Gold and Gems Glacier National Park & Western Montana

Gold and Gems

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Gold and Gems

There’s a reason why at one point Montana had the most millionaires per capita. Glacier Country bears some of the richest mountains on the planet. So why not come out and enjoy Montana for the reason it was settled – It’s natural treasures.


The Missoula mining district is located in Missoula County north and northeast of the city of Missoula. The main drainages in the district are Rattlesnake Creek, Grant Creek and O'Keefe Creek. Production from the few mines in the district was low, if it occurred at all.

Between Missoula and Frenchtown lies the Missoula Valley, a broad structural basin formed during the crustal movements that created the Rocky Mountains. The glacially carved Rattlesnake Mountains north of the Missoula Valley contain complexly folded Belt rocks that are broken along several large faults. Ice age glaciers carved the higher peaks (Alt and Hyndman 1986).

The surficial geology of the area was created by Glacial Lake Missoula about 15,000 years ago. The entire flow of the Clark Fork River backed up behind an ice dam, and the glacial lake reached an elevation of about 4350 feet. When the ice dam failed, Glacial Lake Missoula emptied through the Clark Fork Valley in just a few days, releasing the greatest flood of known geologic record. This process occurred repeatedly, each time resulting in colossal floods. Exposed bedrock and sedimentary deposits provide evidence of the lake in the Missoula Valley, as do layers of lake bed deposits alternating with river sediments exposed just west of Missoula (Alt and Hyndman 1986).

In 1860 Frank Worden and Christopher Higgins packed merchandise over the new Mullan Road from Walla Walla to the Missoula Valley. They built a trading post in the valley, and their store became the center of a small settlement known as Hell Gate or Hell Gate Ronde. The discovery of gold on Wild Horse Creek in British Columbia and the rush to Alder Gulch provided a stream of customers for the business. By 1865 the partners had built a sawmill, a grist mill, and a warehouse four miles east of Hell Gate. A village grew up in that area and became known as Missoula Mills, later Missoula. Missoula served as the trade center for a large region for many years. The mining development of western Montana was made possible by the Mullan Road, built 1859-62, which connected Fort Benton and Walla Walla. The Mullan Road and the building of the Jocko Agency brought a large number of men into the country. The agricultural development of the Missoula valley was helped by the placer gold mining camps in the 1860s in Montana and in Idaho. The most direct influence on the Missoula area was from the mines at Cedar Creek. The 1860s stampede lasted until the end of the 1870s (Leeson 1885; Coon 1926; Wolle 1963).

The Missoula area was prospected but there are no reported producing mines.

Boundaries of the district

No discussion of the boundaries of the Missoula district has been found in the historical literature. Figure 1 shows the Missoula mining district as defined by the AMRB (1994).

Region 2

Historic Context

The Libby district is located south of the town of Libby, along Libby Creek, Big Cherry Creek and their tributaries. The lode claims are on the eastern slopes of the Cabinet Mountain range. The Libby district was important for both its long-lived placer operations and several of its silver-lead mines.

Sedimentary rocks of the Belt series underlie the Libby district. Diorite sills intruded into these rocks during Precambrian or Paleozoic time, after which the rocks were uplifted and slightly deformed. Extensive mountain building occurred during late Mesozoic or early Tertiary time, with the rocks folded and cut by thrust faults. At the close of this period, magma invaded the rocks, forming dikes that cut both stocks and sedimentary rocks. This magma contained solutions that formed ore deposits as the molten material cooled (Gibson 1948).

"The lode deposits are veins extending along faults and shear zones in the Belt rocks and in the accompanying metadiorite dikes and sills. They have been formed partly by fissure filling and partly by replacement" (Gibson 1948). The only gold-quartz vein of any significance is found in the Herbert claims on Prospect Creek; it occurs in the Prichard formation where veins parallel bedding planes. Silver-lead-zinc veins are found primarily along the Snowshoe fault, where they "fill steeply dipping fault fissures and shear zones in Belt rocks, metadiorite dikes, and to a lesser extent, metadiorite sills" (Johns 1970).

Over the years, there have been numerous theories about the source of placer gold in the Libby district. While prospectors for many years believed that the source was a dike crossing Libby Creek, geologists were unable to substantiate the existence of such a feature. Instead, studies indicate that gold from the Midas vein eroded into both Libby and Howard creeks, while the quartz-sulfide veins along the Snowshoe fault supplied placer gold to Big Cherry Creek (Johns 1970).

Prospectors first tested the gravels of the Libby district in the early 1860s. John S. Fisher and several other men came through the area at that time looking for gold. They also named a number of the local creeks including Fisher River, Libby Creek (after Stephen Allen's daughter Elizabeth or Libby), and Sherry Creek (after Jack Sherry), later changed to Cherry Creek. Activity increased during the summer of 1867 when a group of prospectors started placering along Libby Creek. Their success attracted as many as 500-600 men to the camp by September. Fortunes varied, however, with some making as much as $1.25 per pan while others washed only two cents per pan. Most men left for the winter, and those who stayed helped dig a ditch to bring water to some claims. While the camp increased again the following summer, the boom was brief and it was virtually deserted by the 1870s (Renk 1994).

Libby Creek revived in the summer of 1885, beginning a long period of placering. Tom Shearer and B. F. Howard arrived in the camp to find several other men working on claims. They located their own claims, built sluices, and soon were washing out $20 a day in gold. Over the next few years, the camp gradually took on a look of permanence. Placering in the Libby district concentrated along Libby Creek and its tributaries Howard, Ramsey, and Little Cherry creeks, as well as along Big Cherry Creek (Renk 1994).

One of the best known placer operations was known as the Howard placers, located around 1887 by members of the Howard family and their associate, William Williams. They formed the Howard Placer Mining Co. around 1900 and then sold out two years later to a group of investors who formed the Libby Placer Mining Co. The company expanded operations and initiated the first use of hydraulic giants on Libby Creek in 1905. Six years later, the company kept 24 men working, washing 1000 feet of gravel daily through box and ground sluices. The company mined actively through 1915, and the claims saw sporadic work through the 1930s (Renk 1994).

Other placer operations used similar techniques for mining, although most on a smaller scale. For instance, lessees washed gravels through a ground sluice on the Vaughan and Greenwell claims, making $5000 a year from 1904-1908. The Comet Mining Co. took over a number of claims on Little Cherry Creek in 1908 and soon had two giants at work. Twelve men washed 100,000 cubic yards of gravel through sluices in 1911. They lived at the company camp which contained a bunkhouse, cook house, blacksmith shop, and miscellaneous other buildings. The operations ended in 1916 (Renk 1994).

Placering was almost nonexistent during the late 1910s and 1920s. Gold production in Montana dropped from a high of 241,000 troy ounces in 1915 to a little more than 40,000 troy ounces in 1931, and Lincoln County production mirrored this trend. Adjustments in the price of gold during the Depression stimulated production, however, and placering resumed in the Libby district. This time, older hydraulic equipment was supplemented with heavy machinery on many claims. Operators on the Vaughan and Greenwell placer used power shovels and a stationary washing plant in 1938, switching to a dryland dredge the next year; in 1940 they made $770 in just seven days in an especially rich area. The Nugget placer was worked with a dragline and bucket in 1930-1932, washing gravels through 200 feet of sluice boxes (Klett 1991; Renk 1994).

After reaching a high of 272,000 troy ounces in 1940, Montana gold production once again dropped and then plummeted with the onset of World War II. Owners worked the Vaughan and Greenwell placer during the summer of 1947 and then for the last time in 1964, ending the long period of placering on Libby Creek (Klett 1991; Lyden 1948; Johns 1970).

Three Libby district placers reported production in Mineral Resources: Big Cherry Creek Placer in 1914, 1924, and 1930-1931; Liberty Placer in 1924 and 1930; and Nugget Placer in 1916 and 1930-1931. Figures for total placer production from Libby Creek and its tributaries vary from over $100,000 to $213,230 (WPA 1941; Dingman 1932; Griffith 1948).

Prospectors discovered lode deposits in the Libby district during the late 1880s. In 1887, George Blackwell and his partners located the Silver Mountain and Silver Crown claims on Granite Creek. Two years later, John G. Abbott and Albert Dunlap located the Snowshoe mine in October; this lead-silver-gold lode became the most important producer in the district. Tom Shaughnessy and William A. Hillis discovered the Buzz Saw and Hazel T claims on Shaughnessy Hill the same year, while William Criderman located the Silver Cable mine on Cable Creek in the early 1890s. Closing out the decade, G. W. Walker and P. Portugal found the Copper Reward in 1899 (Renk 1994; Johns 1970).

Development work proceeded on many of the Libby district's lode mines during the 1890s. Libby Creek Mining Co., owner of the Buzz Saw, worked the mine throughout the decade and finally constructed a 150-ton concentrator in 1899. Both equipment and finances failed the following year, and the mine closed abruptly. Owners also developed the Silver Cable mine during the same time, installing a 50 to 75-ton mill in 1898. Unfortunately, the mill never operated due to mismanagement and/or insufficient ore (Renk 1994).

The Snowshoe mine experienced many problems over the years, including a number of different owners and lessees, mismanagement, litigation, inefficient milling, and difficult transportation. Despite these challenges, owners erected a concentrator around 1897, enlarging it to 225 tons by 1906; electrified the mine; and purchased up-to-date drilling equipment. The mine produced well until closing in 1912 (Renk 1994; Johns 1970).

The Buzz Saw was reactivated during the 1910s when the Lukens- Hazel Co. took over the mine and consolidated it with neighboring claims. The company built a 200-ton concentrator around 1920 and operated for much of the decade. The Victor-Empire and other small mines operated during the same period of time. The district was then pretty quiet until the 1930s when work proceeded on the Mountain Rose mine, and the 1940s when the Snowshoe operated sporadically. There are no figures for total district production (Renk 1994).

Boundaries of the district

Sahinen (1935), the only one to describe the district boundaries, places the Libby district in the region drained by Libby Creek and its tributaries. Figure 1 shows the district as described by the AMRB (1994) which includes the primary mining area with the Snowshoe, Silver Cable, Copper Reward and the Libby Creek placers as part of the Libby district. Also shown is the Granite Creek sub-district.

Region 3

Historic Context

The Iron Mountain district is north of Superior and the Clark Fork River, and east of Mineral County. The region was essentially a one mine district with production being zinc, lead and silver with lesser values of copper and gold. While millions of pounds of zinc and lead were produced, only 19 ounces of gold were reportedly recovered in the Twentieth century. This miniscule amount of gold explains the lack of a gold placer mining history in the district.

The Iron Mountain mine was the most important property of this district. Although the property was reported to have been discovered in 1888 by L.T. Jones and later bonded to James K. Pardee, popular accounts state that a boy looking for stray cattle found rich float on Flat Creek. Frank Hall saw the rock and offered the boy $10 to show him where it was found. Hall, D. R. S. Frazier and W. A. (L. T.?) Jones staked their claim on August 28, 1888. The three men shipped ten tons of ore to Wickes to be assayed. The return of $1,400 caught the attention of Pardee. Shortly after Pardee obtained possession of the property, he erected a mill one mile from the the mine on Flat Creek. Among his backers were Samuel T. Hauser and Angus McDonald. Around this mill rose the town of Pardee which flourished for several years. The Iron Mountain mine in eight years yielded a half million dollars in dividends besides paying all overhead costs, including mine development and 15 miles of mountain road. It ranked as one of the best paying silver properties in the state.

As soon as the Northern Pacific Railroad built its Coeur d'Alene branch through Superior in 1891, thus reducing the hauling distance to the railroad to four miles, large scale operations began, with the company building a 100-ton mill in Superior near the station. The Iron Mountain mill was connected with the mine workings by an aerial tramway. The mine was operated by the Iron Mountain Mining Company between 1888 and 1896, which in 1896 employed between 100 and 125 men. In 1897, the property was closed down by the Inspector of Mines, since, by not having two openings, it violated state law. A final shipment of twenty-seven carloads of concentrates, averaging $50 a ton, was shipped from the property in October 1897. In the early 1900s the Iron Mountain Tunnel Company leased the property and planned to drill a 5,600-foot tunnel to tap the Iron Tower mine at a depth of 1,600 feet. This stock company obtained a bond and lease on a number of quartz lodes, 380 acres of placer ground, and three mill sites with an option to purchase the same prior to 1910. Some work was done, but the Iron Mountain was abandoned in 1930. Since then, lessees have from time to time opened the property (Sahinen 1935; Wolle 1963; Lindeman et al., 1984).

There was something of a competition between the towns of Saltese and Superior for the position of county seat when Mineral County was carved from the west side of Missoula County in 1914. However, the early mines on the west side of the county, such as the Tarbox and Last Chance, were not as successful as the mines on the east side, such as the Iron Mountain, Keystone and Amador. Consequently, Superior became the county seat (Sahinen 1957; Montana Bureau of Mines n.d.; Lindeman et al. 1984).

The town of Pardee, located on Hall Gulch about one mile north of the Iron Mountain Mine, was settled in 1888-1889. By 1890, Pardee boasted a saloon, a boarding house, gambling and dance houses, a Miner's Union Hall and a post office, as well as various mining structures and cabins. Pardee grew and declined as the mine's success varied, and was largely abandoned in 1897 when the mine was shut down by the State Mine Inspector. A railroad which connected Pardee, the mine and the Iron Mountain concentrator was abandoned and the rails taken up when the mine closed. Following the 1897 abandonment, fire destroyed a part of the town, and by the 1930s, little remained of the historic settlement.

The ore body is a fissure vein averaging about 3 feet in width. It strikes northwest and dips steeply to the northeast. The vein cuts calcareous light green shales of the Wallace formation. The ore is argentiferous galena with a little sphalerite carrying about 6 ounces of silver per ton (Sahinen 1935).

Boundaries of the district

Sahinen (1935) places the district about five miles north of Superior, a station on the Northern Pacific and Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroads.

According to Montana Bureau of Mines (n.d.) data, the district is bounded on the west and south by the Clark Fork river and on the east by the Ninemile Divide and the Mineral County - Missoula County line.

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