Monday, January 7, 2013

Hector Horton

History accords the honor of the discovery of the silver mines of the upper Flint Creek Basin to one Hector Horton. Let us permit his contemporary, pioneering journalist Frank D. "Sandbar" Brown, to set the scene.

"When this adventurous prospector, a California pioneer of 1850, who had followed his arduous and perilous pursuit along the mineral belts of the Sierras and Cascades from the Gulf of California to the 55th parallel of North latitude, entered the Flint Creek valley no evidence of the therebefore presence of the white man greeted his eyes. It was an untouched land of fertile broad acres down centrally through which ran a rapid sparkling stream of mountain water. 

In the grassland upon either bank fearlessly, and contentedly, grazed large bands of deer and elk. Environing this oasis of pastoral beauty a lofty, snow capped encircling range had stood watch and ward for uncounted centuries.
Arriving at a small entering stream from the east, Horton leisurely pursued his way up the gulch through the foothills, through which it wended its way, to the base of the range, and there unloading his pack horses made camp. He was alone, the only occupant of a fabulously rich mineral area, whose abundantly distributed float rock littered the descending slopes..." (Philipsburg Mail, April 11, 1919)

The merchant Walter Dance, brought to this place two years later by Horton, describes the setting of the district simply as "One of the prettiest places I ever saw." As have indeed many visitors since.

Along the small tributary of Flint Creek flowing from the east, now called Camp creek after the mining camp that sprang up along its banks, Horton discovered an impressive vein of silver-copper ore, in the spot right behind where Loraine Domine is standing in the photo to the left. He didn't realize it, of course, but he had found the western edge of one of Montana's greatest silver districts, at the point marked with an X on the map below.

The story of this discovery has been retold by historians and prospectors in several versions ever since. In one version of the tale, he happened on to his silver discovery by luck while searching for an out-of-the-way place to peacefully consume a sack of flour, then in such short supply that all the flour in Virginia City had been seized by an armed committee to prevent hoarding and price gouging. This story was further embellished by the Western fiction writer Dan Cushman in an entertaining account for the Montana Historical Society magazine in 1959, where he speculates that Horton was "a bum", uninterested in anything beyond his next meal. 

But the Hector Horton that emerges from more careful research bears little resemblance to the character in the Cushman account. Here we are going to credit Horton with skill, experience, and determination, not dumb luck. 

As Sandbar's account tells it, Horton was apparently in his 15th year of prospecting in 1865, having started with the California gold rush in 1850, proceeding to prospect the length of the coastal ranges from the Gulf of California to Alaska, before joining the rush of pioneers to Montana's first major gold strike at Bannack in 1862. 

It is sometimes said that few prospectors of the "gold rush" struck it rich, and Horton would not be one of those few, due to circumstances we will eventually explore in some detail. But Mr. Horton well illustrates the economic reason an intrepid slice of the population from the eastern US and indeed from around the world took the considerable risks of travelling to and living in remote places like Montana. Quite apart from the opportunity to strike it rich, wages in the West were approximately double those in the East, and at least 10 times wages in Europe. Census records and newpaper accounts reveal that Hector Horton's regular profession was that of a brick mason.  Reports to Congress indicate that brick masons in the mining camps were especially well paid, approximately 6 dollars a day, or about double what laborers made. A brick mason like Horton could make enough at his "day job" to afford a few prospecting trips. 

In 1865, "silver fever" was gripping much of the West following the development of the fabulous Comstock lode in Nevada, and Horton was no doubt deliberately and methodically searching for silver after catching the "fever".  In the instance of Horton's trip to Flint Creek, it seems very likely that he was tipped off by mountain man and prospector William Graham, one of the few pioneers who had visited the Philipsburg area and a great prospector in his own right. Horton located several lots on his discovery in Graham's name. 

Perhaps both Graham and Horton had learned about silver ore from an acknowledged expert on the topic - the late, controversial sheriff of Bannack, Henry Plummer - who had spent time mining in the Comstock. Months after the vigilantes hung him, the best silver deposit nearby had been staked in part by a major player in that event, the territorial Governor Sidney Edgerton. The claims, in a district first called "Montana" and then renamed "Argenta" (see 1865 map above), were in short order sold to enterprising group of aspiring mining entrepreneurs led by Sam Hauser, James Stuart, and Walter Dance, with substantial backing from investors in St. Louis - the St. Louis and Montana Mining Company.  These were the men that Hector Horton would bring to his prospect. He was probably planning on doing just that before he ever staked his claims.   

Unlike a gold deposit, a prospector could do nothing by himself with a silver claim because there was no way to extract the silver without building a mill or smelter, and this took both expertise and a big capital investment.  We can imagine that Horton might have already been weighing his chances of interesting James Stuart and his partners in his discovery as he enjoyed a dinner of venison and sourdough after his lucky day of prospecting. Over the next few days, he marked out corners on his claim, which he named the "Cordova".

The point of discovery was where the word "Ditch" appears on the map above, on the east end of what became Broadway Street in the town of Philipsburg. On the adjoining ground Horton staked three additional claims, and then immediately traveled to the Deer Lodge county seat (then at Silver Bow) to record his locations.  

That winter, Horton was already negotiating with Stuart, but for claims he had staked closer to Deer Lodge, in the "Lomax" district - from the location given this would be within the Emery/Zosell district. He sold those claims for $2000, several years wages. The next summer, in July of 1866, he brought Stuart and his partner, Reece Anderson, to upper Flint Creek to look over his vein. This was not the first trip to the upper Flint Creek valley for Stuart and Anderson. In 1858, they had set up corrals at the mouth of what became Fred Burr Creek, prospecting for gold with Fred Burr himself, Granville's brother-in-law, who had been there the previous year. The prospecting had little success. For geochemical reasons that would only become clear much later, the stream gravels of Camp and Douglas Creek contain very little gold, despite draining from one of Montana's best mining districts, which eventually produced substantial amounts of gold from several veins. The presence of silver, abundantly outcropping in veins nearby, had entirely escaped their notice. 

In 1862, the Stuarts followed up on a prospect on the north side of what they called the Gold Creek Mountains (now Flint Creek range) originally found a decade earlier by a trapper, Francois Finlay, and started what Granville Stuart controversially maintained was Montana's first commercial placer gold mine at what became known (appropriately enough) as Gold Creek.  

They moved to Bannack when more promising diggings were found there, and had good success selling merchandise to miners in Bannack and Virginia City. Now they were looking to invest in lode mines, and Hector Horton had a high quality prospect to show them! 

Stuart, Anderson and Horton looked over the area near the Cordova and staked several more claims. They already had competition. A group of miners, travelling through the area to the "Blackfoot diggings" near Deer Lodge, had already located several of the most promising lodes in the district. By fall, enough silver ore had been found to set plans in motion to build a mill. A great silver district was born, sometimes referenced by its location as the Flint Creek Mining District, but more often, in official courthouse filings, it was referenced to its discoverer - the Horton Mining District, as on the plat of, appropriately enough, the Horton Lode as shown below.
The Horton became one of Philipsburg's great producers in the 20th century, a main source of ore from the True Fissure Mine (below, Steve Neal pic).
Another of Horton's claims, the Cliff No. 2, was on the main vein of the Scratch All mine. These discoveries place Hector Horton in the top rank of Philipsburg prospectors.

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