aka Canyon Ferry

In 1865, about the same time as York and other nearby gulches began to be worked, gold-bearing gravel terraces, or bars, were discovered along the Missouri River from the vicinity of Canyon Ferry downstream for 10 to 12 miles. French Bar was one of the earliest and also the richest of these deposits. For several years the bar supported a small mining camp of the same name. The camp was included in a GLO survey of 1869. The bar was worked by hydraulic methods with water transported at some cost from mountain streams. Spokane Bar, a terrace three miles below French Creek was also worked extensively. Below Spokane Bar, the bars of El Dorado, American, Mings, Gruel's and Ruby have also seen historic gold placering activity. The El Dorado bar has also produced an impressive amount of sapphires (Browne 1867; Pardee and Schrader 1933)

Gold was also recovered from a number of creek bottoms in streams that emptied into the Missouri. These include Clark Gulch, Oregon Gulch, Cave Gulch and Magpie Gulch.

The bed rock of the Big Belt Mountains forms an anticline complicated by numerous folds, high-angle faults, predominantly normal faults and large displacement thrust faults. Exposed sedimentary rocks include the Newland Limestone, Greyson Shale, Spokane Shale, Empire Shale, and Helena Dolomite of the Precambrian Belt Supergroup, and the typical Paleozoic section of this part of the State. Remnants of Tertiary gravel deposits occur throughout the area, and Quarternary stream and eolian deposits are also present (McClernan 1983).

Gold bearing gravel along the Missouri River was washed down from nearby streams and was formed into terraces during an interglacial stage of the Pleistocene. Both placering and drifting below the overburden have successfully worked these deposits.

The source of the sapphires in the Missouri appears to be a dike that cuts the slaty bedrock at Ruby Bar. When working the sapphire-bearing layer of gravel in this bar, a mastodon tusk was found embedded in the gravels, a find which places the deposition of the sapphires during an interglacial age in the Pleistocene. The discovery was first described in 1873 by Dr. J. Lawrence Smith. The value of the sapphires recovered in the late 1880s to 1890s was around $2,000 per year. Most of the sapphires were used in industrial applications because of their inferior green color. However, at least one steel blue gem was sold to Tiffany's in New York. After World War II, cheaper synthetic sapphires replaced the Missouri River sapphires on the market.

Lode deposits to the east of the district occur as fissure-filling veins in diorite dikes. Few of these dike extend into the sedimentary rocks. The veins are typically quartz, ankerite and minor pyrite with gold values in the pyrite. Barite is also found in some of the veins. The largest deposit in the area, the Golden Messenger is atypical in that it has a irregular massive shape while other deposits tend to be tabular. While gold from the Golden Messenger mine may have been deposited in Missouri River terraces, the actual mine is located in the York district immediately to the east (McClernan 1983)


Pardee and Schrader (1933) describe the district as a group of terraces that border the Missouri River from the vicinity of Canyon Ferry downstream for 10 to 12 miles.

McClernan (1983) in his discussion of the area also includes placers in the various gulches that empty into the Missouri along this same stretch of river.

Figure 1 shows the large district as defined by the AMRB (1994) with the historic placer district as defined by McClernan (1983) and Pardee and Schrader (1933).


American Bar

The American Bar placers are located in section 12, T12N, R3W on the Missouri River 17 miles north and four miles east of Helena. While no production figures are available, Lyden (1948) theorized that the gold was washed into the bar from Clark and Cave gulches (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Cave Gulch

The Cave Gulch placers are located in section 35, T11N, R1W. Cave Gulch is the first stream to enter the Missouri River downstream from Canyon Ferry. The gulch contained gold probably washed down from veins associated with Precambrian sills in the quartzite of the Ravalli Group. From discovery to 1930, the claims along the gulch in the mountains produced around $400,000. The terraces on the west side of the creek after the stream leaves the mountains have produced about $500,000 in gold. In 1938 four claims reported production of 30 ounces of gold. The total production from this gulch has been estimated at $900,000 (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Clark Gulch - Oregon Gulch

The Clark and Oregon Gulch placers are located in section 33, T11N, R1W, about 2.5 miles northwest of Canyon Ferry. Clark Gulch is nearly opposite French Bar. They have been reported to have produced $500,000 and $300,000 respectively.

The Clark and Oregon gulch placers contain gold probably washed from Precambrian diorite sills exposed near the head of the gulches. Clark Gulch has been worked for about three miles in length and Oregon Gulch has been worked for about two miles. A low terrace on the north side of Oregon Gulch has also been mined in various places. Most of the mining appears to have been done with hand methods (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Dana's Bar

Dana's Bar is located in sections 8, 9, 16, and 17 of T11N, R2W about three miles west of El Dorado Bar. It lies between the lower end of Lake Helena and Lake Hauser. Although little is known of this bar, it was probably worked as early as 1865. In 1937 the ground in the bar was tested and found to still contain $1.40 per cubic yard in gold (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Eldorado Bar

The Eldorado Bar on the east bank of the Missouri River is located in section 10, T11, R2W, just down stream from the mouth of Soup Creek. Miners were busy placering the stream as early as the spring of 1865. Small, hard stones recovered along with the gold dust created a great deal of excitement as they were at first thought to be diamonds. Ed R. Collins sent samples of the stones to Tiffany and Co. in New York where they were identified by George F. Kunz on May 5, 1895. In 1867 J. Ross Browne wrote, "At Eldorado Bar a ditch is nearly completed to bring water from New York Gulch. When this is done the bar can be worked by hydraulics and will probably pay. Recently it was supposed that diamonds had been found in the bar, but on examination the supposed diamonds proved to be sapphires. Some of them were fine though small" (Brown 1872; Lyden 1948; Zeihen 1987).

Dr. J. L. Smith wrote in 1873 that one man could collect one or two pounds of sapphires from the bar in one day. Although most of the sapphires were green, a beautiful steel blue stone was sold to Tiffany and Co. in 1883. Perfect gems were frequently found in the four to six carat range; the bar produced up to $2,000 in sapphires per year. In 1889, the Sapphire and Ruby Company of Montana, a company owned by primarily by English capitalists, actively made improvements to the bar which included ditches and flume. The company had failed by 1894. The next year the Montana Sapphire and Ruby Company took large amounts of sapphires out of the bar using hydraulic methods. The company also owned or controlled the El Dorado Bar, French Bar and Dana Bar. The company was reorganized in 1897 as the El Dorado Gold and Gem Company. This company was American owned, but did not record any production (Smith 1873; Pratt 1906; Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Gold in the bar gravel was probably derived from lode deposits exposed in the gulches along the west side of the Big Belt Mountains. The main production from the bar was in the 1930s. In 1931, the property produced $1,111 in gold from 3,000 cubic yards of gravel. In 1934 the property is credited with 175 ounces of gold (Pardee and Schrader 1933).

Although the bars were heavily sluiced and hydrauliced, little evidence remains of the effort. A Yuba River connected-bucket electric dredge was built and put into service by the Perry-Schroeder Mining Company in 1938. In a little over one month, 150 ounces of gold were sorted out of 75,604 cubic yards of material. In 1942 production soared when 6,884 ounces of gold were removed from 1,869,500 cubic yards of gravel. The next year 6,909 ounces of gold were taken from 1,641,194. In 1944, the production dropped to a third of the previous level. In addition to the gold, the dredge also removed sapphires which were mostly sold for industrial purposes. The market for industrial sapphires disappeared late in the war when cheaper artificial stones became available for industry. The dredge is credited with 58,000 troy ounces of sapphires from 1938 to 1944 (Lyden 1948; Zeihen 1987).

Perhaps more importantly a small amounts of the strategic metals of platinum and osmium were also removed along with the gold and sapphires. The presence of these metals allowed the dredge to operate throughout World War II when other gold operations were closed by Federal Order (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

French Bar Placer

The French Bar placer is located in section 6, T10N, R1W. The bar is located on the same side of the Missouri River as Spokane Bar and about 3.75 miles upstream. The bar was apparently worked by hydraulic methods. It was said to have been the richest and most extensively mined of the river terraces. Gravel was said to have yielded $10 to the square yard. Pits extend for over a mile in length and range from 50 to 400 feet wide. Water was delivered to the workings from mountain streams via long and "expensive" ditches. Gravel bearing channels were found at 200, 240 and 260 feet above the river level. The channels were one to six feet in thickness. Gold was probably derived from Cave and Clark Gulches. Production has been estimated at $1,500,000. In 1947 the dredge owned by the Perry-Schroeder Mining Company was moved from the El Dorado Bar to work French Bar. The dredge worked only a few months before disappointing results shut it down (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Gruel Bar Placer

The Gruel Bar placers are located in section 36, T11N, R2W on the east bank of the Missouri River about four and a half miles northwest of Canyon Ferry. The property was worked by hand methods prior to 1900, but no production records are available. In 1936, a dry-land dredge recovered 647 fine ounces of gold. In 1937 the plant recovered 1,178 ounces of gold and the next year a few hundred ounces more. The dredge was removed in 1938 and a new company brought in a new dredge in 1939. This plant recovered $8,000 in gold before being removed (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Mable Placer

Although there is little information available for the Mable placer, it did record production.

Magpie Gulch Placers

The Magpie Gulch placers are located in section 30, T11N, R1E. The gulch empties into Lake Sewell a short distance above Canyon Ferry. Bar Gulch, also a source of placer gold, enters Magpie Gulch from the west about 5.5 miles upstream from the lake. Early miners worked a short stretch of the gulch about half a mile above the gorge. This ground was estimated to have yielded $30,000 from a strip 350 yards long. While there is evidence of early drift and sluice mining of the gulch, most of the stream's production has come from dredging. In 1930 it was estimated that at least $280,000 had been removed from the Magpie gulch from drift mining and dredging and from Bar Gulch from open cuts. Some gold and sapphires have been recovered by placering hillside colluvium on the north side of the valley (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).

Spokane Bar

The Spokane Bar placers are located opposite the Gruel Bar placers in section 36, T11N, R2W. The bar is on the west bank of the Missouri River about four and a half miles northwest of Canyon Ferry. The bar is a river terrace dating back to Pleistocene times. Gold bearing gravel was 6 to 25 feet deep with 5 to 20 feet of overburden. The deposit was about 3,000 feet long and 50 to 500 feet wide. Estimates of the total value place the gold recovered at $550,000 (Lyden 1948; McClernan 1983).


Abandoned Mine Reclamation Bureau (AMRB)

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Lyden, Charles J.

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Pratt, Joseph Hyde

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Smith, Dr. J. Lawrence

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Swindlehurst, J. W.

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Tansley, Wilfred and Schafer, Paul A. , and Hart, Lyman H.

1933 "A Geological Reconnaissance of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Madison County, Montana", Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Mem. 9.

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Zeihen, Lester G.

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