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Helena's gold history extends past city limits

Posted at 5:00 PM, Jul 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-20 13:14:02-04

HELENA — Gold found in Last Chance Creek brought people to Helena in the late 1800s, but where did that gold come from? The answer is in the hills south of the city.

After gold was discovered in Last Chance Creek, prospectors took to the hills to find the mother lode.

“There’s a lot of dumps and holes in the ground from when they were trying to find the mother lode,” Helena history enthusiast Rich Buswell said.

Buswell grew up in the Helena area and has spent decades photographing and documenting ghost towns across Montana, and studying Helena history.

“I’m often cognizant of that where my boots are, how many thousand of boots were there before me,” Buswell said. “It gives me a historical perspective.”

Gold was struck in the hills outside of Helena. Mining operations ranged from just holes in the ground to large-scale, like the Whitlatch-Union mine, which the US Geological Survey calls an “extensive underground operation.”

From 1864 when the Whitlatch-Union mine was discovered up to 1901, it produced up to $600 million in gold—that’s equivalent to more than $215 million today.

Gold isn’t the only thing the hill had to offer.

“There’s excavation of lime,” Buswell said.

Lime kilns still sand along Grizzly Gulch and Oro Fino Gulch, and you can see the finished product throughout downtown Helena.

“A lot of the mortar you see now, the original old buildings, the lime came from here,” Buswell said.

Today, the hills outside Helena are peaceful, quiet—but they were not always that way.