aka Willow Creek (sub-district)

Sapphires were first discovered on upper Rock Creek around 1892 by gold placer miners. William Knuth (of Helena) and William Moffitt worked the area extensively during 1899 and 1900 recovering 400,000 carats of rough sapphires (Pratt 1906; Zeihen 1986; Sinkankis 1959).

In 1901 Paul Fusz, Moses Rumsey, Charles McClure (all of St. Louis), L.S. McClure (San Diego), David Jankaner, and W.E. Knuth (Helena) incorporated the American Gem Mining Syndicate (AGMS). The syndicate was incorporated to operate two groups of sapphire claims in Montana. The claims were located in Yogo Gulch (Sweeney claim group) and a large group of claims on Rock Creek, in Granite County (Western Mining World, August 17,1901: 19)

Also in 1901 a large number of claims were located and recorded. By 1902 claims along the North Fork of Coal (referred to in earlier literature as Cold) Gulch, Sapphire Gulch (known as Meyers Creek), and Anaconda Gulch were patented. According to previous owner Mrs. Joan Tapplin, Anaconda Gulch held the richest sapphire deposits. Sub-sequently the area became the location of the largest sapphire operation over the longest period of time. The massive amount of placer disturbance in the gulch, in addition to the large "middle camp" located there, are remaining evidence of this massive development. One structure still evident at Middle Camp was a three-room bunkhouse which housed quite a few miners. Although development of the gulches was sequential to some extent, several gulches were often mined simultaneously.

To accomplish the feat of washing large amounts of gravels, the operation required a substantial, dependable water supply. Out of this necessity, the AGMS constructed diversions, ditches, and flumes. Shortly after the Kruger and May Lode claims were patented in 1901 a 16 mile wooden flume was constructed (Anon 1977).

Another of these ditches served the McClure Placer. "Expert Miner" McElroy reported in 1911 ("Report on the Amended McClure Placer") on the development and work on improvements by the AGMS. This included one and a half miles of ditch 24 feet wide by 12 feet deep. This ditch served the McClure Placer with water from the Stony Creek Flume. He continued:

"The ditch system for distributing water for mining purposes has been located and constructed at the most practical points for mining off the ground on any part of this claim with a full head of water. Their ditch system for conveying water to these mines cost the company as stated to me by the manager a sum exceeding $75,000.00.

McElroy further stated the flume "known as the Stony Creek Flume was built for the benefit of this (Aurora) and 22 other placer claims all owned by claimant company."

"The flume carries the waters of Stony Lake across the divide from the drainage of Stony Creek to the headwaters of the many forks of the West Fork of Rock Creek where by a series of ditches it is placed upon the ground of the several claims." (McElroy 1911)

In McElroy's report on the Bi-Metallic Placer Claim (1911) he referred to an extensive ditch system which carried water from the flume to AGMS's 23 claims. The system made the water from the Stony Flume available at the head of the gulches to drop down for washing gravels.

In a letter dated May 17, 1913 to the Register and Receiver in Missoula information was submitted by Britton and Gray on behalf of the AGMS with evidence of the Stony Creek Flume. The flume was described as 3 feet wide by 20 inches high by four and a half miles long. The description stated that the "flume is located at an elevation sufficiently high to place water through a series of ditches upon any of these claims."

With its flumes in place, the AGMS was able to produce truly incredible amounts of sapphires out of the gulches.

"Approximately seven tons of sapphires were washed from the mountains by the American Gem Mining Syndicate last year, said Mr. Parker, and the output this year will be considerably larger, it is estimated (Philipsburg Mail May 27, 1921)."

Mr. Rutledge Parker, referred to above, was Forest Examiner of the Missoula National Forest. Parker arranged the sale of timber to AGMS for construction of sluice boxes.

The AGMS mined the area for more than forty years. They shipped tons of sapphires to their factory in Switzerland to be used as jewels in Swiss watches, for instrument bearings, and gemstones (Ravalli Republic 1986).

American Gem Mining Syndicate owned and operated the claim block into the 1930s. In 1936 the claims were sold to Charles Carpp and J. W. Kaiser. The two worked the gulches by placering until 1943 (Rock and Gem 1977). In the 1960s the American Bar Sapphire Mine was owned and operated by Mr. and Mrs. William Eaton of Seattle. The Eatons sold out in 1966-67 to William Chausee who owned Chausee Sapphires. In 1964 Marc Bielenberg acquired several of the claims. Bielinberg, from Hamilton, was mining some of the most promising properties under the name of Skalkaho Sapphires. In 1980 Dick and Joan Tapplin became the new owner-operators of Gem Mountain Sapphires. They sold to Ted Smith of Glendale, Arizona in 1986. Ted Smith is the present owner, and until recently, operated a commercial tourist operation to pan for sapphires.

Great quantities of sapphires continued to be mined from the area throughout the historic and modern period. From one area 12 tons or 5.4 million carats were recovered. Sapphires from the district were so common that the state of Montana was able to give them away to visitors to the Montana Pavilion at Expo 74 in Spokane (Kern 1994).

Gold Placers

In addition to sapphires, some gold placering has taken place on Rock Creek tributaries such as Basin Creek, Big Springs Creek and Willow Creek. Although Lyden (1948) states that Basin Creek was not active prior to 1904, Mining and Scientific Press (1903) reported that F. D. Brown in 1903 resumed operations at the Basin Gulch mines and employed 17 men. The literature indicated that the placers were operating prior to 1903. Sometime in the creek's early years of activity a ditch was run from the headwaters of the West Fork of Rock Creek and from Stony Creek. The most productive year for which records exist was 1922 when $7,000 was washed from the hills by a hydraulic operation (Lyden 1948; Mining and Scientific Press 1903).

The Big Springs Creek placers were restricted to one claim worked in the early 1930s with little success. The Upper Willow Creek placers were composed of four working claims worked in 1919, 1933 and 1935 with modest success (Lyden 1948).

Willow Creek Sub-district

The Willow Creek sub-district is on the east side of the Rock Creek district and follows the course of Willow Creek. Placer mining in the area began in 1868 and peaked between 1870 and 1887. The first to placer the area were Minot Cole and a man named Cowan. Miners Gulch was originally called Minot Gulch in honor of Minot Cole. The area of Scotchman Gulch was worked by a group of Scots in the 1870s; a whip-saw pit used to cut sluice boards gave its name to Saw Pit Gulch. Niles Gulch was actively worked until the 1890s. Placer mining proceeded only three months out of the year due to lack of water (Kingsbury, Taylor and Heldan 1986).

Early miners also include Sam Spence and X. Bennett.. These men were working placers on Upper Willow Creek in July of 1878 when the Nez Perce who had escaped to Canada the previous year returned to the Montana to exact a measure of retribution. On July 10, 1878,the band of Indians surrounded the Bennett cabin. While Bennett was quizzed by the Indians as to whether he was a soldier, the miner's supplies were taken by the band. The next day the band murdered John Hays in McKay Gulch and on July 12, the band moved on the placer worked by Amos Elliott, Bill Jory, and J. H. Jones. When Jory was asked about his involvement in the Nez Perce war, he admitted arriving too late at the Big Hole battlefield to participate. The Indians then shot him dead. Jones ran out of the cabin and escaped with only a bullet wound to the arm. Elliott was found dead in the cabin the next day. Thereafter, Jones was known as "Nez Perce" Jones (Kingsbury, Taylor and Heldan 1986).

Other early miners included Hans Luthje, Nick Luthje, Wiff Conway, Pete Snyder, John Jennings, Johnny Aisnley, Jack Hall, Water Coetz, Widigar, Billy Stole, Cogswell, A. Bennett, "Cross-eyed" Meyer, George Albert, and Charlie Carpp. Wiff Conway acted as an intermediary to keep the miners from "squabbling and fighting". John Ainsley was associated with a lode mine and stamp mill in the area. Hans and Nick Luthje bought out the first homestead in the area, that of William McKunkey (Kingsbury, Taylor and Heldan 1986; Anon 1982).

When the Scotchmans Gulch area was examined in 1981, a log cabin , a hillside placer , a collapsed cabin adjacent to a silted-in reservoir, and a flume system were recorded (Taylor 1981).


Neither Sahinen (1935) nor Lyden (1948) discusses the Rock Creek district as a lode or placer district. However, Pratt (1901) places the Rock Creek sapphire placers on Cold Creek, Myers Creek, tributaries of the West Fork of Rock Creek and that portion of Rock Creek lying between them. Lyden (1948) discusses Basin Creek placers as a separate sub-district. Figure 1 shows the Rock Creek mining district as defined by the AMRB (1994) with the district as defined by Pratt (1901) delineated by dashed lines.


Basin Creek placers

The Basin Creek and Quartz Creek placers are located about 15 miles west of Philipsburg near the confluence of those creeks and Rock Creek. Although the placers were active prior to 1904, no records exist of the effort. Additional water for the placers came from ditches from the West Fork of Rock Creek and Stony Creek. The placers were hydrauliced and their best recorded year was in 1922. Earlier efforts may have been more profitable, since production justified putting 14 men to work on the placers in 1903. The placers had recorded production in 1911, 1914 - 28, 1934 and 1940 (Gilbert 1935; Lyden 1948;

Mining and Scientific Press


Big Springs Creek placer

The Big Springs Creek placer was one claim active in 1931, 1932, 1933, and 1935. The middle two years production was a mere 4 ounces of gold per year. The last year was even more modest with only 1.46 ounces recorded. Big Springs Creek is a northeast flowing tributary of Rock Creek, joining it about 25 miles south of Clinton (Lyden 1948)

Gold Price

The Gold Price mine consisted of three unpatented claims in the McKay Gulch tributary to Rock Creek. In 1935, H. O. Gaspar of Philipsburg was listed as owning the property and employing two men. The mine was developed through a 100 foot adit and an incline shaft. Ore in the shaft assayed at $54 per ton in gold and silver at the 40 foot level. There is no record of production (Gilbert 1935).

Stevens Placer

The Stevens placer is composed of one unpatented claim in section 12, T5N, R16W on the West Fork of Rock Creek. About 1.75 miles of the gulch was worked in the 1880s. When assessed in 1934, about half a mile of unworked ground remained. This ground tested at 80 cents per yard. Prior to 1934 two loads of float ore were shipped; 23 tons assayed at $1,290 per ton and 43 tons assayed at $1,495 per ton. The mine was listed as idle in 1934 (Gilbert 1935).

Upper Willow Creek placers

The Upper Willow Creek placers were first active in 1868, but reached their peak between 1870 and 1880. Artifact analysis indicates that the placers were active after 1880 as well. The Willow Creek placers were composed of one working claim active in 1919, four claims active in 1933 and two claims active in 1935. The total gold recovery for the 1930s was 28.9 ounces (Lyden 1948; Kingsbury, Taylor and Heldan 1986).


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.

Beck, Barb Springer and Betsy Follman

1988 "Gem Mountain Historical District", an unfinished manuscript, Deerlodge National Forest Butte.

Emmons, William Harvey and Frank C. Calkins

1913 "Geology and Ore Deposits of the Philipsburg Quadrangle, Montana",

U. S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 78.

Fredlund, Lynn and Brian Shovers

1988 "Cultural Resource Inventory and Assessment Bagdad Mine Project, Granite County, Montana", prepared for Mark V Mines by GCM Services, Butte.

General Land Office Records (GLO)

Kern, Fred

1994 Interview with Dale M. Gray on May 28, 1994.

Kingsbury, Lawrence A., John F.Taylor and Toni Heldan

1986 "Willow Creek Timber Sale (86-MT-070-075-02)", Cultural Resources Class III Inventory Report.

Kriegel, W. Wurth, and John D. Keys

1935 "Ceramic Materials and Products that have Present or Future Significance in Montana", a radio talk, Montana School of Mines.

Lyden, Charles J.

1948 "The Gold Placers of Montana",

Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Memoir 26

. Montana School of Mines, Butte.

McElroy, C. A.

1911 "Report of the McLure Amended Placer", on file DLNF Butte.

1911 "Report on the Bi-Metallic Placer Claim", on file DLNF Butte.

McLeod, Milo

1986 "Cultural Resource Inventory Project Report Flex and French Basin Land Exchanges", Bitterroot National Forest Report No. 86-BR-SO-1.

1987 "Williams Gulch Mine Cultural Site Record", File # 2360, Lolo National Forest CRM Files, Missoula.

1987 Letter to the Montana State Historical Society concerning the Williams Gulch mining claim (Bagdad mine).

Mining and Scientific Press

1903 Vol. 86, May 16, 1903. p. 323.

Mining World

1908 Vol. 29, September 26, 1908. p. 485.

Pardee, Joseph Thomas

1933 "Placer Deposits of the Western United States",

Ore Deposits of the Western States (Lindgren Volume)

, pp. 419-450, American Institute of Mining and Metal Engineering.

Philipsburg Mail

1921 May 27, 1921.

Pratt, Joseph Hyde

1901 "The Occurrence and Distribution of Corundum in the United States,"

U. S. Geological Survey, Bulletin 180


1906 "Corundum and its Occurrence and Distribution in the United States," U. S. Geological Survey, Bulletin 269.

Ravalli Republic

1986 August 8, 1986.

Sahinen, Uuno M.

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

Sinkakis, John


Gemstones of North America

, Van Nostrand Company, Inc. Princeton.

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.

Swindlehurst, J. W.


Montana Department of Labor and Industry, 3rd Biennial Report.

Taylor, John

1981 "Ram Mountain Timber Sale (81-MT-070-074-09)", Cultural Resources Class III Inventory Report. Bureau of Land Management.

Weed, Walter Harvey

1900 "Montana Sapphires",

Mineral Industry

, Vol. 10, pp. 280-283.

Western Mining World

1901 August 17, 1901.

1901 August 31, 1901

Zeihen, Lester

1986 "Sapphire Deposits of Montana",

Directory of Montana Mining Enterprises for 1986

. Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Bulletin 126.


1977 "Archaeological Investigation Cow Camp Salvage Timber Sale" Deerlodge National Forest, reply to 2360 Special Interest Areas.


1982 "Preliminary Cultural Resource Literature Search: Miners, Cole, Cowan, Sawpit, Alder, Niles, and Scotchmans Gulches (82-DL-3-8)", Deerlodge National Forest, Philipsburg Ranger Station.