Gold of Ophir

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"Then shalt thou lay up gold as dust,
and the gold of Ophir as the stones of the brooks."

Loma, Montana

Loma, Montana, a flat, fertile valley surrounded by barren hills

J. Agee photo, © 1998

The community of Loma, Montana, looking eastward from the "top of the heights" where Lewis and Clark stood. The Marias River, now in the foreground, was probably closer to those grain elevators, near the Cottonwood trees in the background. Today it empties into the Missouri less than a quarter of a mile to the right of the photo.

By 1847 the crest of the fur market was past, but in that year a new trading post, soon to be called Fort Benton, was established 22 river-miles upstream from the mouth of the Marias. Its location was considered the head of seasonal navigation on the Missouri River. After 1863, when gold was discovered in present-day Idaho and southwestern Montana, Fort Benton became the commercial hub of wagon-train traffic that reached south to Virginia City, Montana, and west to Walla Walla, Washington. The prosperity of Fort Benton was limited only by some "stones of the brooks" called Black Bluffs Rapids, just three miles above the Marias, which prevented larger and more profitable steamboats from reaching the town after mid-summer.

In 1864, a small group of entrepreneurs who had already proved themselves on the frontier, conceived the idea of building a new city at the mouth of the Marias, which would replace Fort Benton as the trade center on the Upper Missouri. They named it Ophir, the Biblical metonymy for gold.1

It was a grandiose plan. The first territorial legislature, meeting at Bannack in 1864, authorized the incorporation of the new town that would occupy both the north and south sides of the Marias as far upstream as the mouth of the Teton, as well as the opposite bank of the Missouri. A dozen related companies were formed, including one to build a wagon road and later a railroad around the Great Falls of the Missouri, a couple of ferry companies, and a steamboat company to connect Great Falls with Gallatin City, then a-borning at the three forks of the Missouri. It is said there was even talk of a university.

Construction was begun early in the spring of 1866 with the erection of several log cabins. In late May, a party of ten or eleven men was cutting more logs three miles up the Marias when a large band of Blood Indians, part of the Blackfeet Nation, came by, possibly headed for Fort Benton to avenge the recent murder of nine men of their tribe. There was a brief battle, and all the white men were killed. No one knows who started it—it may have been just a tragic misunderstanding—but the surviving entrepreneurs were jolted awake, and the city of Ophir faded from memory as quickly as the sweetest of dreams.

The attraction of the place remained, but nothing much happened until 1887, when a railroad was built linking Jim Hill's Great Northern railroad with Helena, and a way station called Marias was established at the mouth of the Teton. When the rails were relocated closer to the Missouri River in 1899, a new station was situated on the north side and called Lower Marias, which railroad telegraphers abbreviated as LOMA. The station drew farm traffic and a few settlers, so that by 1911 it had a population of 33 and thus deserved a post office, for a while called Chappell. The rail line was abandoned in 1982, leaving the little community of Loma as a quiet "way station" on U.S. 87.

So much for Lewis and Clark's vision of a trading post, and of a paper-thin, golden dream of Ophir.

1. The name of that fabulous city, that "golden wedge of Ophir" (Isaiah 13:12), is invoked nine times in the Old Testament as a symbol of prosperity and magnificence, and the source of shiploads of tributes for King Solomon. Biblical scholars have long disagreed on its whereabouts, but most now favor Somaliland, on the eastern coast of Africa.