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History with Phil: Mining in the Bitterroot Valley
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History with Phil: Mining in the Bitterroot Valley

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Legend has it that on his first visit to Montana in 1840, Father DeSmet came across a sizable gold nugget. After prayerful consideration, he kept the find a secret, thereby ignoring a possible source of wealth for the Jesuit order and instead choosing to focus solely on missionary efforts.

According to John Owen (he of Fort Owen fame), in the 1860s many of his friends and acquaintances were staking claims in the Bitterroot Valley in areas such as Big Creek, Burnt Fork, Dry Gulch, Eight Mile and up both the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River.

An 1869 report issued by the Montana Bureau of Mines, stated “There are some Chinamen working on a bar toward the head of the Bitterroot River where they earn small wages ($4-5 per day) for a very short time in the Spring”. A placer claim was filed in June, 1872 on Three Mile and another one a year later one mile south of Big Pine Hollow. There was a plethora of mines in the area with such colorful names as Hoke Poke, Pin Hook and Surprise.

The first mining company in the Stevensville area was filed at the Missoula County Courthouse in June of 1866 on Eight Mile.

In a March 1868 entry in his journal, Thomas Harris wrote “town site laid out at the rich gold ledge known as White Cloud which was discovered by Mr. McClure."

The White Cloud was located east of Florence at the head of the Eight Mile valley. It operated for about 30 years. When it was operating at full capacity, some 50 to 60 men worked at the mine.

The nearby settlement was known as Eight Mile or Pyretees (so named for the iron pyrite found in the area). In 1884, the Pyretees school district (no. 20) was formed. Six years later, the little settlement had its own Post Office. Mail was brought in daily by horseback with the rider being paid a dollar a day.

Meanwhile, additional claims were filed during 1868 on the upper Burnt Fork with names like Star of the West, Hoodoo, Mark Twain, and Yellow Yacket. Starting with the first claim in 1886, over a hundred additional claims were filed in the next 20 years. The vast majority of these failed to make the dreams of get-rich-quick miners come true.

The one mine that was a long-term producer was the Curlew, located west of Victor. In the 1880s, three men joined together to begin their mining venture. It would be several more years before any ore from the Curlew was actually sold.

Over time, this mine at Big Creek consisted of several miles of underground tunnels and became a major producer of copper, gold, nickel, lead and other metals well into the 20th century.

At one point in the 1890s, the mine was shipping 20 tons of ore each week. In later years, operations switched over to surface mining, which would eventually lead to an expensive reclamation project, beginning in 1996.

The primary aim of the project was the excavation, transportation, and disposal of approximately 89,000 cubic yards of mill tailings and other waste materials. In addition, excavated areas were recontoured, covered with topsoil, and revegetated. A total of 32 acres of disturbed land was included in this reclamation project.

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