Helena The Capital Town’s Beginnings

Excerpted from the book “Helena: Capital Town” by Rick and Susie Graetz
Last Chance Gulch 1874
Looking north on Last Chance Gulch, Helena, 1874 | Montana Historical Society

As the story goes, by the summer of 1863, word from Montana had it that Alder Gulch was bearing chunks of gold that could be plucked from the ground by any cotton-picker. Easier pickings than California once offered. In 1863, the power of gold lured people west, away from the republic to an unknown wilderness. But these were radical, turbulent times with the country at war with itself, and the expanding territories also offered a place to run to, a chance to make a life, as opposed to simply living one.

Some seekers organized incredible caravans, and others trekked across the plains alone, leaving their war-torn homeland behind. Many came to find their fortune, many just came.

Every steamboat from St. Louis, Missouri to Fort Benton, Montana was said to be “weighed to the waterline” as it pushed up the Missouri River “with its cargo of human freight and supplies for the mine.” All were bound for Virginia City, a crowded compound thick with thieves, killers and honorable men—but there was no telling one from the other.

Among the throng were John Cowan, John Crabb, D.J. Miller and Reginald “Bob” Stanley, typical frontier miners, who would be remembered in Helena as the “Four Georgians.” Crabb came from Iowa. D.J. Miller hailed from Alabama, Reginald “Bob” Stanley from England, and only John Cowan, the last of the “Four Georgians,” actually came from Georgia.

The frontier miners were caught, with hundreds of other fortune seekers, in the Virginia City/Alder/ Bannack/Grasshopper Creek sluices, with little or nothing to do. Alder and Grasshopper gulches already were claimed and being mined. There were probably as many men in the saloons looking for a claim to jump as there were men working claims in the hills. With gold fever high, the best way to lower the population of the camps was to get the word out that “good colors”—that is “gold”—had been found in a remote gulch. If one could be trusted, and if he wanted to rid the town of idle miners just before the good spring run-off, he might start a rumor while visiting Alder that some hard luck tramps had struck it rich up Kootenai way, nearly 400 miles north through treacherous mountain country laced with suspicious Indian tribes growing less patient by the day with this second migration of persistent white men.

It seems that was how the eventual Four Georgians were ushered into the Kootenai stampede. Stanley and Crabb, however, were more in the stampede’s draft than its center. They had no luck in Virginia City but possibly were reluctant to leave because it would take weeks to reach the Kootenai and any day a nearby strike might be found. But, dejected, Crabb and Stanley eventually packed their animals and departed Virginia City for the rumor of gold in Kootenai country.

On their way north, while camped in the valley along the Clark Fork River, Crabb and Stanley met a mining party, apparently led by James Coleman that was returning from the Kootenai. Coleman said the diggings were puny. That night—it was in May, clear and cold—the word of the failed Kootenai expedition sailed through Hellgate (Missoula) like the haunting cry of a great horned owl. It reached another party of four miners late to leave Virginia City. Among that party were Georgian John Cowan and his Alabama soulmate, D.J. Miller, who had returned from prospecting played-out California gold rush haunts.

They had only a string of pack animals, beans, bacon, coffee and some tools to comfort their night. Once they realized they were aced out of Virginia City on a cold rumor, when the late-to-leave prospectors met and pitched stones into the campfire, they all must have felt a bit foolish. Maybe it was the Confederates, Cowan and Miller, who decided to strike out alone the next day. With the Civil War still raging, there was little for them to go home to. And they had Stanley’s story of small riches scraped from the streams that fed the Blackfoot River to spur them on, in spite of the others who said they knew better than to believe the tall tales of the Englishman.

Still, it took several days for the disappointment of the Kootenai bust to subside. As prospectors headed back to Virginia City or other “secret” gulches, it was Cowan, Crabb, Stanley and Miller, probably about June 1, who become unlikely partners and decided together to pan the Blackfoot River drainages.

Without the benefit of trails or compass, and with a waning faith in the ease of gold discovery, the four men followed the river to Nevada Creek and kept heading south and east over uncharted wilderness. Eventually, they reached the Continental Divide, south of the four-year-old Mullan Road. The cold spring rains and low fog made the wilderness trek a physical terror but when they dropped down the east slope of the Rockies and followed Ten Mile Creek to the Prickly Pear Valley, the elements didn’t appear as formidable

Some 19 years later, Stanley recalled the climb down the mountain to the great basin that the powerful Piegan Indians had long considered their “tona,” or game pocket. He said the miner’s “gladdened eyes swept the wide expanse of beautiful plains with its threading streams fringed with green-boughed cottonwoods. Bunch grass, fresh and luxuriant, waved everywhere, and herds of antelope, in scores and hundreds, fed unmolested—those nearest turning about and facing the party, wondering what intrusion of man upon their long-unmolested preserves meant.”

Time would tell. But as inviting as the valley appeared, after a night’s camp and a small bit of panning in the gulch between Mount Ascension and Mount Helena the prospectors decided to leave the valley and continue north to search the maze of drainages that cut the Dearborn, Sun, Teton and Marias rivers. A more grueling, punishing horseback expedition in the rainy season is hard to imagine. To have reached the source of the Teton and the Marias rivers near the beginning of July, a swift journey to be sure, they could not have been doing much earnest prospecting. It must have seemed all for naught.

In Montana Territory in 1864 everything was a gamble and time was the fortune seeker’s currency. In this country, you can feel winter coming on even in the sweltering heat of July, and winter and defeat had to be on their minds when they sat on the bank of the Marias River and decided to head back to the Prickly Pear Valley. If they didn’t find gold, they would at least find some solace in the beauty of the valley before finally admitting failure. The prospecting was dim, the men desperate and they had begun to call that gulch in the Prickly Pear Valley their “last chance.”

As Cowan, Crabb, Stanley and Miller approached the valley, the Union army crept toward Atlanta and a major, if not deciding, battle of the Civil War. On the afternoon of July 14, 1864, as Gen. Sherman rebuilt the Chattahoochee River bridges to Atlanta that the Confederates had burned behind them, the prospectors crossed the Prickly Pear flats and wearily made their way up the gulch where they had camped six weeks earlier. “It’s our last chance,” one of the men said again.

They made camp farther up the gulch this time and fixed a supper. Some accounts put them on the intersection of Sixth and North Park, where the City/County Building sits. Other versions place them at Sixth and Fuller, near the Montana Club.

Nevertheless, with the benefit of gracious light from Montana’s long Arctic summer days, they moved out that evening to seek the elusive “colors.” Cowan, Crabb and Miller dug in the lower reaches while Stanley went as far as a half-mile up the gulch to dig. There is some evidence that Crabb, the Yankee, didn’t sympathize with his partners’ Confederate politics. It’s possible that Crabb chose to follow Cowan and Miller out of distrust.

So, Stanley, alone, dug seven feet to bedrock. He panned the gravel in the small trickle of stream and saw about four flat nuggets. He plucked one from the pan, held it up in the twilight and let it fall back into the pan. It had the sound of good weight and the ring of pure luck.

Stanley called for his partners and the four dug—near the Colwell Building on today’s Last Chance Gulch mall—into the night. Satisfied that there was gold in the gulch they went back to camp. The howl of wolves and coyotes seemed to surround them and after firing rifle volleys into the pack to quiet the howls, the men agreed the camp would be called “Last Chance.” In the following days, Stanley later said, “we set to and dug holes … took our time and did it well and chose what we thought was the best ground.”

In the meantime, these “Four Georgians” officially laid plans for the camp and the law of the land. Last Chance would be in the Rattle Snake District, which extended “three miles down, and up to the mouth of the canyon, and across from summit to summit.”

They also set out to define the mining claims that would extend 200 feet up and down the gulch. Many of the long, narrow buildings on Last Chance Gulch today sit atop those defined claims. They called themselves “The Discovery Party” and gave themselves first rights to the meager water supply, the best claims and limited future mineral-hunters to two mining claims. They had been around long enough and had dreamed of a find for months. They knew exactly how to establish a camp before a stampede.

With that official work done and with their provisions running short, the Discovery Party chose Crabb and Cowan—a Yankee and a Confederate—to set out for Alder Gulch for supplies and a whipsaw to cut sluice boxes. In a fortnight, Cowan and Crabb were back in Last Chance, and in Virginia City the Montana Post mentioned the strike in the same edition that announced the success of Gen. Sherman’s campaign on Atlanta. Dejected southern loyalists latched onto a rumor. In no time, word spread that four Georgians, Confederates, had struck it rich in a remote gulch to the north.

Judge Lyman E. Munson made his way to Helena in 1865 via the Missouri River. He arrived on a Sunday and he saw the town, built at the mouth of Last Chance Gulch where the Tertiary gravels were bearing gold in nuggets and dust. More than 100 houses were already built and 100 more were under construction. Rent was $200 a month, lodging hard to come by and wages terribly low. Already, speculators were buying and selling claims for small fortunes.

pre-dawn crescent moon over firetower in downtown helena, montana
Fire Tower | John Lambing

“This was a lively camp,” the judge wrote in Pioneer Life in Montana:

 “Three thousand people were there, street spaces were blockaded with men and merchandise, ox trains, mule trains and pack trains surrounded the camp, waiting a chance to unload. The saw and hammer were busy in putting up storehouses and in constructing sluice boxes for the washing out gold, which was found in nearly every rod of its valley soil. Men, who had shunned domestic duty over the cradle for years, were rocking a cradle filled with dirty water, watching for appearances of golden sand to open their purse strings to the realities of their adventure.”

“Auctioneers were crying their wares, trade was lively—saloons crowded, hurdy-gurdy dance houses were in full blast—wild mustang horses, never before saddled or bridled, with Mexican riders on their backs, where no man ever sat before, were running, jumping and kicking and bucking to unhorse their riders, much to the amusement of the jeering crowd, and as exciting as a Spanish bull fight.”

Bannack, Alder Gulch, Confederate Gulch, Last Chance Gulch, Park Gulch, Oro Fino Gulch, French Bar, Skelly Gulch, Greenhorn Gulch, Dry Gulch, the Scratchgravel Hills, Grizzly Gulch, Unionville, et al., owe their gold and memories to the Boulder Batholith. Their placers all were laced with the gold washed from the batholith’s eroded mother lodes.

In events that occurred about 200 million years ago, the continental plate crashed, the west coast crumpled like a subcompact, the earth’s crust heated up tremendously. About 78 million years ago, out of the blue the Elkhorns started spewing molten rock. Then an asteroid the size of Chicago beaned the earth, throwing evolution for a loop and all the while pieces of water-borne gold were dumped into cracks of the batholith’s cooling rock. Along comes a creature with no million-year credentials who has a hankering for gold just when erosion has the batholith brushing ore off its balding head like dandruff. That is the sheerest, blindest luck.

Helena’s bedrock lodes of gold were formed after the batholith assaulted the earth’s crust, but before the volcanoes died. Hot springs, fueled by the magma, were fiercely active. Many still dot the region and many geologists believe the batholith is still harboring deep magmatic activity. Like a pirate’s “X” marking the spot of buried treasure, hot springs can pinpoint sources of vein ore deposits. Col. Broadwater’s hot springs west of Helena and the Boulder Hot Springs are two of the area’s more famous ones, but the entire region is pocked with active and inactive hot springs.

The hot water circulating deep within the earth picks up its freight of elements and minerals being forced from the subterranean pressure cooker. The hot water continues to add to its cargo as it rises. The minerals are transported in solution and carried through a tortuous course of rock. Upon reaching surface-cool rock, the water temperature drops. The cooling water cannot keep the heavy gold in solution, and it is dumped along the course. Mother lodes—from Old English “lad,” way or course—are fissures in hard crustal rock where the cooling water’s mineral freight was dumped.

Water dumps silicon from solution at nearly the same temperature as it dumps gold. It is rare, however, when they are dumped together. But when silicon is unloaded with gold, it clings to it and weaves its rockmate a quartz cocoon.

Helena miners did love quartz, but they learned to despise it too, because they expected too much of it. Many figured that gold was to be found in every quartz vein. One only had to dig deeper to find the ore. That backward notion tore the heart out of Helena’s gold industry in the 1880s. Deep was not the answer. There is no method of finding gold in quartz. None exists. No secrets, just lucky strikes and few of them.

Last Chance, a placer strike, is thought to have produced $170,000 in gold its first year and $10 to $35 million before it played out. Alta, near Corbin, offered up $32 million between 1883 and 1910. The Whitlatch-Union Mine in Unionville produced $6 million in gold over 40 years. Tommy Cruse’s Drumlummon Mine in Marysville, the product of a smaller magmatic intrusion, made Cruse’s fortune.

When the building boom struck Helena in the late 1880s the Helena newspapers regularly ran short news items on the discovery of gold nuggets during excavation work. In 1917, after a spring deluge, a bank president found “a gold nugget as big as a marble” in front of the Placer Hotel. The find prompted what the papers called “a placer mining bonanza” along the curbs, streets and gutters of Helena. In 1948, gold was found by workmen digging a new elevator shaft for the Placer Hotel. But by then, with only $1.75 in paying dust in every cubic yard of dirt, gold must have lost some of its attraction. “We don’t have time to mess with gold,” was the final word from a hotel official.

During the 1970s urban renewal spree, excavated downtown building sites were successfully sluiced for gold. In the spring of 1985, after a deluge washed tons of eroded soil from the gulches, a friend who lives on Davis Street, on the lower reaches of Dry Gulch, sifted the flood sediments in his basement and found paying quantities of gold dust.

On August 27, 1864, the first edition of Montana’s first newspaper, the Montana Post, carried news of the Four Georgians’ strike:

“On Dry Creek, between Silver Creek and Prickly Pear, gold has been recently discovered, and a big stampede has taken place there. The scarcity and distance that water has to be brought will make it expensive and though the ground may pay, enough is not known to create a stampede. Usually at those points parties interested get up sensation rumors to get a rush. The boys should be on their guard.”

I have begun to believe that even then, a month after the discovery, the location of the strike, more than the strike itself, made the businessmen of Virginia City tremble. More people were coming to the territory by the day. Last Chance had better access to Fort Benton, Silver City, Gold Creek, Hellgate (Missoula) and Montana City. The geography made it a natural. Smarter and better-financed men were looking for ways for Montana to produce for the States. Gold could facilitate financial backing but it could not be depended on to make a state’s economy. California and Colorado had proved that beyond a doubt. One needed agriculture, skilled laborers, merchants and ease of transportation to keep a western city of the 1860s alive for maps yet to be printed in the 1880s. The Prickly Pear Valley offered it all.