Gold fever reaches Upper Rock Creek

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A whole new world

Montana designated Marysville one of its official ghost towns. About 70 people still live there, but the town does seem like an artifact. Many of its weathered, wooden buildings are boarded up. The hillsides are dotted with half-collapsed shanties and rusted-out cars. The only outward clues of its significance are the hanging wooden signs at the entrance to the town that boast of its improbable history.

In the late 19th century, gold from the Drumlummon Mine made Marysville one of the richest mining areas in the world. By 1900, it produced $30 million in gold bullion and about 4,000 people lived in the tiny valley in the mountains about 40 miles north of Helena. By one account the town supported 60 businesses, including 27 bars, seven hotels, three newspapers, two railroads, and an opera. Three mills ran around the clock. Drumlummon gold graced the Cathedral of St. Helena, Carroll College, and the Montana Capitol. But the boom was busted in 1910 when mine operators lost a key court case. Mining continued intermittently until 1951, when a fire destroyed the mine. The town would similarly flame out.

click to enlarge Workers at the revived Drumlummon gold mine in Marysville drill for core samples. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Workers at the revived Drumlummon gold mine in Marysville drill for core samples.

Sixty years later, while the town remains quiet, there's a buzz up at the Drumlummon Mine. A collection of buildings and trailers are perched on the hillside, buttressed by a wall of gray rock hauled out of the earth. A couple dozen of pickups line the narrow road that leads to one of the mine's adits. The license plates reveal where these miners used to work: Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Nevada. Many hail from Montana, I'm later told; they'd been waiting for the opportunity to come back.

The opportunity came with the 2008 discovery of another mother lode of gold known as the Charly Vein. Drilling by the Canadian company RX Exploration, which had acquired the claims, revealed that the Charly Vein contained more than 70,000 ounces of gold and nearly two million ounces of silver. "The Drumlummon Mine is a 'bonanza'-style epithermal deposit...characterized by very high-grade gold and silver," the company reported.

Gold prices hovered around $750 an ounce at the time. At current prices, that gold alone would be worth $110 million.

"[The Charly Vein] opened up a whole new world," says Joe Bardswich, RX's chief mining engineer.

Bardswich lends a photographer and me hard hats, headlamps, steel-toed boots, and emergency respirators. Then the three of us climb into a truck with Dave Whiteley, the mine's superintendent. Bardswich and Whiteley are both thick, raspy-voiced throwbacks. Bardswich first went underground in 1963, he says, and ever since he's worked mines in Europe, Africa, and Canada; he's from Ontario. Whiteley, whom Bardswich chides for his smoking habit, has worked mines all over the U.S. since 1983, following in his father's footsteps.

We enter the Gunsinger Decline, named for Operations Manager Mike Gunsinger. Bardswich says Gunsinger discovered the Charly Vein. The decline, completed in early April at a cost of more than $4 million, gives the mine a second route underground.

click to enlarge The entrance of the Drumlummon Mine’s Gunsinger Decline. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The truck rumbles forward. Daylight slowly diminishes behind us. We find ourselves winding through a dank, cavernous tunnel. We hear the coming-and-going throb of drills penetrating deep into rock. Whitely stops the truck whenever we encounter the bobbing headlamps of miners, to check with them on the day's progress.

Record-high gold prices have the Drumlummon Mine ramping up production. Now they're able make a profit on ore they'd typically throw away, Bardswich says. He hopes they'll soon be able to haul out 500 tons a day; out of that, they'll yield about 100 ounces of gold, which, at the current value, would be more than $150,000 worth. Then it's trucked to either the mill RX leases in Philipsburg or the Golden Sunlight Mine, in Whitehall. Ultimately, about 85 percent of the gold gets shipped to a broker in Reno, Bardswich says, and ends up at a smelter in Mexico.

Only six miners are down here during today's 10-hour shift, two fewer than normal. The Drumlummon mine employs around 140 people in some capacity or another—surveyors, assayers, carpenters, truckers, engineering consultants. It plans to hire additional experienced miners in the coming months. Wages range between $20 and $40 an hour, Whiteley says, plus production-based incentives than can double the hourly rate.

"There are an awful lot of Montanans [who are miners] spread from Alaska to Mexico and into Canada and down into South America, and a lot of them want to come home," Bardswich says. "Montana's a beautiful state and people who grew up here enjoy the hunting and fishing...they want to come back and work here."

We arrive at the No. 9 Drill Station, a hollowed-out room lit with spotlights, a short walk through standing water from the decline. Two ear-plugged contractors are at work pointing diamond drill bits into the rock in order to extract core samples. One minds the machinery's controls, driving the drill deeper and deeper. When the long, pipe-like drill extension is pulled back up, the other worker slides a tube of rock out of it, feeding the sample into the rows of a shallow cardboard box, breaking the rock with a hammer every couple of feet so it fits. The rock shimmers black, brown, and gray. It will go to the assayers on the surface.

This has been an uncommon scene in Montana over the last two decades. Bardswich believes it shouldn't be. He says mining companies around the world have a negative perception of Montana because of its environmental regulations. The state's missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, he contends.

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