Those who go looking for gold in the Big Horn Mountains need a sense of humor.
Or at least an appreciation of irony.
Start with the old mountain man named La Pondre, who showed up in St. Louis one day in the fall of 1851 bearing a bullet pouch crammed with nuggets. He claimed he found the nuggets lying free on bedrock in a creek feeding into the Tongue River up in the Big Horn Mountains. He wanted to sell them to the American Fur Co.
Representatives of the company, so the story goes, ran an assay on the nuggets and found them to be pure gold. Seeking more information about La Pondre's find, company representatives plied him with inducements – including liquor.
But they overdid it. La Pondre drank himself to death, and the secret of where he found the gold died with him.
A few years later, in 1859, Jim Bridger, while serving as a guide for the Raynalds Expedition into the Yellowstone area, also found gold nuggets in a stream. According to Bridger, the expedition's leaders begged him to keep the discovery secret, lest “gold fever” distract other members of the party from their duties. Bridger obligingly led the expedition away from the spot.
He was never able to find the site again.
In 1865, seven Swedish miners found placer gold near Crazy Woman Creek, in present-day Johnson County, Wyoming, but they were attacked by the Sioux, who killed five of the miners. The two survivors never returned to their claim – which has come down through history as the Lost Cabin Mine.
Then there was Bald Mountain City.
The strike that started it all, according to author Wayne Barton – who chronicled the story of the city in a 1977 article for Denver's Empire Magazine – came in the summer of 1890. Sheridan resident Bob Holland built a cabin on the granite shelf at the foot of the mountain called Big Baldy, and he and his partners, J.H. “Jolly” Matthews and John Buckley, prospected the area.
In a dry stream bed near the Little Big Horn River, the three men found flakes of metallic gold, along with particles of fine dust mixed with what an editor of the Buffalo Bulletin would later describe as “a kind of cement composed of quartz, pebbles and sand, apparently held together by a kind of limestone.”
When the three men came down to register their claim on July 10, the news started a rush to the Big Horns – a rush delayed for a few months, but not stopped, by the onset of winter. When spring returned to the mountain, new claims were filed, and a group of enterprising developers staked out a townsite in a broad meadow about two and a half mines east of Big Baldy. They called the new town Bald Mountain City, and the photo above shows at least part of the site.
The July 15, 1891, edition of the Buffalo Bulletin, under a headline proclaiming, in part, “Rich gold discoveries at Bald Mountain,” reported that prospectors were finding “solid chunks of gold in great profusion among the sand and gravel.” To take advantage of the riches, the editor wrote, only “two things are necessary”: a road to the mines and a
The amalgamator was a massive piece of equipment used to mine gold in quantity by passing a slurry of water and crushed ore over mercury-coated plates. In theory, the gold in the ore would be absorbed by the mercury. When the (theoretically) gold-laden mercury was heated, the mercury would evaporate, leaving behind – again in theory – chunks of gold the size and shape of small apples.
The company that brought in the amalgamator – and whose name became most closely associated with Bald Mountain City – was Fortunatus Mining Corp. According to Barton, the company was organized late in 1891 by Jack Tewksbury and H.H. Hankins, who offered cash or shares in company stock to any miner who would sign over his claim. Many responded, including Holland, who signed on with the newly formed company and became its manager.
Bald Mountain City became the company's headquarters, at its peak boasting – according to some sources – as many as 50 buildings including a saloon, meat market, an “eating house,” a hotel, blacksmith shop, general store and drug store.
While that was going on, in 1892, Hankins and Tewksbury ordered their amalgamator – a “Bucyrus” rather than a “Bennett,” according to Barton. The machine, steam-powered and so heavy it had to be operated from a railroad track, taxed the strength of 24 bull teams to haul it to its site, 65 miles up a steep canyon.
Problems surfaced almost at once – starting with a winter that came early and hard, freezing and bursting the pipes that fed the amalgamator's steam engines. Company officials, who had hoped to start mining gold in early spring, had to wait until June to start operations.
At the end of that season – when the company found itself with less than $3,000 in refined gold in its commissary and was facing bankruptcy – officials learned about the other problem. While Bald Mountain's ores contained a small amount of metallic nuggets and ordinary placer gold, most of the yellow stuff emerged in the form of “flour gold” – tiny, scaly particles as small as two-millionths of an inch in diameter. Twenty million particles of flour gold might be needed to weigh one troy ounce.
` Even worse was the other property of flour gold: It floats on water. Most means of separating gold from its ore are based on the fact that ordinary gold particles in flowing water will sink – a property described by the term “settling out.”
Flour gold isn't ordinary, and it doesn't obey ordinary rules.
The investors in Fortunatus hung on for another couple of years, trying to recoup the money they had put into the company, but in 1895, the company was forced into receivership. A group of local residents incorporated as the Bald Mountain Mining Co. and stepped in to take over claims and equipment. The new company hung on for a while, but in the spring of 1896, its investments were gone, with not even enough gold recovered to pay operating expenses. The last vestiges of Fortunatus pulled out. During the summer, so did Bald Mountain Mining Co.
That didn't end efforts to extract Bald Mountain's gold. On June 20, 1896, a writer for the Sheridan Enterprise, under the headline “Bright Mining Outlook,” reported – among other events – that the Little Horn Co. had put down five shafts and was starting work ... that C.F. Worthington “has a shaft 20 feet deep showing good prospects” ... that a St.
Louis company was organizing to examine cement beds farther south in the mountains, on Spring Creek near Buffalo. The Enterprise writer predicted that Bald Mountain would eventually be known as “the Crippled Creek of the Northwest.”
But by fall of that year, according to Barton, Bald Mountain City was deserted, hopeful entrepreneurs once again defeated by the mountain.
In 1928, J.J. Hymer, one of those who had worked at the mine back in '96, returned to Bald Mountain to survey for recoverable minerals. Nothing came of that venture. In 1931, according to Barton, an “Eastern mining company” set up an operation at the old camp site with plans to extract the gold by a process in which finely ground ore is mixed with a solution of potassium cyanide. The potassium cyanide dissolves the gold, the
gold-bearing slime is passed through a zinc filter, and the gold settles out as a precipitate.
Under other circumstances, that process would solve the flour gold problem.
But Bald Mountain had one more trick in store for those who would take its treasures. The presence of copper inhibits the potassium cyanide/gold reaction – and Big Baldy's ores are rich in copper.
Like others before it, the “Eastern mining company” surrendered to the mountain. There is, indeed, "gold in them thar hills" - or at least, the mountain. But still today, no one has found an economical means to recover it.