Candy Moulton: In old mining towns, adventures still abound
The first mining boom in Wyoming began in 1868 with the discovery of gold and beginning of South Pass City, which is now a Wyoming State Historic Site. The remnants of the town line the single street, which is one of the best-preserved 19th century mining towns in the West.
Buildings that served the miners are restored, as is the Carissa gold mine, which was the primary operation in the South Pass District. Although the gold rush lasted just a short time, the Carissa was operated well into the 20th century when underground mining took place.
A new millhouse constructed in 1929 and upgrades after World War II kept the mine in operation on a periodic basis until it closed permanently in 1954.
With the restoration work at the Carissa, it is now open again for tours, Thursday through Sunday during the summer. The almost two-mile Flood & Hindle Mining Trail that follows Willow Creek from South Pass City, has interpretive signs and replica equipment from the mining era when mills were used to crush the gold-baring ore.
Other operations included sawmills where workers shaped mine timbers.
South Pass City is known, too, for the role its citizens played in bring equal suffrage. Esther Hobart Morris lived in the mining town and urged territorial lawmakers to sponsor the legislation that gave Wyoming women the right to vote – the first territory in the nation to approve such an act.
Morris became the first female Justice of the Peace in the United States in 1870, taking over the position after James Stillman resigned in protest of the law that gave women the right to vote!
Montana’s Mining Roots
Born during the Civil War, Virginia City, Mont., was a town divided with Unionists and Southern sympathizers each supporting their side in the war.
Set aside all differences when you attend one of the Virginia City Balls, where women in 1860s style gowns and their dashing male escorts take to the dance floor as they swirl through the steps of the old dances.
If you want to participate, you’ll need appropriate duds (they are available at Rank’s Mercantile in Virginia City), and you can take a dance lesson the afternoon of the ball.
Then participate in the grand promenade through town before you dance throughout the evening and share a midnight supper.
Montana is dotted with the ghost towns of the gold mining era, from Bannack, the first territorial capital, which is now a Montana State Park to Granite, an 1890s silver boomtown that is now Granite Ghost Town State Park.
The first silver deposits were uncovered in the Granite area in 1865 with the Granite mine developed in 1872. It led to a bustling community that included a hospital, church, many homes and businesses, and the Miner’s Union Hall.
The boom that caused Granite to grow went bust in the silver panic of 1893. Although mining would resume, the town of Granite never again reached its peak population of 3,000, and ultimately was completely abandoned. If you visit, you can still see remnants of this once vibrant town.
Today you can do some mining of your own not far from Granite Ghost Town in Phillipsburg, called P-Burg by the locals.
The gemstone you’ll find here, most likely, is a Montana sapphire and you can seek your own at the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, or do your “mining” in the comfort of the Gem Mountain Sapphire Gallery in Phillipsburg. You buy a bag of dirt and then sift and wash it to uncover the gem-quality sapphires.
Some folks come and sit most of a day walking away with several stones.
I was there just long enough to “mine” a single bag of dirt that resulted in six small sapphires that I later had heat treated so I can make them into pieces of jewelry.
If all that “mining” makes you hungry, step into The Sweet Shop for a piece of homemade saltwater taffy.
In the evening take in a showing of the Vaudeville Follies in the Opera House Theater, for a return to the heyday lifestyle of the old mining camps.
There are other Montana mining towns to explore, including Butte with its World Museum of Mining and roots firmly rooted in copper mining. ❖