aka Trail Creek


The Pioneer Basin discovery precedes that of Bannack. In 1862 nearly 1,000 miners heading for the Florence mines of Idaho found themselves trapped in the Lemhi valley by the rugged mountains and the wild Salmon River. When hours could mean the difference between fortune and poverty, the miners were unwilling to sit idle over the winter. Rumors of the Deer Lodge strike to the north lead Mortimer H. Lott and six others to climb the North Fork of the Salmon. Crossing the divide, they found paying quantities of gold in a tributary of the Big Hole River. Returning to the Lemhi Valley for supplies, a wagon with rear wheels on one side and front wheels on the other was used to climb a steep Indian trail to Horse Prairie. There Lott and the others found the remains of another wagon, indicating they were not the first to wheel into the area.

By August of 1862 the remote mines were being worked by thirty men, primarily from Colorado. The return was around $4 to $8 per day per man. However, this return was not enough to keep men working the placers once news of the Bannack strike arrived. By 1863 the placer district was abandoned (Wolle 1963).

In 1885 the district again saw activity when gold was found on Trail Creek five miles to the north of Lott's diggings. These placers, only two miles from the Big Hole Battlefield, were known as the Big Hole placers. They were discovered by "Old Man" Lane and a small rush ensued. A town, Monument City, was laid out by John Poindexter and a store was established by a Bitterroot merchant and a feed stable stocked. A big rush to the area was expected by the local settlers, who took measures to profit from the traffic; A. J. Noyes built a toll bridge over the Big Hole River, the first bridge on the upper river. Although the expected big rush to the diggings did not materialize, there was increased activity. By 1886 there were 123 claims and a seven mile ditch had been completed by the Salt Lake & Big Hole Mining Company at a cost of $1,400 per mile. By 1894 the district activity was reduced to only two placer miners (Noyes 1966; Geach 1972; Wolle 1963).

In 1898 placers were developed by W. P. Nelson on Cow Creek. When the ground had been worked, the area was abandoned by the White miners; thereafter the creek was reworked by Chinese miners (Wolle 1963).

In the 1930s the high placer gravels of the district were once again worked, but with little success. A drag-line, dry-land dredge was in operation on Placer Creek in the late 1930s, but operations were halted with the advent of World War II. There has been little in the way of deep mining in the district and placer mining has been hampered by the erratic deposition of the surficial gold. Total Twentieth century placer production for the greater Big Hole District, which includes placers on both Trail Creek in the Pioneer district and Steele Creek to the east of Wisdom, is only 2,340 cubic yards of material. This small production yielded 264 ounces of gold and 46 ounces of silver worth $6,666 (Geach 1972; Sahinen 1935; Sassman 1941; Wolle 1963; Brownell 1980).


The district was listed as a sub-district of the Polaris Mining District in the Montana Mine Index. Sahinen (1935) places the district more precisely at the headwaters of Ruby Creek about 15 miles west of Wisdom. Geach (1972) defines the Trail Creek placer district as Joseph, May, Stevenson, South Fork Trail, Gory, and Ruby Creeks which are tributaries of Trail Creek. Figure 1 shows the Pioneer mining district boundaries as given by Geach (1972).


Cow Creek Placers

The Cow Creek placers (24BE1511) are situated in the NE section 25, T3S, R18W, near the juncture of Cow and Ruby Creeks. The placer was originally developed by W. P. Nelson in 1898. After initial activity the site was abandoned by White miners and subsequently worked by Chinese miners. When visited in 1989, the site contained several head races, two sets of hillside placers and the remains of a log cabin. An increment borer determined that a tree growing in a ditch was about 93 years old. Hydraulic tubing joints and other Anglo-American artifacts were observed, but no Chinese artifacts (Hamilton 1989).

Mormon Diggings

The Mormon Diggings (24BE1643) are located in SW section 24, T2S, R17 W to the south of the Big Hole Battlefield. The site consists of a depression 600 feet in diameter and 10 to 20 feet in depth. Little is known of the development, but it may have been associated with the the Salt Lake Placer Mining Company, hence the "Mormon" designation. Support structures once associated with the site were destroyed during the National Park Service construction of sewer leach fields (Scott 1993).


The Pioneer diggings were reported in 1926 in the

Mineral Record

. No gold output was reported for the activity.


Brownell, Joan

1980 "Cultural Resource Inventory Report for the Placer Creek Mining Project".

Geach, R. D.

1972 "Mines and Mineral Deposits (except fuels) Beaverhead County, Montana",

Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Bulletin 85


Hamilton, John T. and G. Sell

1989 "Cultural Resources Inventory Report Form - Ruby Creek Riperian Enhancement", Beaverhead National Forest.

Leeson, M. A.


History of Montana 1739-1885

. Warner, Beers & Co., Chicago.

Miller, Joaquin and Swallow, Dr. G. C.

1894 "History of Montana", Lewis Pub. Co., Chicago, Ill.

Noyes, Alva Josiah


The Story of Ajax; Life in the Big Hole Basin

, Buffalo-Head Press.

Sahinen, Uuno M.

1935 "Mining Districts of Montana", Thesis, Montana School of Mines, Butte.

Sassman, Oren

1941 "Metal Mining in Historic Beaverhead County (1862-1940)", Thesis Montana State University.

Scott, Douglas

1993 "Rocky Mountain Region Archaological Project Report: Non-battle Archeological sites: Big Hole National Battlefield, Montana", National Park Service Archeological Center, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Walsh, William and William Orem


Biennial Report of Inspector of Mines for 1905-1906

. Independent Publishing, Helena.

Wolle, Muriel Sibell


Montana Pay Dirt.

Sage Books, Athens, Ohio

Work Projects Administration (WPA) Mineral Resources Survey


Montana Mine Index

, An Alphabetical Index Arranged by Counties, Districts and Mines of Information on Montana Mines from 1867-1940. Montana School of Mines, Butte.