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A History of the Montana Gold Rush

The Montana Gold Rush has a lasting legacy in the Treasure State. Many of the towns and cities were first established as mining camps, the discovery of gold led to a fascinating and brutal period of Montana’s history, and the modern economy still relies on the state’s rich natural resources.

History of the Montana Gold Rush

The First Strike of Gold

Gold was first discovered in Montana in the spring of 1858 at Gold Creek, just to the east of Drummond. It was discovered by Granville and James Stewart, who were brothers, and their partner, Reece Anderson.

News broke that there had been a large strike of gold at Grasshopper Creek by a prospector named John White a few years later in July 1862. In its first year, Grasshopper Creek produced five million dollars’ worth of gold dust.

This kicked off the Montana Gold Rush, attracting aspiring miners from the eastern United States and Europe.

They traveled up the Missouri River to Fort Benton before traveling across the plains to western Montana. Some miners arrived from goldfields in Colorado, Nevada, and California, where there had been a lot of activity in the 1840s and 1850s.

The early miners in Montana hurried to profitable areas and were quick to abandon unprofitable ground. They typically used simple mining methods that only required a gold pan, pick, shovel, and a water source.

Some also used methods that required a rocker, which two miners used to sift the gold from the rock. During this time, mining was an activity requiring significant manual labor.

The miners worked long hard hours and only received a few dollars’ worth of gold per day in return. 

The Infamous Settlement of Bannack

the infamous settlement of bannack

The arrival of miners looking for gold led to the settlement of Bannack, which became the first territorial capital of Montana on May 26 1864. Bannack quickly became notorious for being a wild mining town plagued with robbery, gun violence, and murder.

More than 2,000 people had settled there within a year, including famous figures of the Old West, such as Sheriff Henry Plummer.

While he was elected as sheriff to protect innocent miners from being robbed, it was later suspected that he secretly led one of the largest gangs of thieves in the town.

The Second Strike of Gold and Crime in the Old West

second strike of gold

There was another strike of gold in Alder Gulch in May 1863, which resulted in the creation of the nearby Nevada City and Virginia City as mining towns.

The road between Virginia City and Bannack was particularly notorious for robberies and murder. Violent gangs killed up to 100 men traveling on the road between the two destinations in 1863.

The high crime rates spawned retaliation from the “Montana Vigilantes”, who threatened suspected gang members in the middle of the night.

The Vigilantes hanged around 24 men who were suspected of robbery and murder in 1864. After one of the accused named Sheriff Henry Plummer as a gang leader, the Vigilantes hanged him and his deputies from the same gallows that the sheriff himself had ordered to be constructed.

Crime in the mining towns continued even after the sheriff’s hanging, leading some historians to speculate that he was never actually involved in the gangs—it may have been the Vigilantes all along who were corrupt, targeting the sheriff to hide their own involvement.

The Third Strike and the Beginnings of Helena

third strike

After four gold miners, known as “the Four Georgians”, from Virginia City struck gold at Last Chance Gulch, the gold town of Helena was established nearby in 1864. Over the next four years, Last Chance Gulch produced 19 million dollars in gold.

This was the final gold strike of the Montana Gold Rush.

Virginia City became a second territorial capital in 1865, with 10,000 people arriving in the area to reap the rewards of the gold strike at Last Chance Gulch.

As miners searched the area for more gold, several other mining camps and towns appeared in Montana, including Granite, Elkhorn, Confederate Gulch, Diamond City, Montana City, Garnet, Coloma, Horse Prairie Creek, Southern Cross, Pony, and Marysville.

The majority of the gold mining took place in the gorges and valleys of Montana’s southwest, but there were some occurrences of gold and silver being struck in the northwest.

The presence of the miners boosted the economy and promoted growth in Montana, with merchants and cattlemen arriving to meet their needs.

Ranches were soon established in the area and the timber and railroad industry started to grow. Before long, more communities started to appear in the state’s northwest

The Decline of Gold Mining in Montana

decline of gold mining

Gold dominated the local culture and economy until the 1890s, when copper mining became more significant. The town of Butte, which had been established in 1864, became a key location and producer of copper and silver, later earning the title “Richest Hill on Earth”.

Although Butte is famous for its copper mines, it did produce more than 90 tons of gold in the 1890s.

There was a revival in Bannack in 1895 when numerous bucket line dredges were brought to Grasshopper Creek to rework the gold placers. These allowed large amounts of ground to be mined at once, which made even more barren areas worth panning.

After most of the gold was mined, many of the towns were slowly abandoned and the Montana Gold Rush dwindled to an end. However, some locations continued to prosper, including Helena and Butte.

Tourists in Montana still arrive today equipped with metal detectors to look for gold, though this is usually done with the motive of enjoying the outdoors rather than finding a fortune.

Among the most popular places to search for missed nuggets include the rivers and creeks near Virginia City and Bannack, along the banks of the Missouri River near Helena, north of Yellowstone National Park, and the area around Cooke City.

A Timeline of the Montana Gold Rush

  • Spring, 1858: Granville Stewart, James Stewart, and Reece Anderson discover gold near Drummond, Montana.
  • Summer, 1862: News of a large gold strike at Grasshopper Creek reaches the eastern United States and Europe.
  • Spring, 1863: Gold is struck at Alder Gulch, leading to the creation of mining towns Virginia City and Nevada City.
  • Spring, 1864: Bannack is established as the first territorial capital of Montana.
  • Fall, 1864: Gold is struck at Last Chance Gulch, leading to the creation of nearby Helena as another gold town.
  • Fall, 1889: Montana becomes a state and, with more millionaires per capita than any other American city, Helena becomes the state capital.
  • 1890s: Copper mining becomes more prevalent in Montana than gold mining.
  • 1895: A revival takes place in Bannack after bucket line dredges are used in Grasshopper Creek.

How Many Mines Are There in Montana Today?

There are lots of mines in Montana, including those that produce gold and those that produce other minerals. According to Western Mining History, the total number of mines in Montana today is more than 7550.

The mines exist across nearly all counties, with some counties, such as Jefferson County, boasting nearly 1,000 mines.

Gold is still occasionally found in Montana today, with mines such as Confederate Gulch Placers and Browns Gulch still active.

Mines like Stillwater, Lodestar, and East Boulder Project are primarily in place for titanium production, but they have generated gold too.

The Ghost Towns Left Behind

One of the most famous by-products of the Montana Gold Rush is the collection of ghost towns left behind. These once thrived as camps for miners who arrived in the area to find their fortune. As gold mining operations dwindled, they were slowly abandoned.

Today, the ghost towns serve mostly as tourist destinations. With many original buildings still standing from the 19th century, they preserve Montana’s rich legacy as the Treasure State.

Bannack

bannack

Given its infamous history as a mining town plagued with gang violence and robberies, Bannack is one of the most fascinating destinations on the map of Montana’s Gold Rush sites.

It’s located in modern Beaverhead County and today serves as a state park.

There are around 50 preserved buildings in the park that give visitors an insight into what the town was like during the gold rush. Visitors are able to walk inside many of the buildings and explore the ghost town in depth.

school classroom

In Bannack, you will see a historic Masonic lodge, a schoolhouse, the county courthouse, a Methodist church, Skinner’s Saloon, an eerie cemetery, and the Bannack Jails, where prisoners could see the gallows from their cells.

The town currently has restrooms and a visitor center to make it a comfortable visit for tourists. There are also caretakers on site who conduct tours and educate visitors about the town’s history. There are no plans to restore Bannack—it will remain a ghost town and tribute to the Old West.

Check out the video for a closer look at the rich history of Bannack:

Virginia City

virginia city

Virginia City is another one of the most renowned mining towns in Montana’s history. Located in Madison County, it’s not a ghost town as such, as it has been largely restored.

Still, it maintains its heritage and now operates as a living example of life during the gold rush.

There are 150 buildings in Virginia City that have been certified as authentic by the Montana Historical Society. You will also find mechanical music machines, lively boardwalks, and other trimmings that add to the Old West atmosphere.

The retail outlets and dining establishments also maintain a 19th-century vibe, with saloons and bakeries selling food and drink that miners would have enjoyed (or wished they could enjoy!).

Elkhorn

elkhorn

Elkhorn is located in Jefferson County, in the Elkhorn Mountains southeast of Helena. And though a few residents call it home, it boasts an old mining camp and ghost town with some buildings still standing from the 19th century.

Many of the buildings that originally stood in the town have since crumbled, but one of the most famous that’s still standing is the Fraternity Hall, which was constructed in the 1890s. This was the center of social activities in the town during its prime.

Another building still standing in the town is Gillian Hall which once served as a saloon, dance hall, and general store.

Visitors can also witness the Old Elkhorn Cemetery and mining relics, including mining tools and equipment and abandoned vehicles.

Garnet

garnet

Garnet is preserved by the Bureau of Land Management. Situated in Granite County, the town has a variety of buildings left behind from the days of the Montana Gold Rush. While there are caretakers who educate visitors about the town’s history, there are no longer any residents in Garnet.

Often called the best-preserved ghost town in Montana, Garnet is not as well-known as destinations like Bannack or Virginia City and thus tends to feel much more isolated.

It lies in a remote valley above First Chance Creek and is surrounded by dense pine forest, encouraging the feel of being transported to a different time.

Around 30 buildings remain in the town, including a log and frame cabin, a store, a saloon, and the remains of a hotel. You can also witness authentic miner cabins to get a glimpse of what life was truly like for miners who arrived in town hoping to strike gold.

Garnet is also home to a visitor’s center where tourists can purchase souvenirs and read interpretive signs to learn more about the town’s captivating history.

Granite

granite

Known as Montana’s Silver Queen, Granite is now a state park and encompasses a selection of historic buildings, an old mine, a mining camp, and a mill in Granite County.

Three miles to the east of Phillipsburg, Granite officially became a ghost town when the last resident passed away in 1969.

Although the camp was famous for its silver rather than producing gold, it’s still a relic of Montana’s rich mining history. Once home to around 3,000 miners, the town is today a shell of its former self, home to deserted crumbling buildings.

Visitors can observe the remains of the Miners’ Union Hall and the company hospital is still standing. The caving roofs and decaying walls give the town an eerie feel, leaving visitors to wonder whether this ghost town really is haunted.

Hecla Mining District

hecla mining district

The Hecla Mining District hosts the remains of multiple mining camps that once thrived in the area. These include Hecla, Glendale, Trapper City, and Lion Mountain.

Located in Beaverhead County, the area maintains buildings from the Montana Gold Rush period and several fascinating mining remains.

When the district was in its prime, Glendale was considered the most civilized of the mining camps and was home to a general store and also the Montana Brewery.

Today, visitors can still see the old smelter stack, the remains of the stone office building, and a few other historic structures.

Trapper City no longer holds any remains, but Lion City and Hecla host a few old structures. Those who want to visit the district are encouraged to travel via four-wheel drive or ATV, as there are a few miles between each destination.

Nevada City

nevada city old town museum and music hall

Today, Nevada City is a ghost town and outdoor history museum. Once a bustling mining camp, the town now boasts a collection of buildings.

Some are original, some have been moved from their original positions, and others have been recreated to capture the feel of the Old West.

Located in Madison County, the town was restored by the Bovey family between 1945 and 1978 and turned into a popular tourist attraction.

While it no longer carries a ghostly feel, it does maintain many original buildings, including the log cabins that miners once used.

On weekends in Nevada City, there are re-enactments and live interpretations of historic events, allowing travelers to immerse themselves in the culture of the late 1800s, when the Montana Gold Rush was booming.

Nevada City is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day every year and admission starts at $10 for adults.

A few of the other historic mining towns that are still standing in Montana today include:

  • Basin, Jefferson County
  • Cable, Deer Lodge County
  • Castle Town, Meagher County (private property)
  • Charter Oak Mine and Mill, Powell County
  • Coloma Mining District, Missoula County
  • Comet, Jefferson County
  • Farlin, Beaverhead County
  • Gold Creek, Powell County (mining remains to the southwest of town)
  • Homestead, Sheridan County
  • Independence, Park County
  • Jardine, Park County
  • Kendall, Fergus County
  • Kirkville, Clark County (private property)
  • Pony, Madison County
  • Princeton, Granite County
  • Red Bluff, Madison County
  • Rochester, Madison County
  • Rimini Lives On, Lewis and Clark County
  • Southern Cross, Deer Lodge County
  • Vispond/Quartz Hill, Beaverhead County
  • Zortman, Phillips County

FAQ’s

  • When was the gold rush in Montana? The Montana Gold Rush began in 1862 with a strike of gold at Grasshopper Creek.
  • How long did the Montana Gold Rush last? Gold mining continued to prosper in Montana for around 40 years from the 1860s before declining in the 20th
  • Is there any gold left in Montana? There is still gold in Montana, though the majority has already been found. These days, individual gold panning is more about enjoying a unique experience than finding wealth.
  • When did the Montana Gold Rush end? The Montana Gold Rush had largely withered by the 1890s.

History of The Montana Gold Rush–Conclusion

The Montana Gold Rush was instrumental in establishing Montana as the Treasure State it is today. Three major strikes of gold led to economic growth that set Montana on the path to prosperity.

And while the days of the gold rush have long since passed, the tradition of mining in the state is very much alive, preserved through museums, ghost towns, and historic buildings that are still standing.

Have you ever visited a Montana ghost town? Let us know in the comments!

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