The Treasure State
Courtesy: American Coin Treasures And Hoards
Gold was first discovered in Montana streams in 1852, but the gold rush was sparked in 1863 when rich placer deposits were found near Virginia City. Some of the richest gold deposits were discovered in Broadwater County on the east slopes of the Elkhorn Mountains.
Other counties where gold has been found in substantial quantities are Beaverhead, Carbon, Cascade, Deer Lodge, Fergus, Flathead, Gallatin, Granite, Jefferson, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Madison, Meagher, Mineral, Missoula, Park, Phillips, Powell, Revalli, Sanders, Silver Bow, Sweet Grass, and Toole County.
A placer deposit is a concentration of a natural material that has accumulated in unconsolidated sediments of a stream bed, beach, or residual deposit. Gold derived by weathering or other process from lode deposits is likely to accumulate in placer deposits because of its weight and resistance to corrosion. In addition, its characteristically sun-yellow color makes it easily and quickly recognizable even in very small quantities.
The gold pan or miner's pan is a shallow sheet-iron vessel with sloping sides and flat bottom used to wash gold-bearing gravel or other material containing heavy minerals. The process of washing material in a pan, referred to as "panning," is the simplest, most commonly used, and least expensive method for a prospector to separate gold from the silt, sand, and gravel of the stream deposits. It is a tedious, back-breaking job and only with practice does one become proficient in the operation. Thankfully, technology finally caught up with our gold fever and brought us metal detectors!
In Montana, the principal placer-mining districts are in the southwestern part of the State. The most productive placer deposit in the State was at Alder Gulch near Virginia City in Madison County. Other important placer localities are on the Missouri River in the Helena mining district. The famous Last Chance Gulch is the site of the city of Helena. There are many districts farther south on the headwaters and tributaries of the Missouri River, especially in Madison County which ranks third in total gold production in the State. Gold has been produced at many places on the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, particularly in the vicinity of Butte. Placer production from the Butte district, however, has been over-shadowed by the total output of byproduct gold recovered from the mining of lode deposits of copper, lead, and zinc.
You can always ask for permission to hunt on any private property, but there may be several places you can pan and metal detect in public access areas. As always, please respect other's claims.
Public lands are controlled by the BLM or the National Forest Service. If you plan on dredging, you must obtain a permit from the Montana Water Quality Bureau. Contact the designated authority for more information including maps and regulations before you go out.
Several alluvial deposits of almandite-pyrope garnet are located on the drainages of the Ruby River in Madison County. One such deposit, the Alder Gulch deposit, is in the alluvial fan formed where Alder Gulch joins the Ruby River Valley. The deposit contains about 40 million tons of old placer gold tailings that grade 4.5% almandite-pyrope garnet. The alluvium consists of high-energy, fluvial, well-rounded material, approximately 50% of which is +9 mm in size. The source of garnet along the Ruby River is highly metamorphosed Archean rocks in the Tobacco Root and Greenhom Mountain Ranges to the east. The garnets are present mostly as broken fragments of crystals which were originally as much as several centimeters in diameter. Some of the garnets from this industrial garnet deposit are of gem quality.
Montana Moss Agate is the grayish-white to gray translucent chalcedony containing dendrites. The black, brown, or red tree-like or scenic dendritic growths are actually included minerals of manganese and iron. Most of the moss agate is found as water worn cobbles in the Yellowstone River or its drainages between Billings and Sidney. The material can be collected in Yellowstone, Treasure, Rosebud, Custer, Prairie, Dawson, and Richland Counties. The agate has long been a favorite of hobbyist and professional cutters because of the beautiful and highly variable patterns, the durability, and ease in cutting and polishing.
Mining of Yogo Gulch sapphires began within a year of their discovery in 1895 and continued for 39 years. In 1923, the mine was damaged so badly by rain that it could not economically recover. Other attempts have been made to commercially mine the deposit, but to date, all of these attempts have ended in economic failure.
Yogo's are unique among the world's sapphires. They lack the color zoning so prevalent in other sapphires, their uniform "corn-flower blue" color is natural (not the result of heat-treating), and their clarity is uniformly high. These features rank them among the world's finest sapphires. Unfortunately, the rough is both small and flat, wafer-like in shape. The majority of the crystals or pieces of crystals recovered are too small to be cut, most are less than 1 carat and finds of over 2 carats are rare. Reportedly, the largest crystal was a 19 carat stone found in 1910 that was cut into an 8-carat stone. The size of the cut stones greatly restrict the market for Yogo's, they are beautiful, small, very expensive sapphires.
Currently, Yogo sapphires are produced from three sources: Rancor lnc., produces material from the original Yogo Gulch deposit; Vortex Mining produces from a recently discovered extension of the Yogo dike; and material is produced by individuals from privately owned lots in Sapphire Village. The first two producers market only cut stones and finished goods and the third is comprised essentially of hobbyists.
Historically, the amount of sapphires produced from the Missouri River and Rock Creek areas greatly exceeded that from Yogo Gulch. However, the value of the material produced from Yogo, reported to be in excess of $30 million, is significantly greater than that of the combined values of the other areas. This relationship is rapidly changing.
The combination of large volume commercial operations on the Missouri River, and to some extent Rock Creek, plus the advent of successful heat-treating techniques for the material has greatly enhanced the acceptance of these sapphires by the gemstone industry. This enhanced acceptance has resulted in a significant increase in the market for and value of U.S. sapphires. Unconfirmed reports have circulated that a parcel of select 3- to 10-carat material, suitable for heat-treating, was sold for as much as $40,000 per kilogram. A more realistic price for 3- to 10-carat, sorted mine-run material is in the range of $5,000 per kilogram, with many kilograms of mine-run rough selling for $1,000 per kilogram.
The sapphires from the Missouri River gravels in Lewis and Clark County are a mixture of rough and pitted crystals showing well defined faces and completely rounded and smooth-surface highly stream worn pebbles. The majority of the material is pale blue or blue-green, with deep blue stones quite rare. Stones also are found in pastel blue, green, pink, pale red, purple, yellow, and orange. Most of the stones recovered are less than 6.4 millimeters in diameter, but material 6.4 to 12.7 millimeters in diameter are not uncommon. Material greater than 12.7 millimeters in diameter is rare.
Currently there are seven operations on the Missouri River that commercially produce sapphires and/or operate a dig-for-fee area. Not all of these may be active in any one year. It is the author's understanding that one operation, currently inactive, (a self-propelled floating 16-inch suction dredge) is for sale. The mines operate from about the last week of May through the first week of September.
The Rock Creek sapphires are very similar to the sapphires from the Missouri River but differ in the general shape of the crystals. The stones are basically crude hexagonal plates about the same dimension in width and height, with a much higher percentage of the material being well rounded water worn pebbles. There appears to be more of the larger sized (greater than 12.7 millimeters) material. Additionally, it is reported that the Rock Creek material has a greater percentage of stones that can be heat-treated for color enhancement.
During the past several years, there has been only a single producer on Rock Creek. The producer operated both a commercial recovery plant and a fee recovery area. The fee recovery area sold buckets of gravel for washing and also offered, for a predetermined fixed fee, the output of one day's operation of the commercial wash plant. There is work underway which would result in a second, much larger producer, opening an operation on another deposit in the area. If things go as planned, the new operation on Rock Creek would be the largest sapphire producer in Montana.
There are a number of locations between Dillon in Beaverhead County and Ennis in Madison County that produce lavender, grayish-lavender, bluish-gray, and gray hexagonal sapphire crystals that, when cut, produce stones that contain four- or six-ray stars. At least one producer from the Dillon area is currently advertising the availability of this type of material. The remainder of the sapphire deposits in Montana appear to be operated by individual hobbyists.
More should be said about the effects of heat-treating techniques on Montana sapphires, and the variety of fancy colored sapphires available. Not all Montana sapphires are suitable for heat- treating because of variations in chemical composition. Also, the sapphires from the Missouri River respond to heat-treating differently than those from Rock Creek The response to heat-treating can vary also depending upon the method (individual) used to treat the sapphires.
The yield on treatment of Missouri River sapphires is lower than for Rock Creek. It is reported that 20% to 30% of Missouri River sapphires heat-treat from deep, well saturated blue to pale, pale blue. The corresponding treatment rate for Rock Creek material is in the range of 60%. Heat-treating also yields or improves the color of fancy colored sapphires. Bright yellows and oranges are the result of heat-treating, whereas heat-treating improves the color of some pinks by removing colors that can interfere with the desirable pink shades. Montana sapphires can be diffusion treated, but because of their high iron content they are not particularly well suited for this form of enhancement.
COINS, JEWELRY & RELICS
Montana offers many incredible opportunities. If this is your interest, here's a few ideas to get you started:
• Schools and College Campuses
• Parks / Playgrounds / Picnic Areas
• Foundations, Wells, and Cellar Holes of Old Churches or Houses
• Downtown Construction Sites
• Swimming Holes and Beaches (especially following a storm)
• Camp Grounds, Boyscout Camps, WPA Camps, and Mining Camps
• Sports Facilities
• Ghost Towns
• Rodeo Arenas, Riding Stables, and Race Tracks
• Old Fair and Carnival Locations
• Old Town Dumpsites
As in other areas of the US, there are several tales of lost Montana treasure concerning caches buried for safety. In many of these stories, people either died or forgot where they buried the stash. Contributing factors include:
1. Federal laws making possession of gold illegal in the early 1900s
2. Distrust of banks during the Great Depression.
- A Chinese miner is said to have buried five pounds of gold in a can under a tree at Drummond in Granite County.
- Treasure taken from Gen. Custer's troops after his "last stand" in Big Horn County is said to have been hidden in the area. Separately, a few scattered coins such as Shield nickels have been found on the site in recent decades and half dimes were shown in an issue of National Geographic Magazine a few years ago.
- Robbers' Roost at Sheridan, Madison County, is where thieves hid their plunder.
These excerpts are a sampling from American Coin Treasures and Hoards.