The first major gold strike in Montana occurred in Grasshopper Gulch in 1862. When news of this strike became known, prospectors were drawn to the region and additional strikes were made the next year in Alder Gulch. In 1864, a small group of men headed north from Alder Gulch for the rumored riches of the Kootenai. Along the way they met a disillusioned miner named James Coleman who was returning from the Kootenai mines. The group was convinced to change their plans and decided instead to prospect the Little Blackfoot where one of their number had found colors the year before. Although they traced the river to its headwaters and crossed the divide into Prickly Pear Creek, the party found only colors and no paying gravel. Again changing their strategy, the party decided to prospect to the north. After six weeks of effort with little to show for it, the company returned south to the best of the earlier prospects on what they dubbed Last Chance Gulch. On July 14, 1864 they dug two prospect pits on Last Chance Gulch upstream from their previous efforts. Both pits revealed flat gold nuggets and gold dust. The Last Chance Gulch discovery is generally credited to John Cowan, Reginald (Robert) Stanley, J. D. Miller and John Crabb. Later, these men would be known as the "Four Georgians". Their numbers were augmented by Coleman and Captain George J. Wood, who arrived in time for the first clean up, liked what they saw, and decided to stay. Since they had the gulch to themselves, they tested up and down the stream to find the richest ground. They held a miners meeting allowing 200 ft per claim; with individuals other than the original discoverers limited to one staked claim and one purchased claim. Eventually, Crabb and Cowan were dispatched to Virginia City for supplies and the Last Chance bonanza period began (Malone and Roeder 1976; Petrik 1987; Wolle 1963).

Perhaps the first time in history, the discoverers of a bonanza were able to obtain provisions without a stampede of men following their tracks back to the new diggings. A few close friends were given the least possible information, but word still spread. Throughout the summer of 1864 small parties of miners left Virginia City and made their way to Last Chance Gulch. Other miners, who were roving the hills prospecting, came upon the modest camp and stayed on to stake their own claims. But those who came, stayed. Only a chronic lack of water limited the amount of gold that could be taken from the gulch.

John Cowan built the first of five cabins which comprised the fledgling camp in early October of 1864. By mid-October 200 votes were cast in an election for representatives in the Territorial Legislature, and by the end of the month the camp had grown enough to take on the title of "town". In a contest between the names Helena and Tomah, Helena won by two votes. The International Hotel opened its doors on the corner of Main and Bridge (State) Streets in November of 1864. The population continued to grow, 1,000 souls lived in Helena in March of 1865, but by mid-summer that figure had tripled. The completion of the Chessman and Cowan Ditch in 1865 allowed the gold to be sluiced at an even faster rate. The end of the Civil War and the continued success of the mines combined to set off yet another stampede from the eastern states in 1866. By 1867, at the height of the bonanza period, the town held as many as 4,100 to 7,500 people, mostly men between the ages of 25 and 40. As the paying gravels in Last Chance Gulch were taken up, miners fanned out and began working Grizzly, Orofino and Dry Gulches, but none of these could match the incredible riches of Last Chance Gulch. The Four Georgians sold out in 1867 and it was said that a heavy wagon had to be used to haul their gold dust back to civilization. By 1868, only four years after the discovery, nearly all the sluices were gone from Last Chance Gulch and a city stood on the played-out placers. In 1869 the few remaining placers in the gulch were worked by the Chinese (Lyden 1948; Malone and Roeder 1976; Petrik 1987; Wolle 1963).

The townsite of Helena was surveyed in 1865 by Captain John Wood. Streets followed the chaotic paths of the early miners, wound around claims and followed the tortured and distorted streambed. As a result, few city blocks matched the ideal of 30 x 60, rather they formed a variety of shapes and sizes. Major streets often came to abrupt ends. Structures built on paying gravels were propped up with stilts as the gravel under their foundations was swept away. The town was kept in a constant state of rebuilding by a series of devastating fires: April 1869, November 1869, October 1871, August 1872 and January 1874. These fires left a legacy of stone and brick fireproof buildings in the gulch. When excavations for these buildings were made, jokers watching the proceedings would begin to pan and then announce a dollar to the yard in return. A story is also told of a Chinese man who drifted under Main Street from his place of business to obtain an additional source of income (Lyden 1948; Petrik 1987).

Although streets and buildings covered the played-out placers, the tally for the district continued to grow in the mining literature. Knopf (1913) traced an amazing inflation of the total production figures. The first available totals were published in 1883 when a German journal estimated the total to be around $10 million. Bancroft in 1889 placed the figure at $16 million; Swallow in 1890 upped the ante to $30 million and by 1913 Knopf reported others using a $35 million figure. A more moderate figure used by Wolle (1963) credits Last Chance Gulch with $7 million in gold, Grizzly Gulch with $5 million, Dry & Tucker Gulches with $3 million and Nelson Gulch with $2.5 million (Knopf 1913; Wolle 1963).

Lode mines of the district provided a more enduring, albeit less glamorous, source of gold. As placers were taken up in Last Chance and the nearby gulches, miners moving south discovered lode deposits: the Whitlatch-Union mine in Oro Fino Gulch and, later, the Spring Hill mine in the adjoining Grizzly Gulch. Lode mining was limited almost entirely to these two mines (Anderson 1990; Malone and Roeder 1976; Lyden 1948).

The Helena mining district, which grew up around these finds, lies between six and 10 miles southwest of the city of Helena and is bordered by the Clancy, Rimini and, of lesser importance, Blue Cloud districts. The Helena mining district encompasses Last Chance, Grizzly, Oro Fino, Dry and Nelson Gulches. The principal mining camp was Unionville. The area is presently served by several roads which follow the major drainages into Helena. U.S. Highway 12 is north of the district.

The district is on the northern edge of the Boulder batholith. The exposed formations include Precambrian, Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks which dip generally toward the batholith. The batholith, which is composed of granodiorite and quartz monzonite, extends to the south into Jefferson County (McClernan 1983).

Lode mining activity in the district centered around the development of the Whitlatch-Union from whence the town of Unionville sprang up; later activity centered around the Spring Hill mine. The Spring Hill mine was second only to the Anaconda Company in gold production for Montana in 1929. Other mines in the district included the Yellowjacket, Big Indian (just over the divide to the east in the Montana City district) and the Dutro or Old Dominion. A small 20-stamp mill was erected at the Whitlach mine in 1905. The Arrowhead & Old Dominion mill was reported in 1912 to consist of a 2-ton stamp mill. The Northwestern Metals 40-ton mill was built in 1912 to treat waste dumps and tailings through a dry chlorination process. Other mills were constructed at Unionville and eventually at the Big Indian. A mill at the Spring Hill mine was built in 1925 and operated until it burned in 1932. It was replaced in 1934 and operated until the operation was shut down in 1940 (Hall 1912; Pardee and Schrader 1933).

Activity in the southern portion of the district began to slow down during the 1930s and had ended, except for intermittent local activity, by 1940. Pardee and Schrader (1933) estimate the total production of the Helena district to the end of 1928 to be $22,500,000. This includes an estimated $16,000,000 for the placer deposits, $6,110,000 for the Whitlatch-Union and Big Indian lodes up to 1911, and $390,000 for production for all the other mines in the district, primarily the Spring Hill mine which in 1928 produced $62,502.84.

In 1938 the Helena placers again began to bring forth gold as the Porter Brothers Corporation's electric Yuba dredge began to work the flats north of town. From November of 1935 to August 1943 the dredge worked continuously on the flats. In that time 45,000 ounces of gold were recovered from gravel that averaged 18 to 30 cents per cubic yard. A second dredge, the Perry-Schroeder, was active in 1940 and 1941 and its totals included in the total gold recovery. Dredging stopped in 1943 due to the war-time restrictions on gold mining. When this ban was lifted in 1945, the Porter Brothers dredge worked one more season. Total value of the gold from this dredge was reported to be more than $2,500,000 (Lyden 1948).


Pardee and Schrader (1933) define the Helena district to include an area extending from the city of Helena southward 6 to 10 miles to the Clancy and Rimini districts. Roby (1960) marks the boundaries to include Helena and Last Chance, Grizzly, Oro Fino, Dry and Nelson gulches, all more or less famous in the annals of early placer mining. Unionville, for years the principal mining camp, is four miles south of Helena, and included in the district boundaries.


Although there were a number of lode mines which were relatively productive in the Helena district, the major ones were the Spring Hill and Union. However, the Helena mining district was primarily a placer mining area where approximately $20 million in gold was from placer deposits and less than $10 million was taken from the lode claims.


The Dutro mine, which is described as seven miles west of Helena by Pardee and Schrader (1933), once consisted of a 150-ft inclined shaft. The mineral deposit is an irregular body of jasper and opal. Minor gold and other minerals were also reported to occur.

Last Chance Placer

The Last Chance Placer is one of the most famous placer grounds in the western United States. The bulk of production occurred prior to 1868. The grounds are credited with $6,724,000 in gold. Much of the placered ground is now under the streets and buildings of Helena.

Spring Hill

The Spring Hill mine is on the east side of Grizzly Gulch about four miles southwest of Helena. The mine was discovered in 1870 and has long been known to contain a large volume of gold ore. But the ore was of low grade and difficult to refine. The deposit was mined in the early days to provide flux for the smelter at Wickes; between 1885 and 1890, 23,000 tons of material were shipped to the smelter returning $5.34 per ton in gold in addition to its value as a flux. In later years a significant amount of gold was recovered using a cyanide process, initially at the Whitlach mill (Pardee and Schrader 1933; Sommer 1990.

In 1905 the mine was reopened by the Pittsburg - Montana Copper Mining Company under the direction of W. P. Parker, General Supervisor. The mine employed 65 men developing a 900-ft tunnel and a 250-ft raise to the surface. The mine was timbered by square sets and stulls while the stopes were backfilled. On the surface a Ingersoll-Sargent 7-drill compressor was installed a quarter mile from the mine and the compressed air conveyed to the mine by pipe. In 1906 the mine produced 700-800 tons per month for a total of 22,465 tons worth $65,286. The ore was 67 percent iron and 30 percent sulphur which made it useful both for fuel and for fluxing. In 1907 a 70-ton cyanide plant was erected at the Spring Hill mine. In its first year the mine / mill produced 11, 179 tons of ore worth $56,284. In 1907 the mine was described as a 850-ft adit with 1,000 ft of levels; 400 feet of the mine were excavated in 1907. The mine's ore was treated using cyanide until 1928 when the flotation process was introduced. In that year 20,560 tons of ore returned $62,502.84. By 1933 the mine had grown to include a large open pit and three adit levels with extensive underground workings which consisted of three levels and a winze. The ore, primarily pyroxenite, returned from $2.50 to $16 per ton in gold, averaging $4.50 per ton (Pardee and Schrader 1933; Ferguson 1908; Walsh 1906).


The Whitlach-Union mine is located on a summit of a low divide between Grizzly and Oro Fino Gulches five miles south of Helena at Unionville. The claim was discovered by James W. Whitlach in September of 1864 and is the oldest quartz discovery in the region. When it was shut down in 1872 by litigation, it had already produced $3,500,000. The mine is on the contact zone between the granitic rock of the Boulder batholith and the Quadrant quartzite. The vein ranged from a thin seam up to 15 ft in width, but averaged around four feet. Although values varied, the production averaged about 1 ounce of gold per ton of ore.

In 1905 the mine was reopened and developed by the National Mining and Exploration Company with Frank L. Sizer as manager and supervisor. Under his direction 70 men were employed digging a 500-ft, two-compartment shaft with a 300-ft drift in ore at the 400-ft level. Raises were made from the drift to the upper levels. Together 1,400 feet of development work was completed in two years. The mine was equipped with a steam hoist connected by 3/4 inch steel rope to two single deck cages. A 6-drill Ingersoll compressor was used for drilling. Gold carrying sulfide ore was trammed to a new 20-stamp mill erected 500 yards from the mine shaft. The amalgamation and concentration plant was rated at 75 tons per day.

When examined by Knopf in 1911 the mine was still in production but had been scaled back; only some of the upper levels were accessible and being worked. Knopf reported total production from the mine was around $6,000,000. Production records from 1905 to 1948 show the mine being worked consistently until 1922 then intermittently until 1942. Thereafter, the mine dump and tailings were reworked. In 1933 the mine was described as several incline shafts and a vertical shaft 500 ft deep, of these only the Owyhee and McIntyre shafts were still open. In total, the mine produced 57,500 short tons of ore with values of a record 17,390 ounces of gold (mostly from 1906 to 1909), 8,383 ounces of silver, 9 tons of copper, 9 tons of zinc and 40 tons of lead (Walsh 1906; Knopf 1913; Pardee and Schrader 1933).


The Yellowjacket mine is four miles south of Helena at the head of Holmes Gulch. While dwarfed by the other major mines in the district, the Yellowjacket was an early producer and was developed from a 100 ft shaft (Pardee and Schrader 1933 .


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