Placer Mining: The Lure of Gold

The gold rush tales of adventure and excitement live on in Southwest Montana towns like Helena and Virginia City, towns painted by their past. Although Gold Creek, Montana boasts the first gold discovery in the state, it never produced enough to cause a major gold rush. That distinction goes to Grasshopper Creek in Bannack, Montana in 1862. Less than a year later, prospectors discovered gold in Alder Gulch. Not soon after, they struck it rich at Last Chance Gulch. These three areas (now Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena) lured thousands of prospectors to Montana.

The fact that Montana's major rushes happened during the middle of the Civil War has forever affected the makeup of the state. Consumed by the Civil War, few prospectors came from the States, instead, Montana attracted people from the fringes: the California gold fields, high plains drifters and people driven from their homes by the war. Angry at Missouri for joining the Union, and drawn by the chance of riches, a huge population of Confederate Missourians flocked to Montana. Later on, ex-Confederate soldiers with nothing left in the South turned to the territories. However, Montana had its fair share of Union sympathizers too, as evidenced by places like Bannack's “Yankee Flats.”

The riches of Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena mostly came in the form of placer deposits. Placer deposits are loose flakes and nuggets of gold near the earth's surface, often intermixed with gravel. Several mining techniques developed, including: panning, rocker boxing, sluicing, drifting, hydraulicking, and dredging, but they all used the same principal. They wash a stream of water over piles of gravel. Since gold is heavier than most rocks, the gold settles to the bottom while the rest of the rocks get washed away with the water. Obviously, this is an inexact method, and placer miners missed lots of gold. Nevertheless, Montana made a number of miners very rich, and the Alder Gulch deposit remains the richest placer deposit in history.