Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Discovery at Last Chance Gulch

With the first greening of spring in 1864, John S. Cowan of Georgia, D. J. Miller of Alabama, John Crabb of Iowa, and Reginald (Bob) Stanley of Nuneaton, England, set out from Alder Gulch to prospect along the Little Blackfoot River. They had no luck and headed over the mountains. After several miserable days of wandering cold and wet in the mist, the sun emerged and they reached the Continental Divide. Pushing down the eastern slope, they camped in a narrow gulch where a stream trickled through gravel. The men passed the evening panning. They did find color, more than they had found elsewhere, but they were anxious to find better diggings and pressed on. Six weeks later, they had found nothing. The discouraged miners began to talk of the little gulch on the east side of the Divide. Nearly out of provisions, the men returned to take one last chance. It was the evening of July 14, 1864. Stanley later wrote:

…while my partners dug some holes near the mouth of the gulch, I took pick, shovel and pan and made my way up stream looking for a bar on which to put down a hole likely to have bedrock. [It was] a fine still evening with the charm of treading the unknown and unexplored.… A tiny stream rippled under gravel banks…. I commenced a hole on the bar and put it down to bedrock, some six or seven feet. Taking a pan of gravel from the bottom, I clambered out and panned it in the little stream close by. Three or four little flat, smooth nuggets was the result; nuggets that made the pan ring when dropped into it….

Miners in gum boots panned streams across Montana looking for gold. Drawing from the Helena Board of Trade, 1887.
Digging pits to bedrock describes the “Georgian method” of placer mining the four miners employed and explains why they were known thereafter as “the Georgians.” According to Stanley, the discovery site was “on bar ground back of the present site of the First National Bank.” In 1886, the Colwell Building replaced the bank. The discovery site is today’s south parking lot. By 1869, successful placer mines at Last Chance and other local gulches collectively yielded nearly $18 million worth of gold or $310 million in modern currency.

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