Out here, the past is not past. It tilts into the wind, rotting old homes, their walls covered with yellowing newspapers, chronicling the spot where 5,000 people once perched on a mother lode of gold.
- Dolly Parton Dishes on Why Opposites Attract
- Britney Spears Gets in the Spring Break Spirit During a Hawaii Trip with Her Sons
- Suri Cruise Is All Smiles with Mom Katie Holmes at Kids' Choice Awards (PHOTO)
- Destiny's Child Reunites For First Time in Years (VIDEO)
- Is Zayn Malik Working on a Solo Career After Leaving One Direction?
“Marysville, Montana, had 27 saloons and three newspapers and every kind of store you can imagine,” Earl Fred told me, walking along Main Street. “We had 60 businesses and competing railroads arriving 24 hours a day.”
That’s when this old mining town was one of the richest places on earth. Now memories are all Earl Fred mines. “You can see, there’s nothing left except a few old buildings on the hills.”
About 90 people live amid the debris. Deb O’Connell’s great-grandfather spent his life in the belly of the earth. “Grandpa and Dad worked there, too,” she said, “until the family starved. Then Dad sold cars the rest of his life.”
Deb and I sat on the porch of an old home, its broken windows in shadow so deep that it looked like a face with its eyes poked out.
Deb raised her eyes to the mouth of the mine that had held her family’s dreams for so long. “All the old-timers said that there was way more gold in that mountain than ever came out,” she said. The shafts flooded a century ago, filling 20 miles of the old digs.
Still gold in them thar hills
I decided to have a look for myself, and soon I was sloshing into a flooded tunnel with engineer Ben Porterfield. “How deep does it get?” I asked.
A half-foot of water covered our rubber boots. “This is about it,” he said. A mining train trundled out of the darkness, clanking and squealing, carrying a load of ore.
Ben works for RX Exploration, a Canadian company that bought the mine for a bit more than a million bucks and started draining the water. Previous owners said the mine had played out, but the new manager, Mike Gunsinger, thinks “they were lying.”
He showed me a map of the old mine. “The first five holes we drilled, we hit ore in every hole.”
Ben led me a half-mile down into the darkness. The only lights were on our helmets. “Stay between the muck train tracks,” Ben called over his shoulder. “There’s deeper water on the left.”
I stumbled on, finally getting the rhythm of walking on cross ties. Soon we rounded a corner into a cloud of dust swirling from a diamond-tipped drill gouging a hole in the granite wall.
The drilling stopped. A miner appeared out of the gloom like a ghost, his face and clothing covered in gray. We had arrived at a 6-foot-wide vein streaked across the wall. “How much money is in that ore?” I asked.
“Well, every foot blasted, we take out $100,000.”
It’s a newly discovered vein that was overlooked during the Gold Rush digs. “The old guys didn't get it all?”
Porterfield grinned. “They missed by 80 feet!”
He handed me a piece of ore the size of a paperweight. It held about three dollars worth of gold. “Take out a trainload of that, you’d be a rich man.”
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a soil scientist, is impressed with the ore’s high quality: “Not in Africa, not in Russia, not South America have we seen more gold or silver per ton!”
Mother lode of memories
Tommy Cruse dug the first mine back in the day, borrowing the money to buy a pickax. He named it Drumlummon, after his hometown in Ireland. Everyone thought he was nuts, digging into a granite mountain; back in 1876, most gold was panned in creeks. But by the end of the 19th century, miners had hacked $16 million out of that hole.
“It would be a wonderful thing to have that mine aglow again,” Lorna Johns told me later that day. “There’s so many childhood memories for me here.”
She’s 72, but when she’s remembering, the years spin back. “My dad, bless his heart, worked in that mine from the time he was 15 until it closed. I have vivid memories of bringing Dad his lunch pail. The whistle would blow and we would run and see him. Now, when I get up in the middle of the night, I see the lights at the mine again, and it brings back such a warm feeling.”
But not all her neighbors share this Gold Rush nostalgia. Some came here to retire; they love the town’s history, but prefer their ghosts remain quiet. They also wonder what all this digging and draining will do to their water — other miners who came before left an environmental mess. “This summer they're spending three and a half million dollars to clean up hundred-year-old mine waste,” said Sheri Long.
Given what happened with the oil spill in the Gulf, she doesn't trust the company to have a cleanup plan: “The history of cleanup and reclamation in Montana hasn’t been stellar.”
"They should not distrust us,” Mike Gunsinger insisted. “We made it better.” He says RX Exploration cleaned up arsenic-laced water that’s been leaching from the old mine for 60 years.
As evidence of their $400,000 purification system, Ben Porterfield filled a cup with clear water. “It's probably better than some of the other water around here, once it comes out of the mine.”
Money in the mail
The company is not in full production yet; it’s still exploring. The miners could be a foot away from a million bucks — or a million feet from a dollar.
Mike Gunsinger got the results of their first dig while we were there. It came in the mail, packaged like a Russian doll, with smaller boxes inside. “Holy smokes, you'd think it was gold or something,” he laughed, finally popping the package open.
Twelve ounces of gold plopped onto his table, the first of 44, worth about $50,000. I was stunned. “Wait. You got this in the mail?”
Mike shrugged. “They mailed it.”
“We’re in Montana, you know.”
And feeling lucky.
If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, contact:
Director of Operations
Marysville, MT 59640
Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints