During my travels to gold prospecting locales across the west, I’m often struck by the cold hard fact that some towns seem born to die out. Promising mines turn stingy at depth, or prices collapse; then the towns dry up and blow away. Often, there’s not much left but a tailings pile and some concrete foundations around the mill.
Sometimes it seems like the vast interior of the country is emptying out, but it’s always been that way. Gold prospectors know the history of the west better than most, as we can almost recite the stories about towns rising and falling with each new rumor. The ghost towns we know about are usually way up in the mountains, at the end of a long, bumpy road, and revolve around a big mine. The trade-off is that the more remote the old ghost town, the more likely that there are still good colors in the creeks and interesting specimens on the tailings piles.
For example, I’ve been spending the winter months researching gold districts in Wyoming. I hope to write my next general rockhounding book on the state, and I’ve been learning a lot as I dig in. One ghost town that came up in my reading was “Bald Mountain City,” which I had a tough time tracking down.
Gold In Wyoming
First, let me give a little background. Wyoming is known for two major gold districts: the Atlantic City/South Pass region, more or less in the upper Sweetwater River drainage, and the Keystone/Douglas Creek area, a reliable producer south of Laramie. The GPAA Claims Guide shows member claims in both districts, and if all you had time for was a trip to haul in some Wyoming gold, those would definitely be your first ventures. With the recent rise in gold, many old claims have been renewed, so it’s comforting to know that your membership provides full, legal access to claims in the two main gold districts in Wyoming.
However, my research takes me in a different direction; I want to know about other mineralized areas where rockhounds can find interesting material. So I’m always looking for locales that might be off the beaten path in order to come up with 150-200 sites in the state to check out. It’s comforting to know that there are additional mineralized areas to explore among all the Wyoming granite.
Using a simple Google search such as “gold in Wyoming,” I located and downloaded W. Dan Hausel’s excellent write-up, named “Searching for Gold in Wyoming.” The booklet is available as an Adobe Acrobat .PDF file and listed as Information Pamphlet #9. In the back, on the gold districts map (see figure 1), I saw a reference to Bald Mountain, located in a northern section of the Big Horn Mountains, north of Greybull. That was where my search started.
Figure 1. Principal mineralized areas and mining districts in Wyoming, from GeoCommunicator. Click on it to make it bigger.
I checked in another of Hausel’s Wyoming books, and found a reference to Bald Mountain City. When I Googled that, I found a note on http://www.ghosttowns.com. Here’s the report:
“Discoveries of fine-grained gold north of Bald Mountain were made in 1890. ‘Gold Fever’ brought many prospectors to the area over the next 10 years. In 1892, the Fortunatas Mining and Milling Company purchased a group of claims on the head of the Little Big Horn River and Porcupine Creek. The excitement led to the establishment of Bald Mountain City, the most extensive attempt at a settlement in the Big Horn Mountains. The gold rush ended by 1900 because yields were not enough to pay for the effort of panning. No current residents. The city's remains lie just east of the Medicine Wheel National Historic Site in the Big Horn National Forest, just off Highway 14A.
No buildings remain standing, only log foundations, metal scrap, etc. Look for clumps of trees where buildings once stood. SUBMITTED BY: Kevin J. Tupps.”
You might notice that there aren’t any good directions in that write-up. I’ve spent hours in fruitless search trying to find a locale with about the same information. I met a rockhound the other day who searched for an abandoned mine for THREE DAYS and was still upset about the adventure. So I was hoping that Google Earth might show me where the actual city ruins lay.
Here’s a case where Google Earth isn’t that helpful; I typed in “Bald Mountain City, WY” in the Fly To box, and nothing came back. The problem is that Google Earth is completely up to date, and unless a place name stuck, and people still live there, you can’t use their data to search for a ghost town. So I tried a back-door trick with Google Maps, located at http://www.maps.google.com. If you turn on the “terrain” feature, instead of just maps, you sometimes get place names.
Again, no luck. Bald Mountain City just didn’t stick. Instead, I got referred to City Park Drive in Boulder, Colorado. So I worked the old-fashioned way, tracing out US 14 keystroke by keystroke, ranging north and south. I finally located Little Bald Mountain, and then Bald Mountain, right along the road. I figured Bald Mountain City must be on the flanks of Bald Mountain.
So I turned next to my stealthy trick to access topographic maps online: GeoCommunicator. Browse to http://www.geocommunicator.gov and click the link for “Mining Claim Map.” Then you just click your way to happiness. The BLM has performed yet another overhaul of the interface, and you can now drag your way across maps much easier. I use the World Street Map for a base until I pinpoint an area, and then switch to the Topo Map as I zero in. Because I had a good idea of where to look, it didn’t take long to strike electronic pay dirt.
Ranging north from Bald Mountain, I got lucky. I found Porcupine Creek, and it looked like it was open for panning. The next thing I noticed was Gold Creek, slightly east. That was a good start, and then I saw Half Ounce Creek, just to the north. I kept clicking to get the best resolution, and the map finally changed into that familiar topographic map format. And there it was: Bald Mountain City (site). I saw several prospect symbols north of town, a lot of abandoned four-wheel drive (4WD) roads, and sadly, a 20-acre placer claim on Half Ounce Creek. The good news was that the claim didn’t extend all the way to the Little Big Horn River, and Gold Creek was completely open. I snipped a little of the map in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Topo Map from GeoCommunicator shows the location of Bald Mountain City. Note current claim, indicated by rectangular hatched area along Half Ounce Creek. Click on it to make it bigger.
So now, using Google Earth, I tried to pinpoint the “modern” location of Bald Mountain City. I found what I was looking for and clicked the “My Place” push-pin icon, then dragged it to where I wanted it, entered a name, etc. Once in place, I right-clicked on the icon and asked for directions from Lovell, Wyoming, which I figured was near enough. I just wanted to turn off US 14.
From Lovell, drive east on US-14 about 40 miles. Turn north onto Sheep Mountain Road, and drive about 0.6 miles. (Google Earth thinks there is a short-cut here, but I’ve learned over the years that you can’t count on most of them, and if there is a main road, trust it for your mileage reading.) Take a right onto Forest Service Road 125, go about 1.4 miles, then dip down to the right for a tenth of a mile. There should be debris here to mark the old town. The GPS coordinates I’m using (until I can get there and verify them) are: 44.8063502, -107.7892637.
The next step will have to be a personal visit, sampling Porcupine Creek, Gold Creek, Half Ounce Creek, and the Little Big Horn River itself. I’ve never been to the site of Custer’s Last Stand, but I know it was on the Little Big Horn River, so here’s an opportunity to pan for gold on the same body of water. If one of you gets out there before me, please report your find!
Other Wyoming Resources
Wyoming Historical Society
One piece of data that can really aid a search for an old ghost town is the use of historical maps. At the Wyoming Historical Society, I found a page with plenty of old maps: http://wyshs.org/node/35. For example, on an old map for the Fort Bridger area, way stations for the Pony Express jump off the page. The rest of the maps on that page also show forts, corrals, way stations, and other historical information that could come in handy.
Wyoming Tales and Trails
This is a great site for poking around, with 900 photos and well-indexed stories about locales all over the state of Wyoming. The music was a little jarring the first time it kicked in, but I got used to it as I just kept looking around. I unearthed some corroboration for the Ghost Towns.com information on the Meeteetse page:
“Charles L. Tewksbury… was the manager of the Wyoming Mining & Milling Co. Previously, he had been the superintendent of the Fortunatus Mining Company's short lived but expensive efforts at gold mining near Bald Mountain City west of Dayton, Wyoming. In 1895 startling information was revealed as to the discovery of a rich claim at Bald Mountain. Mining machinery was hauled up the steep slopes by ox team from Dayton. In all, Fortunatus poured in about a half million dollars into the effort, all for naught. In late 1896, mining engineer and professor of chemistry and geology at the University of Montana, Fred D. Smith, in the Engineering and Mining Journal exposed the claims as being exaggerated. Although some mining continued near Bald Mountain City as late as 1903 and a revival was tried in 1937, the gold was not commercially viable. Today, Bald Mountain City lies abandoned with nothing to show that it was the site of a gold rush.”
Thunder Mountain Tours
If you want to take the family on a guided tour of not only Bald Mountain City but the Hole in the Wall camp used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, check out the tours page.
Where to Find Gold
This web page has extensive information about most of the gold locales in the western US. Here’s what they say about Bald Mountain City:
“In T54N R87W, the Mosaic Claim produced lode gold. West of Sheridan about 60 miles on U.S. 14 and 14 Alt., on top of the Big Horn Mountains, take the north trending dirt road to the Bald Mountain area in T56N R91W. This is the old site of Bald Mountain City. Sometimes this old city was called "Baldy". It is at an elevation of 9,000 feet on the headwaters of the Little Big Horn River. There were many old mines in the area. North from here toward Montana line, in the disintegrated granite you will find fine grained free milling gold. 1 mile west of Sheridan you will find the old log structures of the old Forunatus Mill. The area around the Mill contains intrusive dikes or chimneys that have minor amounts of gold in them.”
Scenic Driving Wyoming
Here’s an excerpt from the book, which I also found with my Google search:
“The granite rocks in this area contain small amounts of gold-bearing quartz. Prospectors discovered fine-grained gold near here in 1890. Word spread and people flocked to the area, drawn by dreams of wealth. In 1892, the Fortunatas Mining and Milling Company bought some claims north of the highway at the headwaters of the Little Bighorn River and Porcupine Creek. Bald Mountain City, the largest attempt at settlement in the Big Horn Mountains, was founded. The cold, high elevation made life difficult for the miners. Yields were poor for the amount of hard labor required. The boom soon ended because no strikes large enough to be worthwhile were made. After the mining petered out, the town was quickly abandoned and little remains today, other than place names such as Gold Creek and Half Ounce Creek. Bald Mountain Campground, about a half mile down the road from the interpretive pullout, has sites sheltered from the wind by a grove of evergreens. About a mile past the campground is the turnoff on the right for the Medicine Wheel, another worthy side trip…Archaeologists are uncertain about the origins of the Medicine Wheel. Studies indicate that it may have been built sometime between A.D. 1200 and 1700…”
While drifting around looking for more information about Bald Mountain City, I stumbled across the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). I wish I’d seen it earlier. I clicked on “Search Domestic Names” and brought up a query form. I entered the information for Bald Mountain City and up it came. Not only that, it listed two alternate names: Bald City, and City of Broken Dreams. Over on the right side of the page is box of Mapping Services, including Virtual Earth, MapQuest, Google Maps, TerraFly, and TerraServer DRG, a topographical map server. Best of all, you don’t have to re-key the GPS coordinates, because the system automatically links you. At least I was able to confirm the GPS coordinates I interpreted from earlier on.
In closing, consider the words of W. Dan Hausel, the expert on Wyoming’s mineral riches that I mentioned earlier. I excerpted some of his advice from Information Circular #9: “The search for productive gold deposits requires a good background in prospecting and economic geology as well as some luck. There are still many placer and lode deposits to be found, although the discovery of entirely new mining districts is rare. In all my years as an exploration geologist, I have only been able to find one new gold district. However, I have found many gold deposits within known districts. Some of the better areas to search for gold are historical mining districts... In my experience, it is rare that any ore deposit has been completely mined out. Many historical and modern mines still contain workable mineral deposits as well as nearby deposits that have been overlooked. Many well-known giant mining companies of the past were notorious for overlooking significant ore deposits. Thus, one could potentially make a living just following up on the exploration projects of many of these past giants [as well as some projects of present giants].”
Garret Romaine is the author of Gem Trails of Washington, Gem Trails of Oregon, and Rockhounding Idaho,