aka Gold Creek


Gold Creek, a northward flowing tributary of the Clark Fork River holds a special place in not only the history of mining, but in the history of Montana as well. The stream was the scene of the first discovery of gold in Montana. While the quality of the strike was soon overshadowed by the Bannack strike, it was the Gold Creek mines that first drew prospectors to the region and directly led to the discovery on Grasshopper Creek. Because of its unique position in history, the events leading to the discovery are of more than passing interest.

In 1852, Francois Finlay, who was also known as Benetsee, found the first float gold in what is now Montana, in a branch of the Clark Fork, later to be called Gold Creek. His findings became known to the few mountain men in the area, and the stream from which the gold came was called Benetsee's Creek. Angus McDonald, in charge of Fort Connah near Flathead Lake, had some of the dust Benetsee found assayed, and reported the discovery to the Hudson's Bay Company in Victoria, British Columbia. With the California gold rush only three years old, the Hudson's Bay Company well knew what would happen if news of the gold strike were to get out. To prevent prime beaver grounds from being overrun by gold-seekers, McDonald was ordered to keep the dust a secret.

One year later John Mullen and other members of the U.S. Government-sponsored Stevens railroad expedition were said to have washed some flakes from Benetsee creek. Popular tradition and nearly every historical source states that Mullen knew nothing of Finlay's discovery and so renamed the stream Gold Creek after finding the gold. However, Mullen and Finlay's daughter, Mary Ann, were apparently well-acquainted. Peter Mullen, Mary Ann's first child was born not long after the expedition. Whether Mullen actually panned the gravel of Gold Creek or merely noted it after hearing about it, Mullen's name became linked with that of Gold Creek. At the time, little was made of the discovery, the expedition report notation of gold in a remote northern stream could hardly compete with the banner headlines heralding vast gold strikes and the reality of tons of gold dust coming out of contemporary California (Mullen 1991).

The stream was next prospected in 1856 by a group of miners led by Robert Hereford. The group included John Sanders (known as Long Tom), Bill Madison and a couple of others. The party of men was enroute from the Bitterroot valley to Salt Lake City when they apparently heard of Gold Creek and did some panning there. Some gold was found, but not enough to slow the men. When they connected with the California Trail just west of Utah, they stopped and talked with Granville Stuart, James Stuart and Reece Anderson; the trio were on their way back from the California mines. The Stuart-Anderson party was cooling their heels in camp waiting for the dust to settle on the Mormon War so they could proceed across Utah safely. When they saw the gold dust of Hereford and company, they altered their plans to take a side-trip to Gold Creek. Although the Stuarts tried to work the stream early in the spring of 1858, the lack of tools brought a halt to the operations. Stuart built a log cabin on the Mullen Road where it crossed Gold Creek. This cabin became the nucleus of a small community named American Fork where 45 people lived and conducted an active trade of goods (Pardee 1951).

In 1860, Henry Thomas (also known as Gold Tom) dug a 30-foot shaft in the glacial till of Gold Creek at a point about one mile west of what later became known as Pioneer City. The small prospect returned $1.50 a day from axe-hewn sluices. However, the gold was little return on the effort involved in producing home-made mining equipment. It was, however, enough to push Stuart into obtaining the means to properly work the gravels of the stream. In the spring of 1862, miners were hurrying through the area from the head of navigation on the Missouri to the new Idaho mines. From them Stuart obtained the tools necessary to work the stream. On May 8 1862, Granville Stuart set up the first effective sluices in Montana. When he found gold, the news was not lost on the prospectors passing through the area. A party of prospectors arrived on May 14 and found diggings that paid 20 cents per pan. On May 20 another party arrived and prospected along a branch of Gold Creek which they named Pikes Peak Creek. On June 1, yet another group of prospectors arrived on the scene and found gravel that paid about $10 to the man by working the stream with sluices (Pardee 1951).

Miners on the way to diggings such as Stuart's often stopped and panned the streams along the way. In such a manner John White came upon the fabulous placers of Grasshopper Creek. When word of the rich strike arrived at Gold Fork, the miners left for more promising operations. By August 1862, only four months after the first sluices were in place, the Gold Creek placers were nearly abandoned; only two men remained to work the gravel. There followed a dizzying number of fabulously rich strikes at Alder Gulch, Last Chance Gulch, Confederate Gulch and many others. Gold Creek became a backwater and the town of American Fork was abandoned (Pardee 1951).

There was little activity on Gold Creek until 1866, when the Pioneer mining district was organized. The placers of Pioneer Creek and its tributaries, French and Squaw gulches, soon overshadowed the initial placers on Gold Creek. Under laws of the new district, bar claims of 200 feet running back to the summit of the hill could be made. In 1867, the Pioneer Company began using hydraulics on the bars. Although no rush ensued, mining activity picked up and the population of the Pioneer district rose to a high of 1000. Most of the population was concentrated in the new camp of Yam Hill near Batterton Bar.

Lack of water was more of a problem than the apparent lack of gold. In 1868 or 1869 Conrad Kohrs and others, formed the Rock Creek Ditch Company, to build a 16 mile canal to deliver water from Rock Creek to the Pioneer, Willow Creek, and Pikes Peak districts. The system initially delivered water to the Gold Hill terraces; the first terrace to be worked was the slope descending down to Pikes Peak Creek. These terraces contained rich gold deposits. Several hundred men worked the placers and a reported $140,000 was recovered in a single season from a pit on Batterton Bar. By 1870, it was estimated that $20,000,000 in placer gold had been taken from the gulches (Pardee 1951; Wolle 1963).

The Pioneer district never rivaled the other major strikes of Montana, but just the same the district flourished all through the 1870s. New placer deposits were discovered and developed at French Gulch, Squaw Gulch, Woods Flat and Wilson's Bar. By 1874 the richer parts of the terraces had been worked, but new deposits were discovered at Pioneer Bar and Ballard Hill. As these placers grew, the town of Yam Hill became deserted and a new town of Pioneer City began to grow. It has been estimated that over a million dollars of gold dust (at $20.67 per ounce) was removed from the Pioneer Bar in the late 1870s and early 1880s (Pardee 1951; Wolle 1963).

Around 1875, Conrad Kohrs, a stockman and trader who had been involved in the Rock Creek Ditch Company, bought up a number of mining claims and water rights in the Pioneer district, planning to leave them to his son as a legacy. His plans failed to materialize, for his son died and he quit mining. Another man, Tim Lee, brought a company of 800 Chinese miners to the gulch. He directed these laborers for several years. They worked to wash gold from the tailings and carried away the waste rocks in baskets to restack it on new dumps. When they could no longer recover any gold, they left the area.

Prior to 1890 the deposits on Pioneer Bar and at the Ballard mine were nearly worked out, but extensive hydraulic operations were being conducted at the K & K Bar, a low terrace in Pioneer Gulch. This operation was conducted by F.J. Slaughtner for the owners, Kohrs and Bielenberg. The hydraulic operation continued until 1918 (Pardee 1951).

In the 1890s, an English syndicate, the Gold Creek Mining Company Ltd., sank test holes in the gravel and began to work the ground with a small dredge. The dredge proved too small and light in construction to deal with the deep, bouldery gravels and efforts stopped after a shallow trench was excavated. The English Company also met resistance from some of the older residents of the district, including Conrad Kohrs, who cut off their supply of timber and water. The company ceased work and filed suit against the hecklers. The case dragged on for many years and was not settled until 1927, when Pat Wall, a miner from Butte, offered to buy the English Company's holdings. He bought up 3,200 acres held by the Kohrs-Bielenberg interests, which included water rights and the townsite of Pioneer. These two purchases, which gave him 7,000 acres of placer ground, permitted him to plan big-scale dredging on 6,500 acres and hydraulicking on 500 acres more.

Between December 1933 and June 1939, the Pioneer Placer Dredge Company, Inc., recovered a gross total of $1,374,631 from these gravels. The company used a sturdy "California-type" electric chain-bucket dredge.

Production figures for the creeks of the district have generally been combined reports, so a fair and accurate estimate of the production of each creek cannot be made. The total production of the placer mines in the district, up to 1949, was estimated to be $28,526,000. An estimate of about $7,000,000 seems to be fair and conservative for the total production of placer gold from the Pioneer district from 1860-1945, because the "cream had been skimmed" from the richest bars prior to 1898. In fact the dredge at Pioneer held first rank as a gold producer in Montana in 1934. Although primarily a placer mining district, some lode mines have been developed at the head of Gold and Little Gold Creeks. Most of the lode mines, however, are in Granite County (Sahinen 1935; Lyden 1948; Wolle 1963).

In addition to the efforts of Pat Wall and the Pioneer Placer Dredge Company, other smaller mines continued to work in the early 20th Century. Prior to 1920 the west side of Gold Hill was reworked in the Squaw Gulch pit. In 1920, the Rock Creek ditch and its water rights were purchased and diverted to water fields. Water was then brought into the district from Pikes Peak Creek and used to work deposits on Gold Hill above the Rock Creek ditch. The largest of these workings were the Kelley and Irvine pits. For several years after 1920, hydraulic operations were conducted on the gravels of Pioneer Gulch at the foot of Ballard Hill. This deposit had been missed by earlier efforts because of a heavy talus overburden (Pardee 1951).

On the upper parts of the middle and east forks of Pioneer Gulch as well as on China Bar, Chinese miners worked the gravel prior to 1930. The amount of gold production is not known, but may have been large.

Gold Creek and Pikes Peak Creek flow into an area of complexly folded and faulted Mesozoic and Paleozoic sediments which have been intruded by an elongated batholith of quartz monzonite. The lode deposits occur in veins and replacement deposits in highly altered granite or quartz monzonite. None of the lode deposits have been particularly important as points of production, but erosion of these gold-bearing deposits have resulted in extensive placer deposits in Gold, Little Gold, Pioneer, and Pikes Peak Creeks. The placer gold occurs in recent stream gravels and also in bench gravels. The deposits have been mined by sluicing, hydraulicking, and dredging (Sahinen 1935).

No production figures are available prior to 1904 when the majority of the gold was recovered from the district. However, from 1904 to 1951, the operations in the district worked 4,625,700 cubic yards of gravel to recover 65,000 ounces of gold and 7,442 ounces of silver. Estimated value of historic Twentieth century production was reported to be over $2,000,000. Most of this production occurred in the 1930s with the advent of dredging (McClernan 1976).


Sahinen (1935) places the district southwest of Gold Creek, a station on the Northern Pacific and Chichago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroads. Figure 1 shows the historic mining district as defined by Sahinen (1935) which includes the primary creeks and gulches which were the scene of the placer activity.



From 1909 to 1930, the Friday mine reported production in 19 years (WPA 1941).

Gold Creek Placer

The Gold Creek placers during the Twentieth century reported production intermittently from 1905 to 1910 and again in 1930 and 1931. The mine was discussed in the mining literature in 1904 and 1905 and again in the 1930s (WPA 1941).

Gold Hill

The Gold Hill placers can be divided into two areas, the north portion which was called the Squaw Gulch pit and the southern portion which contained the Kelley and Irvine pits. The area around the Squaw Gulch pit was worked early in the history of the district. Extensive workings were excavated on the western side of Gold Hill above the steep slope to Squaw Gulch. The Squaw Gulch gravels were prospected in 1931 by the Henderson Mining Co., but no paying ground was found. The Kelley and Irvine pits contained gold in an unsorted mass of boulders, cobbles, sand and clay. The pits were reported to have produced $20,000 in gold. No production figures are available for the larger Squaw Gulch pit. Other small gulch and ravine placers have also been worked on Gold Hill (Pardee 1951).


The Independence mine is located on Windy Hill. Although the vicinity was worked in the district's early days, no production records have survived. The mine next reported production nearly every year between 1926 to 1930. The gold was of exceptional purity, assaying at 968 fine. The rough angles on the gold recovered indicated that the gold was little water worn, having been deposited by glacial action (WPA 1941; Pardee 1951).

K & K Bar

Located on the east side of upper Pioneer Gulch, the K & K Bar stretches nearly a mile and a half in length with varying width. The workings on the lower third of the bar was collectively known as the Kohrs and Kelley mine. The upper two-thirds of the bar was known as the Kohrs and Bielenberg mine. In 1916 the upper workings were extended 600 feet; the area is known as the 1916 pit. From it 711 ounces of gold were recovered. Work continued in the pit until leaner gravels were encountered in 1918 (Pardee 1951).

Oro Fino

The Oro Fino was active intermittently from 1909 to 1929 (WPA 1941).

Pikes Peak Creek

Prior to the advent of dredge operations in 1934, nearly half of the gold recovered in the district came from the Pikes Peak placers. The Batterton Bar in the district produced $140,000 in a single season. Gold was found in small particles with some nuggets up to $10 in value. The gold assayed at $17.75 an ounce at a time when pure gold ran $21.67. Some gold from the Larrabee Bank ran as high as $18.60 per ounce.

Part of the pay streak was mined by drifting, but this area was covered by waste rock from mines higher on the hill. Below Treadwater Bar, a 3,000 foot segment of recovered pay streak was worked by a dragline shovel and a dry-land washer (Pardee 1951).

Pioneer Property

The Pioneer property was active in 1916 and again from 1928 to 1931. The mine was discussed in the mining literature during the latter period of production (WPA 1941).

Pioneer Placer

It has been estimated that over a million dollars worth of gold was taken out of six gravel terrace channels on a spur west of Pioneer Gulch. Bank records indicated that the gold assayed at $18.50 per ounce. The Pioneer placer was active 18 years from 1910 to 1938 (WPA 1941).

Pioneer Placer Dredging

The Pioneer electric dredge reported production from 1933 until the operation was stopped by Federal order at the advent of World War II (WPA 1941; Pardee 1951).

Other Placers

The Montana Bureau of Mines vertical files list the following placers: Dawson, Dry Creek, Fin de Siecle, Fowler Tibbetts, French Gulch, Gold Hill, Hart's Gravel, Middle Falls, Prowse Par, Rocker Gulch, Squaw Gulch, Trail Gulch, Wilson's Bar, Windy Bar, Wood's Flat, and Yam Hill (Pilgrim's Bar).


Bowman, A. H. and Barclay Craighead

1926 Montana, Resources and Opportunities Edition, Vol. 1. Department of Agriculture, Labor and Industry, Division of Publicity.

1928 Montana, Resources and Opportunities Edition, Vol. 3. Department of Agricultural, Labor and Industry, Division of Publicity.

Calderhead, J. H.

1898 "Montana Bureau of Agriculture, Labor, and Industry, 6th Annual Report."

Dingman, Oscar A.

1934 "Placer Mining in Montana", Mines Magazine. Vo. 24, No. 1, pp. 13, 17-18.

Emmons, Samuel Franklin

1885 "Geological Sketch of the Rocky Mountain Division", U. S. 10th Census, Vol. 13, pp. 60-104.

Emmons, William Harvey and Frank C. Calkins

1913 "Geology and Ore Deposits of the Philipsburg Quadrangle, Montana", U. S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 78.

Ferguson, Henry Gardiner and L. P. Benedict

1906 Montana Bureau of Agriculture, Labor and Industry, 10th Report.

1908 Montana Bureau of Agriculture, Labor and Industry, 11th Biennial Report.

Gardiner, C. Roe and Johnson, C. H.

1934 "Placer Mining in the Western United States", U.S. Bureau of Mines, Inf. Circ. 6786, pt. 1; Circ. 6787, pt. 2; Circ. 6788, pt. 3.

Hammond-Fogarty, K. T.

1907 "Early Mining History of Montana", Mining World, Vol. 26, pp. 722-773.

Lyden, Charles J.

1948 The Gold Placers of Montana. Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Memoir No. 26. Montana School of Mines, Butte.

Montana Bureau of Mines

nd Vertical Files.

McClernan,H. G.

1976 "Metallic Mineral Deposits of Powell County, Montana", Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, Bulletin 98.

Mullen, John

1991 Miners and Travelers' Guide. (Reprint) Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington. Originally published by W. M. Franklin, New York.

Pardee, J. T

1951 "Gold Placer Deposits of the Pioneer District, Montana", U.S. Geological Survey, Bulletin 978-C.

Sahinen, Uuno M.

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

Trauerian, Carl J.

1939 "Mining in Montana Exclusive of Butte", Seven Talks About Mines, pp. 31-41, Butte Chamber of Commerce.

Wolle, Muriel S.

1963 Montana Pay Dirt. A Guide to the Mining Camps of the Treasure State. Sage Books, Denver.

Works Projects Administration (WPA) Mineral Resources Survey

1941 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.

Figure 1. The Pioneer or Gold Creek historic mining district as defined by Sahinen (1935) which includes the primary creeks and gulches which were the scene of the placer activity.