MARYSVILLE, Montana — “They say that history repeats itself,” said Shauna Simpson, standing outside this town’s only retail business, the Marysville House, a bar and restaurant. “I say, ‘Let it.’ “
Here, it just might.
Marysville, a dot of a town in the mountains near Helena, was covered in gold dust in its heyday in the late 1800s. It was home to one of the great mother-lode gold and silver fortunes of the West, the Drumlummon Mine. Then it petered out, familiar story , to near ghost-town status through the long decades after the mine closed around 1904. Streets never paved in the first place became rougher; abandoned Victorian-era clapboard faded to gray in the Montana snows. About 70 people still call it home.
Now the curtain is going up on the town’s second act: The Drumlummon’s current owners announced last month that they had discovered a new vein that could be as rich, or richer, than the first. If the vein goes deep into the mountain, following the pattern of the veins the old-timers chased with pick and shovel, the new strike could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, at least.
A Canadian company, RX Exploration bought the old claims four years ago, acting on a belief — based partly on reading between the lines of century-old lawsuits and newspaper articles — that the mine still had secrets. The search led to the Charly Vein, named for the wife of one of the investors.
So on a recent morning, Ben Porterfield, a consulting geologist for RX, led a reporter and a photographer down the mine shaft to the new diggings. After 10 minutes or so through puddles and mud, walking between the rails of the old mine-cart track, he pointed his arm and his headlamp beam to a pile of sheared rock the size of a dining room table — scrap rubble from the blast into the tunnel wall revealing the Charly, there in the darkness beyond. Headlamps cast everything into jangled geometry of light and shadow.
“There’s probably $100,000 of silver and gold right there,” he said, staring at the scrap pile, as generators roared, blowing fresh air into the depths. The new owners, who shipped their first ore in April, employ 32 workers, with plans to triple that number by year’s end.
Downhill in the town, which once supported about 5,000 people, 26 bars and various eccentric traditions (Drumlummon’s discoverer, Thomas Cruse, liked to ride through town every morning on a white horse in preparation for his wake-up glass of sherry), there is a debate about whether to love this new turn of events or fear it.
To many people in the new West, especially environmentalists, hard-rock metal mines — abandoned by the tens of thousands and in many cases leaking water laced with heavy metals leached from the rock — have become symbols not of gold-rush nostalgia but rapacious disregard for the land.
Sam Long, who retired to Marysville from Pennsylvania seven years ago with his wife, Linda, is among that group. He fears the worst from a rejuvenated Drumlummon — an environmental mess in a part of the country he came to for the quiet and the fishing. The quiet, he said, has already been disturbed by big trucks and blasting in the tunnels, which frequently shake the ground in town.
Marysville does get a tourist trade in summer — mostly ghost-town lovers, snapping photos of the sagging, derelict past. But on a spring afternoon, a moving vehicle is a rare sight, and the wooded hills hug in tight and green and fragrant with pine, compounding the sense of a place removed from the ordinary flow of time.
“I think the water around here will eventually be a problem — I don’t care what they say,” said Long, 67, standing outside his house, looking up at the mine works. “I wouldn’t have come if this was in operation.”
Mine operators say the millions of gallons of water in the mine, some of which contains arsenic, are being cleaned before discharge.
Other residents say they think Marysville will benefit from the mine. The mine built the town, they say, and now once again will be the dominant force.
Old mysteries of law and public relations cloud the story of the Drumlummon — especially how and why it closed in the early 1900s. Its owners at the time, the Rothschild family from Europe, were locked in an extended court battle over nearby mining claims when they announced in 1901 that the mine’s lower levels would be allowed to flood because profitable ore had not been found there.
RX’s mining operations director, Mike Gunsinger, said he became convinced in reading the old accounts that the Rothschilds had lied — flooding the mine not because it was played out, but to conceal its riches. The company suing the Rothschilds eventually won, but they never had the capital to drain the water. A last attempt, by a new set of owners, failed in 1951.
“I think it was a dog-in-the-manger attitude,” Gunsinger said, referring to the Rothschilds. “If I can’t have it, nobody can.”
That told him, he said, that the gold was still down there.
For Deb O’Connell, 57, who grew up here and works at the mine cutting core samples for testing, past and future are combined.
Her great-grandfather, Richard O’Connell, came from the same place in Ireland — Drumlummon — as the mine’s founder, Cruse, who sent word back after striking it rich that the good times were rolling in Marysville. O’Connell then worked a career underground, apparently bestowing a prospector’s gene on his descendants.
She said her father, in particular, Bob O’Connell, never stopped believing the old legends. He prospected for years in the hills around the Drumlummon, and when he died, never having hit pay dirt, he left his mining claims to his children.
“He mined here until we were starving, then sold cars the rest of his life,” she said.
Now the new owners, she said, are pushing toward the old family claims she long dismissed as a gold bug’s fantasy.
“Fingers crossed,” she said.