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Silver Prices Up, Trout Numbers Down

TrendspottersSupplement to "A Grand Little Canyon," Sluice Boxes State Park Profile
By Jeff Erickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May–June 2006

Prior to hiking into the Sluice Boxes, my wife Mary and I explored the historic, upper basin mining areas that had significantly affected Belt Creek’s trout fishery over more than a century.

The drainage was largely a wild frontier outpost until 1879, when prospectors unearthed high-grade lead, zinc, and silver ore along Galena Creek, a small tributary to the Dry Fork of Belt Creek. Miners poured in and set up mining camps. In 1881, prospector James Neihart and companions discovered large silver deposits further up the basin, unleashing a new wave of activity that created the town of Neihart.

Fluctuating silver prices created mining town booms and busts during the next half-century. One collapse causing many Belt Creek drainage mines to close came at the turn of the century, when silver prices plummeted after Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1893, which had temporarily boosted silver prices.

Hard times lasted until World War I, when silver prices began climbing again. This boom lasted well into the 1920s, and Neihart’s Silver Dyke Mine emerged as one of Montana’s top silver and lead producers. Due to lack of storage space behind the Silver Dyke’s tailings pond, the company’s milling plant began dumping waste directly into Carpenter Creek. Other workings added to pollution levels, harming Belt Creek’s fishery and streamside vegetation for miles downstream. There were also reports of ruined wells and poisoned livestock.

On the night of July 10, 1925, a simmering controversy between local residents and the Silver Dyke regarding the Belt Creek pollution was punctuated by tragedy. The Silver Dyke’s impoundment dam collapsed, perhaps due to earthquake damage, sending a syrupy slug of tailings and sediment oozing down Carpenter Creek, into upper Belt Creek, and then through the Sluice Boxes. Two children were swept to their deaths, and tons of metal-rich tailings were flushed all the way to the Missouri River. This catastrophic failure further damaged the Sluice Boxes’ once great trout fishery.

In response to these concerns, early conservation groups like the Great Falls Sportsmen’s Association got involved in the dispute. However, their efforts did little to improve Belt Creeks’ ailing fishery.
The stream’s fate was closely tied to metal prices. There are reports, for example, that fishing temporarily improved after the Silver Dyke, Block P, and other mines flickered out in the late 1920s and tailings were no longer being dumped into Belt Creek tributaries. But once metal prices rose and production resumed again in the late 1930s and early 1940s, new tailings were once again leaching acid and metals into the creek. A travelogue from a 1942 issue of the Great Falls Tribune describes a train excursion through the Sluice Boxes and notes the degraded condition of Belt Creek, after various mines had reopened to help supply the war effort: “…a bridge spans Belt Creek, which rushes past full of silt and is a shock to the fishermen who still have hopes that some day mine tailings may be removed to restore this stream as a trout paradise.”

Eventually those mines closed for good. But their legacy—of providing necessary material for a growing nation, rich historical remnants, and toxic stream degradation—lives on.Bear bullet