Today, the Montana State Quarter Coin remembers the formal opening of the Helena Assay Office on October 23, 1876 and the gold and silver riches in the area.
The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Year 1877 stated: “Soon after the close of the fiscal year ended June 30, 1876, the building erected for an assay office at Helena, Mont., was completed, and it was formally opened for the reception of deposits for melt and assay October 23, 1876, since when the amount of business transacted has steadily been on the increase.”
In January 1877, the Sacramento Daily Union newspaper provided insights into Montana and its mines:
Helena and Its Surroundings—The Mines of Montana.
Helena is the Capital of Montana, and is a city of about 3,500 population. It is located directly at the mouth of Last Chance gulch. Following up this canyon the gulch divides about half a mile above town into Oro Fino and Grizzly.
At the bead of Oro Fino is Unionville, a camp which depends for its growth, life and future upon the fortunes of the Whitlatch Union gold lode, and the belt of veins running parallel to it and joining with it.
This vein was discovered in 1864 by a man named Whitlatch. It yielded enormously, and Whitlatch being one of that class of men who was acquainted with all the known methods of spending money, generally managed to get rid of his pile as quickly as the mine yielded it.
In fact, though the mine yielded its hundreds of thousands, he was as frequently hard up as flush, and little by little got rid of his property.
Afterwards the mine was worked in small claims by various owners who, as soon as they reached water level, became embarrassed for want of the proper hoisting machinery.
Subsequently 1,000 feet of the vein was consolidated in the hands of the National Mining and Exploring Company of New York, who have ever since worked their property steadily, and at the present date have reached a depth (upon the dip of the lode) of about 960 feet.
Since its discovery, and including the Parkinson & McIntyre veins, which are doubtless continuations of the Union, or part of it, about $3,500,000 in gold have been taken out.
The ore is a fine grained, compact quartz, which mills on an average about $35 per ton. ‘
In 1863 a party of Minnesotians, among whom were a few old Californian miners, were journeying across the northern part of Montana, prospecting here and there, and aiming generally to travel across the country to Montana.
They followed op the Prickly Pear canyon from the Missouri river, dug a little at the mouth of all the gulches they passed, and finally camped at the present site of Helena, rather disgusted with their luck, and cursing the country generally.
They had prospected at several points in the gulch where the town now stands, and though finding colors almost everywhere, were not satisfied with their luck.
They determined to go on south to the new Bannack diggings, about 150 miles further up towards the head of the Missouri, and were preparing for the start, when one of the Californians, who had taken a fancy to the locality, and thought from general appearances that it ought to be rich, concluded to try at one more spot, and taking his shovel and pick and pan. selected a spot apparently favorable, and remarked:
“Well, boys, we’ll try a little here; here’s for the last chance!”
They dug a few feet, and struck it rich, and within three years the gulch had yielded $8,000,000 in gold.
Of course Helena grew up immediately, as soon as the news spread, to a lively town.
The gulch was staked and worked for about one mile below the point at which it escaped from the mountains, and prospectors following it up into the foot-hills round gold in its bed up to the forks and up the forks in Oro Fino and Grizzly almost to their heads — in fact directly up to where the outcrop of the Whitlatcb Union crosses both.
Above that, little or nothing was found.
Last Chance gulch of course was, soon exhausted, at least by the miners who were only satisfied with $50 to $100 diggings, and its population waned.
But it has never died down as the majority of gulch camps do, because it is the nearest town in the Territory to the headwaters of the Missouri, and consequently transacts the business tor the whole community.
The Missouri is open for navigation about five months during the year, to Fort Benton, 140 miles northwest of Helena, and during that season the merchants of Helena lay in supplies for twelve mouths.
The city has three banks, two daily papers, the Herald and Independent, a good line of mercantile houses, four church buildings, and a number of neat residences.
The Government is building an Assay Office of fine proportions on the south side of the gulch, and the citizens are taking every precaution to guard their town against fire, which has three times burned out their finest and best blocks.
The gulch workings are by no means abandoned. A bed-rock flume is now building which will gradually wash over all the tailings of the early day, and will attack much of the ground too poor to be washed on a small scale.
In running this flume an ancient watercourse has been found, which promises, as soon as it is drained and can be examined, to prove to be the source from which most of the gold of the gulch came, and itself much richer.
Altogether Last Ounce and its tributaries may be set down as having yielded up to date about $15,050,000 in gold.
This figure includes the production of the Union lode.
Montana is credited with a total production of between $60,000,000 and $70,000,000 in gold dust since 1863.
A brief review of the settlement of the country, and the discovery of its wonderful gulches, will be interesting to the readers of the Mining Review, and will show much at the romance of gold mining.
Bannack was the seat of the first excitement in Montana. The discovery of gold on the Jefferson was made by Californians, who crossed over the Pleasant Valley divide from Idaho in 1863.
The gulch was very rich at first, but soon became exhausted. By the time the production was at its height, miners began to scatter out into the country to the east and north in search for new diggings.
A party of prospectors who had started off through the Yellowstone for the Big Horn country, and who were driven back by the Indians, on their return camped overnight in Alder gulch, and in the morning they had struck good pay in what proved to be the richest gulch ever discovered.
Alder gulch was staked off, worked and paid well for 15 miles of its length— from its month to the very base of Old Baldy at its bead.
In three seasons it bad poured out $30,000,000 in dust, and Virginia was the great town of the Northwest, with a population of 6,000 souls.
I have not space at this time to give any details of the history of this wonderful canyon, but it had the reputation of being the liveliest, hottest, and toughest camp in the United States.
Money was as plenty as pebbles, prices of goods were just what traders placed them at.
Flour was worth $110 per sack, whisky §10 per gallon, tobacco two bits a mouthful, and everything else in proportion.
In a short time Confederate Gulch was found, one claim in which yielded to its discoverers during the first season 2,600 pounds of gold, worth over $550,000.
In quick succession there followed the discoveries of Blackfoot, McClellan, Highland, Thompson, Silver Bow and others.
At least a dozen of the gulches discovered yielded over $5,000,000 before they were thought to be exhausted, and three times as many as that have a record of over $1,000,000.
By 1866, however, the flushest of the times all over the Territory were gone, and the star of Montana began apparently to wane.
From a maximum of $18,000,000 a year its yield fell to about $5,000,000.
The gulch miners struck out for new fields, and the steady portion of the population turned their attention to legitimate mining enterprises, and to the development of the numberless great quartz lodes that course the backbone of the continent in every direction.
It was shortly found then that the Territory was not only richly endowed with gold veins, but had an abundance of the finest and most promising silver outcroppings.
This was a new tact for Montanians, and like the citizens of Colorado, and Nevada, and Utah, they did not recognize the importance of the discovery very rapidly.
Until 1870, the Territory struggled along under its reputation as a gold country like a broken down aristocrat, whose purse was too slim to provide for his wants, yet whose name was too great to permit him to work.
About 1870, however, the feeling began to change, and under the stimulus of the entry of the Northern Pacific Railroad into its boundaries Montana began to revive.
From that time to the present the country has developed steadily and splendidly, and though year after year its hopes of connection by rail with the outside world have been delayed, it can show as fine a series of quartz districts as any section of the West.
In my next letter I shall hope to speak of these as I travel through them.
I can give but a few of their main features, for it would require at least a full season to do justice to a Territory so richly endowed, but I can say enough to call the attention of those who are looking for facts about the “giant of the north,” and that is all that can be done in a communication of this kind. — [Vanwagonen in The Mining Review, December 2d.]
The Montana State Quarter Coin shows with an artist’s image of the Helena Assay Office, circa mid 1870s.