Sacajawea and the Lewis & Clark Expedition

Sacajawea and Jean Baptiste. Bronze at Twin Bridges, MontanaThe earliest familiar history for the Greater Ruby Valley lies with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, which was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States. Their perilous journey lasted from May 1804 to September 1806, reaching this valley the summer of 1805. It is the young Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, whose place in local history precedes that of the expedition. A large bronze statue commemorating Sacajawea stands in front of the pavilion at the Madison County Fairgrounds.

  • July 25, 1805: the Corps reached the Missouri’s three forks (now Three Forks, Montana) and gave them names: the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, after the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury, respectively. After considerable exploration, they picked the fork that proved to be the main branch — the Jefferson — and pressed southwest on it. At these forks, the Corps was encamped precisely where Sacajawea’s people had been five years earlier, when the Hidatsa attacked and she was kidnapped at the age of 12. She was later purchased by Charbonneau. As the Corps were in desperate need of horses, and needed to learn where to cross the Rockies, they sought her people, the Shoshone Indians.
  • August 8: Sacajawea was excited to recognize her first familiar landmark — the “Beaver’s Head“, which was her tribe’s summer camp on the river that runs to the west beyond the mountains. That landmark is where the name “Beaverhead” originated, and why the landmark is called “Beaverhead Rock” to this day. (On the right, about 10 miles west of Twin Bridges, Hwy 41)
  • August 11: Lewis spotted an Indian on a horse, and believed he was a Shoshone. When he hailed him, the Indian disappeared into the bushes.
  • August 13: the expedition’s advance party met some Shoshones. After glimpsing a few, then giving them gifts, a party of 60 warriors galloped up. After convincing the young men that they were peaceful, the white men were greeted with hugs by their commander, Chief Cameahwait. It was the Shoshones’ first encounter with white people. Lewis advised Cameahwait several times that the main party of the Corps included a young Shoshone woman. When Sacajawea was finally called in to interpret, it turned into a joyful reunion, for…

The Great Chief of this nation proved to be the brother of the woman with us…” wrote Clark.

More about the Corps of Discovery – United States History.

Go West Young Man, Go West

Earliest Adventure and Fortune-Seekers
Trappers, traders, and buffalo-hunters were the first occupations exploring the newly discovered territory. It would be over 50 years before the great gold discoveries created boom towns, swelling populations to thousands of people in the mining camps literally overnight. Much history lives on in the gravel mounds left by early gold-dredges in Alder Creek, visible from the highway as you drive from Alder to nearby Nevada City and Virginia City. History tours, museums, and living history of Nevada City and Virginia City, county seat of Madison County, are rich resources for the early history of mining, the Henry Plummer Gang, and the Vigilantes.
Putting Down Roots
On the heels of the miners came cattlemen, sheep, farmers, tradesmen, and goods and service providers. Most miners did not strike it rich. The lasting wealth was created by entrepreneurs who provided for the necessities of the miners. While Alder and Virginia City are most famous for the gold rush days, Silver Star, Sheridan, and other towns, like Rochester and Adobetown, which are now only skeletons, once boasted populations of several thousand inhabitants. Museums in Twin Bridges and Sheridan also chronicle the greater Ruby Valley wild, wild West of the gold rush days, transportation systems, architecture, towns, and people.
Hard Times
Montana State Orphans Home (aka-Montana State Children’s Center) opened September 26, 1894. The Children’s Center operated successfully for a little over seventy years with the highest number of children being between 300 and 400 during the Great Depression. It was officially closed in 1976. The Ruby Valley did not escape the ravages of the dust bowl years and Great Depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The large complex of mostly empty brick buildings is located along Hwy 41 across the river from the town of Twin Bridges. Take the time to go through the Twin Bridges Museum. The history is fascinating.  Montana State Orphans Home, complete with old photo gallery

M adison County was one of the 9 original counties established in Montana Territory in February of 1865. The town of Sheridan was one of the earliest towns to incorporate in 1893. Ruby Valley lies between the two first Territorial Capitals of Montana: Bannack, to the south in Beaverhead County, and Virginia City which is the county seat of Madison County. A series of major mining discoveries in the western third of the state starting in 1862 found gold, silver, copper, lead, coal (and later oil) that attracted tens of thousands of miners to the area. The richest of all gold placer diggings was discovered at Alder Gulch, where the town of Virginia City was established.

Towns in the Greater Ruby Valley

(Much of the following information came from Cheney’s Names on the Face of Montana, Mountain Press Publishing Company)

Around 1866 mining activity around Sheridan was attracting many Civil War veterans to the gold fields. The town, as well as the eastern Montana county, was named for Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan, a noted Union cavalry leader; the name was chosen by Rozelle P. Bateman, who took up some land and built the first cabin there in the early 1860s.
Alder takes its name from the creek named by Henry Edgar in 1863. Alder was the terminus of a branch line of the Northern Pacific and served as a shipping point for Virginia City ore, livestock and farm produce from the Ruby Valley.

  • The Confrey Placer Mining Company, which was operating an extensive dredging project, was influential in getting the railroad into Alder in 1901. The establishment of a railroad terminal in Alder aided the assembly of the great dredges, large complicated steamships equipped with scooping or suction devices which traveled upriver while scooping dirt and gravel from the river bottom. These dredges facilitated the placer mining, which took place in Alder Gulch between 1897 and 1922.
  • In the early 1900s, the Northern Pacific Railroad built a rail line from Whitehall to Alder to transport the parts needed to construct the dredges. Alder Gulch was one of the greatest gold producers of all time. The site of the largest placer gold strike in world history was discovered in May 1863 by prospectors returning to Bannack after they were waylaid by Indians. Alder Gulch produced 100 million dollars worth of gold by 1920. A year later the booming town of Virginia City had a population of 10,000. People lived in makeshift tents and shacks, with every third construction a saloon. The gulch was named Fairweather Mining District in 1863. Exactly one year after gold was discovered, Montana was made a territory. Today, Alder has a gem mine, Red Rock Mine, open to the public. Folks can go just south of town to search for garnets and other stones.
  • About five miles north, at Laurin, is Robber’s Roost, an old stage stop. It is open to the public and features an antique store and museum. Hold-up gangs used to hang out here during the early gold rush days when stagecoaches made regular runs between Bannack and Virginia City.
Silver Star
Silver Star is between Whitehall and Twin Bridges on a branch line of the Northern Pacific serving the irrigated valley around it. Silver Star is one of the oldest towns in the state and was named when it was a supply point for silver miners and the only town between Virginia City and Helena. Natives claim that Edward, Prince of Wales, the son of Queen Victoria, spent three days at the Silver Star Hotel in 1878.

  • Green Campbell discovered gold in the hills near here in 1866. Silver Star developed into a booming mining camp as other rich mines were established. George and Bill Boyer called their mine the “Silver Star.” Prospectors, miners, and other residents gathered at the general merchandise store one Saturday night to name the two main camps; one they called Silver Star, and the other, Rag Town, which later became Iron Rod.
  • Silver Star is located along the Jefferson River, and the Tobacco Root Mountains provide the backdrop for this town.
Twin Bridges
The other Ruby Valley town incorporated early on, is Twin Bridges, 1902. It lies at the confluence of the Ruby, Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers which form the Jefferson River. Twin Bridges is a well-known fly fishing mecca for trout anglers. The population was 375 at the 2010 census.

  • Twin Bridges is not far from Beaverhead Rock State Park. Sacajawea recognized this huge landmark, resembling the head of a swimming beaver, while traveling with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. Four Indian trails came together at a bend of the Beaverhead River north of the present school building in Twin Bridges. These trails were used by early settlers and freight companies, and helped to establish where the community of Twin Bridges would develop.
  • Twin Bridges was either named for the two bridges that spanned the Jefferson River nearby, or for two bridges over the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers built by the Lott brothers in 1865. The Lotts donated land for public buildings and to individuals who promised to build homes on them.
  • By 1884 Twin Bridges was being served by three daily stagecoaches from Virginia City, Dillon, and Whitehall. The town is near the confluence of the tributaries of the Jefferson River, which were named by Lewis and Clark in 1805. The explorers chose to commemorate the “three cardinal virtues” of President Thomas Jefferson with the names Philosophy, Wisdom and Philanthropy. These small rivers were later renamed, respectively, the Beaverhead, the Big Hole, and the Ruby. The settlement was first known as The Bridges.

National Register of Historic Places

  • Ferris/ Hermsmeyer/ Fenton Ranch Widowed in 1864 after her husband died in a mining accident, Jane Ferris found work as a housekeeper for Sheridan Valley rancher John Barber. Barber likely built the log cabin core of the main residence for Jane and her two children. Barber died circa 1872, but Jane stayed on, filing a preemption claim on 160 acres. She died within a year of receiving title to the property, leaving two children ages thirteen and fifteen. Her daughter Millicent married neighbor Herbert Noble when she came of age, and the couple lived on the ranch between 1877 and 1882. They sold the land to German immigrant Frederick Hermsmeyer in 1883. A placer miner who came to Montana in the 1860s, Hermsmeyer made his fortune by carefully investing his earnings; this ranch was among his many business ventures. He lived here only briefly before moving to Sheridan, leaving relative George Hermsmeyer and family to manage the property until George’s death in 1917. The Hermsmeyers’ tenure saw construction of the two-story frame addition to the log cabin, a log bunkhouse, and likely a number of other utilitarian outbuildings. After 1917, the property changed hands several times before Stanley and Helen Fenton purchased it from the bank in 1937. Active members of the Sheridan community, the Fentons became known for the birthday parties they hosted here for children living in the Twin Bridges’ orphanage. Stanley died unexpectedly in 1959, after which Helen returned to school, ultimately becoming an award-winning journalist. She resided here until her death in 2000.

William O’Brien House (114 E. Poppleton) William O’Brien arrived in the gold-mining and ranching town of Sheridan, Montana, in 1881 and began selling liquor from a small sixteen-by-twenty-foot building. He was one of the town’s three suppliers of “wet groceries” (liquor), the quality of which, according to the October 13, 1894, Madisonian, was “as good as ever painted landscapes on the brain of man.” Sales were brisk, his business flourished, and O’Brien assumed increasing prominence in the community. He served as a school trustee, as one of Sheridan’s original aldermen, and as a member of the Montana legislature. In 1889, O’Brien purchased a large, corner lot (100 x 200 feet) for $160 from the estate of early Sheridan pioneer Hugh Duncan. Five years later he built this two-story, brick residence, where he lived with his wife, Mary, and their three daughters. The home’s size, design, and materials spoke to O’Brien’s political and financial success. Most homes in Sheridan—a town of 350 people in 1893—were built of wood; thus, the brick O’Brien residence, with its standing-seam metal roof, stood out. The irregularly shaped residence reflects the Italian Renaissance style, as seen in the building’s two-story, three-bay façade, its small, restrained porch, and its wide projecting cornice that draws attention to the hipped roof. Segmental brick arches and stone lintels grace the windows, which are set in walls three bricks deep. Although William died of Bright’s disease in 1901 at age forty-five, the home remained in the O’Brien family until 1927.

Twin Bridges
Madison County Fair Grounds Historic District Early Twin Bridges offered few public gathering places, and so these fifty acres, once part of the Lott and Seidensticker homesteads, were developed as “The Park” in 1887. A “harvest home barbecue” was held that year, and two years later the event had blossomed into the first annual county fair. Early fairs were privately run and later partially supported by the county. Then, as now, the fair gave ranchers and farmers a chance to show their best produce and livestock while promoting local pride and friendly rivalry. In 1928, a depressed economy curtailed the event and in 1930 Madison County purchased the fairground property. The economy worsened during the Great Depression until 1934, when more than half Madison County’s workforce was unemployed. In 1935, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) approved funding assistance for the rebuilding of the unused fairground. Construction began in 1936, putting a great number of unemployed residents back to work. WPA engineer C. D. Paxton drew the plans and Tosten Stenberg, well known for his log structures in Yellowstone Park, directed construction. Local foreman Fred Sommers was brought out of retirement with a special waiver from Washington to supervise the project. Lodgepole pine, fir logs, and other building materials were gathered locally and prepared by workers on site. When the project was completed in 1937, seven masterfully crafted new buildings and one remodeled 1890s structure lent new significance to the traditional fairground. Today the collection of buildings is architecturally significant for its fine design as well as historically important for its WPA construction using entirely local materials and labor.

  • Pavilion (Hwy 14 Fairgrounds Rd) WPA engineer C. D. Paxton designed this impressive octagonal community building as part of the federally funded project to rebuild the fairground in 1936. Master log craftsman Tosten Stenberg of WPA headquarters in Livingston supervised the building. The primary construction material is lodgepole pine, chosen for its uniformity and harvested at nearby Ramshorn Creek. Logs are bias-cut and saddle-notched. Poles radiating from a central lantern form the interior rafters and afford a floor space of one hundred feet in diameter. Besides serving as the main hall during fair time, the Pavilion has long been a favorite place for building memories, hosting hundreds of local events. Dances, wedding receptions, family reunions, church functions, political rallies, flea markets, organizational Christmas parties, and even winter roller skating serve to perpetuate the community spirit that built this Madison County treasure.
  • Square Building (Hwy 14 Fairgrounds Rd) Post-and-beam construction covered with log-veneer siding characterizes this early building inspired by M. H. Lott and built as a community project by area homesteaders in 1894. It is the only remaining building of the original fairground complex, built when the land was privately owned. Salvaged by the WPA-funded project that rebuilt the fairground in the mid-1930s, its remodeling included the addition of casement windows, a hardwood floor, and the log-veneer siding. The building has always served as a central gathering spot at the fair. In the 1960s, the building was renamed the “Jeffers Building” in honor of Lawrence and Jo Jeffers, whose countless hours devoted to Youth Projects, 4-H, and FFA made them true champions of Madison County’s youth.
Union City/ Christenot Mill
Prospectors discovered gold in Alder Gulch, Idaho Territory, on May 26, 1863. Within weeks, the countryside was teeming with thousands of prospectors, but the easily extracted placer gold soon played out. B. F. Christenot, acting independently or perhaps as agent to Philadelphia backers, began acquiring claims in the Summit Mining District in 1864.

  • Christenot later concealed a substantial amount of gold on his person and traveled to Philadelphia where he convinced investors to back construction of a mill. The transition from placer to lode mining, an expensive undertaking that required heavy financial backing, is well documented here at Union City. Machinery, transported in twenty-six ox-drawn wagons over the Bozeman Trail, arrived in October 1866. Thompson and Griffith of Virginia City constructed the mill, which operated by spring 1867.
  • In June, journalist A. K. McClure arrived from the east to assume its management. Most milling of this period was accomplished by stamping, but the Union City operation employed a process using Chilean rollers for crushing the quartz. Although the mill was reported to be the most efficient in the territory, the ore was soon exhausted and the mill closed down in spring 1868. Sixty thousand dollars was said to have been extracted from the company’s nearby Oro Cache lode, but the equipment alone cost $80,000; the operation was a financial disaster.
  • At peak production the Christenot Mill employed up to forty workers, and the site, representing all aspects of gold milling technology from processing to management, fills a significant chapter in the history of mining in Montana.

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