to the area. Jets of pressurized water washed down the dirt, leaving behind piles of rocks and hydraulic cuts. The timber on the surrounding hillsides was clear-cut to provide building materials, mine timber, and fuel.
By 1870 there were a significant number of underground quartz mines. Quartz mining (hard-rock mining) involved pulling the quartz out of shafts by buckets or carts and the loads of ore went to stamp mills where large machines crushed rocks into fine sand. Some stamp mills also yielded other precious metals like silver, copper, and zinc that appeared in the same rock as the gold. By the late 1870s, mining camps dotted nearly 500 Montana gulches.
In 1876 the United States Mint began buying Montana’s silver to make coins and by 1880 Montana was producing more silver than gold. In 1887 Montana was number one in the nation for silver, producing approximately $15.5 million dollars. Major mining districts in Montana included Butte, Philipsburg, Helena, Neihart, Elkhorn, Granite, Castle, Glendale, and others across the state.
In 1879 Thomas Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb which created a new wave of mining – copper. Until the late 1880s, copper was used only for pots and pans, roofing material, and maybe some ornamental decoration. When the electrical industry spread, so did demand for copper. Every industrialized city
in the world was installing streetlights. People wanted electricity in their homes. In 1882 Marcus Daly, who’d been in the mining industry for years, came across a deposit of copper in the silver-mining camp at Butte. Daly discovered that the ore found in Butte Hill outside of Butte contained up to 35 percent copper.
In 1880, the first railroad, the Utah and Northern Railroad, entered Montana Territory allowing large mining companies the opportunity to bring in heavy equipment. Large-scale mining industries developed in Montana and mining became big business. Northern Pacific built the 3,426-foot long Mullen Tunnel and rail line during 1883.
Between 1880 and the early 1990s, Butte produced staggering mineral wealth, including nearly 3 million ounces of gold, 709 million ounces of silver, 855 million pounds of lead, 3.7 billion pounds of manganese, 4.9 billion pounds of zinc, and an incredible 20.8 billion pounds of copper.
By the 1890s the mining interests of Butte were consolidated under the three Copper Kings: Marcus Daly, William Clark, and Augustus Heinze. The mining operations of Daly, Clark, and others churned furiously 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, taking copper ore out of the ground and putting it to use in the Industrial Revolution’s most high- tech commodity – the transmission of electricity. The mines, mills, and smelters of Butte and Anaconda were producing more copper than any one place on the planet, accounting for more than 1/3 of the United States supply when demand was at its peak.
The battles between Daly, Clark, and Heinze became an epic chapter in Montana history. Eventually, a company known as Anaconda Copper emerged as a monopoly, expanding into the fourth largest company in the world by the late 1920s.
In 1899 William Clark built the Columbia Gardens for the children of Butte. It included flower gardens, a magnificent dance pavilion, amusement park, lake, zoo, sports complex, and picnic areas. Clark ran his park at personal expense, refusing to charge admission and regularly offering special deals so that Butte residents, particularly children, could enjoy the park. The park was a staple of the community until 1973 when the Anaconda Company closed the park with the advent of open pit mining.
Daly responded by building a giant smelter in Anaconda, just 30 miles west of Butte. To this day, the giant smokestack remains a landmark. Shortly after Daly built the smelter, the Boston and Montana Co., with holdings only second to Daly’s, built one in Great Falls. Trains carried the ore from Butte’s mines to both smelters.
Butte went from the handful of residents in 1874 to 3,363 in the 1880 census, about 23,000 by 1890, and on to a peak of close to 100,000 in 1917. Butte was the largest city at that time in the whole vast area from Minneapolis to Denver to Salt Lake City to Spokane. Ultimately, Butte’s miners created more than 10,000 miles of underground passages, though in the process 2,300 lost their lives.
Montana’s Former Mining Towns
Nestled along the banks of Grasshopper Creek, Bannack was the site of Montana’s first major gold strike. It is now a state park.
Virginia City: The best-preserved gold rush town in the American West, Virginia City is a National Historic Landmark with preserved false-front buildings that provide an excellent classroom in which to explore the 1860s gold rush.
By the late 1880s Helena had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the world. Home to the fourth largest gold strike in the United States, “Last Chance Gulch” grew from a miner’s camp into an important political and banking center, noted for the stately business blocks and elegant mansions that characterize the “Queen City of the Rockies.” In 1894 Montana voters chose Helena as the capital in a controversial statewide election. The Montana Legislature voted to spend almost half a million dollars on a state capitol building and construction began in 1899.
Once the most celebrated and lively cosmopolitan center between Minneapolis and Seattle, “the Richest Hill on Earth” is now part of the largest National Historic Landmark in the United States. In addition to other aspects of the mining story, Butte owes much its landmark status to its association with labor history and was often called “the Gibraltar of Unionism.” Today
many of the mining- era buildings, homes, and mansions remain in what is undoubtedly the most historically significant mining location in the West.
In 1902 the Anaconda Copper Mining Company constructed the Washoe Smelter, twenty-six miles west of Butte. At the time the smelter was the largest non-ferrous metallurgical plant in the world, and Anaconda became one of the largest towns controlled by a single corporation. Also part of the Butte- Anaconda National Historic Landmark, this planned company town provides an interesting comparison to Butte’s more organic development.
Charles McClure, a foreman at the Hope Mine at Philipsburg, just knew that an outcropping of rock on nearby Granite Mountain would contain silver. He gathered together some St. Louis investors
and began exploring the mountain. The investors quickly lost interest, and they cabled McClure to stop operations at the new mine. The telegram took a while to reach him. As he read it, a new shift had just begun setting up for work. McClure watched them set and blow the last shot of powder. The fuse lighted, the last shot fired, and a shower of silver ore rained down on the muckers’ planks. In one blast Charles McClure became one of the richest miners of his time. Granite Mountain produced more than
$50 million in silver.