The West Butte mining district is in the Sweet Grass Hills, which are made up of three buttes that rise straight up from the prairie on their south aspect, with rolling hills extending on the north almost to the Canadian line. The Blackfeet have long considered the Sweet Grass Hills sacred land. The major river in the area is the Marias, which flows through the southern part of Toole County and drains the southern portion of the Sweet Grass Hills. Most of the mining activity in the Hills focused on placer gold found on Middle Butte. Production was highest from around 1888 to 1898.
Each of the three buttes comprising the Sweetgrass Hills is an isolated mountain range composed of a complex of igneous intrusions and the older sedimentary rocks that surround them. The igneous rocks are mostly syenites composed mainly of feldspar and are rich in sodium and potassium. The smaller hills known as Grassy and Haystack buttes are single igneous intrusions. Magnetite-rich iron-ore deposits were formed by contact metamorphism of Mississippian limestone next to intrusions of syenite (Alt and Hyndman 1986).
The earliest recorded discovery of gold in the Sweet Grass Hills occurred in the 1860s, when some Native Americans discovered traces of gold in the gulch that later held the mining camp of Gold Butte. In 1874 Captain Twining, in charge of the international boundary survey, reported finding quartz in the Sweet Grass Hills, and some members of his crew prospected in the area (Burlingame and Toole 1957; Leeson 1885).
The Sweet Grass Hill placers were discovered in the fall of 1884, near the Canadian border. In the fall of 1884, Marion Carey, Fred Derwent, George Walters, and John Des Champ, went into camp there, wintered in the mountains, and in the spring prospected on the east side of Middle Butte. The next spring Joe Kipp, Charley Thomas, Hi Upham, and about ten others, came into camp, formed a district and located claims. That spring the Carey party took out 11 1/2 ounces of gold from the gulch, obtaining as much as $1.50 worth of placer gold per pan. They reported that the west side of West Butte was particularly rich (Leeson 1885; Burlingame and Toole 1957).
On May 17, 1885, the River Press reported that the mines were on the west side of Middle Butte and near the top, an unlikely place for placer mining. Prospectors continued to work the gulches in the area. Soon, however, the commissioner of Indian Affairs instructed the U. S. Indian agent at the Blackfeet agency to remove the miners from the reservation. By fall, a company of infantry was stationed at the miners' camp, but the soldiers were friendly with the miners and did not evict them (Wolle 1963; Shelby History Group 1964).
By 1886 400-500 miners had come into the area. The mining town of Gold Butte was located just south of Middle Butte, near two gold-bearing gulches named Two Bit and Eclipse. In 1889 the Blackfeet Indians ceded the land to the federal government, and it was opened up to homesteaders and miners. Supplies to the camp of Gold Butte were hauled from Chester via Whitlash. The town of Gold Butte had a post office from 1895 to 1945 (Prairie Homemakers and Jayhawker Ridge 1976; Shelby History Group 1964; Wolle 1963).
In 1897 there was increased activity in the West Butte district. In June it was reported that ore had been found on the West Butte that assayed over $20,000 per ton in gold. Placer mining was encouraged by the rising price of gold. In 1898 the district produced placer gold valued at $6,748.11, but production declined after that. The Gold Butte Mining Company had a considerable operation in 1902 in a gulch near Gold Butte, and the Deep Ground Mining Operation was also working at that time. In 1898 the operations were mainly ground sluicing and drift placer mining. Placer mining occurred in the area again between 1922 and 1925, but no production was reported after that until 1932. In the 1930s a dragline shovel and a washing plant increased production, but it only ran for a season or two. In 1938 the dragline operation recovered 673 fine ounces of gold. Between 1904 and 1945 the placer mines of Toole County produced ca. 1,407 fine ounces of gold valued at $47,846. Most of the placer gold was recovered from Eclipse Gulch on Middle Butte (Western Mining World 1897, no. 130 and 142; Lyden 1948; Shelby History Group 1964; Sahinen 1935).
The only record of production of gold from lode deposits was in 1932, when 1.89 ounces of gold were recovered. Above Pratt's Canyon (on the northwest slopes of West Butte) Jack Monroe and the Gratz brothers had a horse-powered arrastra (Prairie Homemakers and Jayhawker Ridge 1976; Lyden 1948).
The main drawback of placer mining in the Gold Butte area was the absence of water; the miners had to wheel or pack their gravel some distance in order to wash it in rockers or pans. In 1899 Ira Myers had a placer claim that did have water, located in three miles of a ravine running down from Gold Butte. He found paying gravel resting on the bedrock (Western Mining World 1899).
Although the Gold Butte district was never an important producer of metals, there was a minor resurgence of effort in the 1930s. In 1932 one lode mine operator and three placer operators reported a production of $407 in gold. In 1939 the gold produced from Toole County decreased because the Gold Butte Placers closed down, but other placers - the Banner, Cummings, Gopher, and Small - continued to operate in 1939 (Rowe 1941; Sahinen 1935).
BOUNDARIES OF THE DISTRICT
The West Butte mining district was generally known historically as the Gold Butte district, named after the mining camp that formed near the deposits on Middle Butte.
In 1932, the Gold Butte district was identified as 23 miles east of Sunburst, a station on Great Northern Railroad (Dingman 1932).
Figure 1 shows the large area included in the district by the AMRB (1994) with a smaller area designating the area of the primary mining activity.
HISTORIES OF SELECTED MINES
Little mention is made of specific mines in the historical literature.
In 1893 Peter Jons sold the Climax Mine at Middle Butte to Ira Browne (Shelby History Group, 1964).
In 1908 the Eureka mine produced lead containing silver and gold. 1908 is the only year it was listed in the Mine Index (
Abandoned Mine Reclamation Bureau (AMRB)
1994 Mining districts of Montana. Maps 1:100,000 and Map #94-NRIS-129. Compiled and edited by Joel Chavez. Prepared by Montana State Library Natural Resource Information System (NRIS) for Montana Department of State Lands. Helena
Alt, David, and Donald W. Hyndman
Roadside Geology of Montana
. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company. Burlingame, Merrill G. and K. Ross Toole
1957 A History of Montana, vol. 1. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co.
Calderhead, J. H.
The Treasure State and Its Industries and Resources: 6th Annual Report of the Bureau of Agriculture, Labor and Industry of the State of Montana for the Year Ending November 30, 1898
. Independent Publishing Co., Helena.
Dingman, Oscar A.
1932 "Placer Mining Possibilities in Montana," Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Memoir No. 5, Butte, Montana.
Leeson, Michael A., ed.
History of Montana, 1739-1885
. Warner, Beers & Co., Chicago.
Lyden, Charles J.
The Gold Placers of Montana
, M. B. M. G. Memoir no. 26. 1908
, p. 448.
Prairie Homemakers Home Extension Club and Jayhawker Ridge Home Extension Club
Echoes from The Prairies: History of North Toole County
. Shelby: Shelby Promoter.
Rowe, J. P.
Geography and Natural Resources of Montana
. Missoula: Montana State University, 1933 (revised 1941).
Sahinen, Uuno M.
1935 "Mining Districts of Montana", Thesis, Montana School of Mines, Butte.
Shelby History Group, MIA
Western Mining World
1897 Vol. 6, no. 130, p. 167, March 13, 1897.
1897 Vol. 6, no. 142, p. 314, June 5, 1897.
1899 Vol. 11, no. 258, p. 83, Aug. 26, 1899.
Wolle, Muriel Sibell
Montana Pay Dirt: A Guide to the Mining Camps of the Treasure State
, Sage Books, Denver.
Works Progress Administration
Inventory of the County Archives of Montana
. Missoula, MT: HRS #51, Toole County.
Swallow, G. C., J. B. Trevarthen and Jacob Oliver
Reports of Inspectors of Mines, State of Montana, year ending November 30th, 1890
. Journal Publishing Company, Helena.