Gate of Gold

The Opening of the West

Golden Sunlight gold mine on Bull Mountain

View southwest

Golden Sunlight Mine

© 2001 Airphoto, Jim Wark

Begun in 1982 by Placer Dome, Inc., of Vancouver, British Columbia, and scheduled for closure and cleanup beginning in 2009, the Golden Sunlight Mine currently is the center of enough controversy to fill its gaping cavity—which is deep enough, it is said, to accommodate the Washington Monument set atop the Chrysler Building. At issue is whether or not to backfill the pit in order to restore the entire mountain. (At the bottom of the photo is an area that has been reclaimed by contouring for effective drainage, and seeded with grasses.) The problem is that the sulfides in some of the disturbed rock react with air and water to produce sulfuric acid, which pollutes surface streams and rivers as well as the aquifer. Worse yet, the acid eats away at the rock to free other metals such as arsenic and mercury.

At present the last traces of gold are being mined underground in stopes, or tunnels, at a rate of 0.080 ounce of fine-particle gold per ton of rock, with 1500 tons extracted per day. That doesn't sound like much, but that process has produced 140,000 ounces of gold within a period of 18 months.

During the Western gold rushes in the 1850s and 60s, available technology would not have been equal to the challenges of open pit mining. However, had they wanted to take the time and trouble when they passed this unimposing prominence on August 1, 1805, the Corps of Discovery could have scratched around and found a little gold along the terraces bordering the Jefferson River hereabouts. But gold prospecting was not on the agenda President Jefferson had drawn up for Meriwether Lewis.

Bull Mountain—more appropriately classified by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names as a ridge—is bounded on the east (left) by "R. Fields Vally Creek," now called Boulder River, opposite the mouth of which Clark and the main contingent camped on 1 August 1805. It is bounded on the west (right) by "Birth Creek," so named in honor of Clark's thirty-fifth birthday, and now called Whitetail Creek. The snowcapped peaks at upper right are the Highland Mountains south of Butte and southwest of Whitehall—the latter is the town faintly visible at extreme right beyond Bull Mountain. The seemingly lower mountains to the left of the Highlands and barely distinguishable from them, are the East Pioneers between Divide and Dillon, some of which, owing to the distance and the earth's curvature, are actually higher than any in the Highlands. Nearer, at extreme left, are foothills of the northwest end of the Tobacco Root Mountains.


Supported in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program