The Fabulous Treasures of Montana

The Land of the Shining Mountains has produced more than its share of glittering metal and shining stone--and a new generation of miners has taken an interest in the state

When The California Gold Rush of 1849 began to dissipate in the 1850s, many of those Forty-niners who had made it big returned East in grand style. Those who didn't often migrated elsewhere. The area that would later become western Montana attracted plenty of attention in the 1860s; there were reports of gold that could be had merely by "shaking it out of the sagebrush."

Back in May 1805 on the shores of the Missouri River in what would become Montana, Captain Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition saw the snowy crests of a tremendous mountain range shining in the sun. These were the Rocky Mountains, but in his journal, Lewis referred to them as the "Shining Mountains." Montana itself became known to many as "the Land of the Shining Mountains." Rich in canyons, lakes and rivers, as well as mountains, the area had much to offer anyone interested in the grandeur of nature. It was the promise of golden riches, however, that brought an influx of Americans to the territory (Montana Territory was separated from Idaho Territory in 1864).

The gold seekers included Civil War veterans from both sides--deserters and discharged troopers--European migrants, ordinary townspeople and many newly freed slaves. Those people, mostly men at first, traveled hundreds of miles by boat and covered wagon across treacherous mountains and through lands inhabited by hostile Indians and unfamiliar wild animals. Abrupt weather changes, diseases and starvation also plagued would-be prospectors. But, in spite of it all, those adventurous souls saw the territory as an irresistible bonanza.

Three-fifths of Montana is high, gently rolling land where white pines interrupt the tops of craggy cliffs. Scattered snow-capped mountains and wide river valleys are the nesting ground for egrets, great blue herons and bald eagles. Years of wind and rain have sculptured unusual and beautiful shapes in some of the massive boulders. Forests cover almost a quarter of the state, and there are fishing streams and lakes galore. The wildlife includes long-horned sheep, elk, antelope, moose and grizzly bears. For some, though, nothing is as awesome as the vast reserves of minerals.

Although coal beds cover 51,000 square miles of Montana, most of the veins of lead, copper, gold and silver are in the southwestern part of the state. It was gold, of course, that brought many of the early prospectors to Big Sky country. Among them was Iowa-native Jacob ("Jake") Hoover, who didn't find much gold but who stuck it out anyway. He would be rewarded for his efforts...well, sort of.

Gold Creek, at the junction of the creek of that name and the Clark Fork River, is supposedly the spot where the first gold in Montana was found back in about 1850. But nothing much came of it until Granville and James Stuart began working there. On May 8, 1862, they set up the first sluices. The first really big Montana strike, though, was on Grasshopper Creek, a tributary of the Beaverhead River, on July 28, 1862. The town of Bannack sprang up overnight. The next year a strike at Alder Gulch gave rise to the boom town of Virginia City, which replaced Bannack as the place to go. Then, in the summer of 1864, gold was discovered in Last Chance Gulch (Helena).

The gold bonanza in Montana lasted five short years. Without the necessary machinery, gold became more difficult to excavate, but some prospectors kept up the gold hunt. And some of them found out that the Montana earth held other riches. In 1865, placer gold miners in Helena found some fancy colored pebbles mixed in with their diminishing flakes of gold. They turned out to be sapphires, but they attracted little interest at the time. Miners who found them became disgruntled rather than excited.

It was a different story in 1895 when Jake Hoover discovered some nice blue sapphires in Yogo Creek. Those sapphires did attract attention. Jake Hoover is not well-known even among the treasure hunters. He had come to Montana in 1865 to hunt for gold, but had learned to hunt other things as well. He had become about the best hunter in Montana Territory. On occasion, he boasted about his proficiency in killing bears, elk and deer. But he could be a softy, too. Once he received a suckling pig in payment for some elk meat. The little porker became Jake's pet, following him everywhere--to the point that Jake threatened to butcher the little guy. Jake only hunted for food, never as a sport, and animals seemed to gravitate to him. Yet the day came when his food supply was running low and Porky had to go. Jake didn't have the heart to shoot his little friend. Charlie Russell, the famous cowboy artist, tells this story in his memoirs: "Old Jake came down from the hill, leaned his rifle against the pen, and sneaked up and stuck the pig. I could see him yet, ashaken' the blood off his knife, and said, 'I don't reckon he saw me or knowed who done it, do you kid?' Then meekly walked away from the animal...he was very sensitive where it concerned animals."

Jake had met "Kid" Russell by chance one night while investigating another campfire nearby. The frontiersman found the 16-year-old boy huddled near the flickering fire of the most ill-furnished campsite he had ever seen. Twenty years later, Russell described his unexpected encounter with Jake Hoover. "All I owned in the world was a brown mare and a pinto pony," Russell recalled. After a brief introduction, Jake asked, "Whatcha doin' for grub, kid?" as he surveyed the scanty camp. "I ain't got none," Russell answered and proceeded to tell Jake all his troubles. With no money or food, he had traveled from the stage stop up the Judith River from Utica. Jake listened intently then said, "Well...if you want...you can bunk with me for a while." Jake was very understanding, remembering that he, too, left home when he was 16 and had been alone and friendless for a while. Russell never forgot Jake Hoover.

Yogo City, in the Judith Basin on the eastern slope of the Little Belt Mountains, had once been a gold mining camp. But the gold had played out, and the people had mostly left. The population of the onetime boom town dropped to about 25 year-round residents and then dropped again--to 12. The post office closed down, but it had not yet become a ghost town. Millie Ringgold, a freed slave and the community's most prominent citizen, clung fast to her dreams of prosperity. The ruins of Yogo City now belonged to Millie, Jake Hoover and a few others who had purchased some of the claims that disappointed miners had abandoned.

A rebirth of activity occurred near the end of the 19th century, however, when Hoover found those blue pebbles that would become known as "Yogo sapphires." Some of those stones, according to New York gemologist George Frederick Kunz, were as "big as your thumb." Hoover was paid $3,750 by Tiffany & Co. of New York for a cigar box full of sapphires, but he just was not destined to become a wealthy man. He had a notorious inability to profit from his meager achievements. He had a few shortcomings, of which drinking, womanizing and making hasty decisions were prominent. Those weaknesses would torment him all his life.

Jake married late in life, and his problems with the ladies never halted. His wife, as it turned out, had a violent temper. Once during a quarrel, she pointed the barrel of a Winchester at him and pulled the trigger. Later he said it was a good thing she was a poor shot or he "would surely have bought the store that time." It was then that he decided to sell his share of the Yogo mining operation for just $5,000. He paid all his bills, sold all his interests and booked passage aboard the steam schooner Excelsior for the wilds of Alaska. A good move perhaps for someone seeking adventure, but financially it was a terrible move. Three months after Hoover left Yogo, an English mining conglomerate paid more than $100,000 for the same share. Jake confessed, "I've always had poor luck selling out at the wrong time."

In the meantime, his jaundiced wife decided to follow him, but Jake managed to elude her. Totally frustrated, so the story goes, she returned to Montana and took up with a rancher, who shot her dead one day.

During the last few years there has been an increase in activity in the sapphire bearing regions of Philipsburg, Butte and Helena by a new breed of Montana miners. The new generation has embarked on a journey to publicize the beautiful corn-blue sapphire and all its related brilliant colors and to rejuvenate interest in the gemstones' alluring and captivating beauty. For some, the Land of the Shining Mountains has become "the Land of the Sensuous Sapphire."

Sapphire mining in Montana today offers aficionados the opportunity to prospect for, and in many cases acquire, some of the finest gemstones available anywhere. Most sapphires are transparent. They are the crystalline form of the mineral corundum and come in a variety of colors. The red corundum is ruby. Other colors of corundum, including the cornflower-blue gems, are all known as sapphires. The brilliant blue gems that are dominant at Yogo Gulch are by far the best of the lot; they usually do not need heat treatments (a relatively new process) to bring out their brilliance.

Gold and sapphires are the primary treasures found in the Helena and Philipsburg regions of Montana. Garnets and spinel have been found in the area too. The old town of Garnet, near Drummond, Mont., was named for the garnet rock found nearby. Some mines will allow digging in virgin ground, and gravel concentrates in various-sized bags are available on the mining sites to take home or to give as gifts.

Write to the Montana Chamber of Commerce in Helena for information concerning addresses and locations of the mines, availability of motels and campsite reservations for trailers and RVs. Since mining is done when weather permits, it would be wise to make reservations well ahead of time. Most of the mines permit digging Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from June to September 10, weather permitting. There are a few places open to the weekend prospector, but it would be a good idea to contact the mines for more information.

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