ZORTMAN, MONTANA HISTORY
Landusky Mine (Pictured Above).

Gold production increased sharply in the late 1980's due to the use of heap leach gold mining to extract gold. This involves the placement of the ore on heap leach pads and spraying cyanide onto the ore to extract the gold. The Zortman mine was the first major heap leach gold mine in the United States.

Gold established the community of Zortman. Although gold prospecting took place as early as the late 1860s, it wasn't until approximately 1890
when Pike Landusky and Bob Ormond struck a rich vein that the town of Zortman was born. It was named after Oliver 'Pete' Zortman, who  with a partner constructed a mill near Zortman that initiated the extraction of low-grade ore from rock.


Zortman, Montana is a historic gold town located in the middle of the Little Rocky Mountains.  It has been home to farmers, ranchers, sheepmen, miners, storekeepers, loggers, teamsters and outlaws, among others.

Zortman now is a small community surrounded by lots of opportunities.  Within a short distance lie many interesting places to visit.  Beside the Little Rockies with their natural rock bridges and gold mine, the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri River breaks and the Fort Peck Lake lay just to the south.  The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Milk River, Bears Paw Mountains, Nelson Reservoir and Canada lie behind the mountains from Zortman. 
There is camping, hiking, float trips, self guided nature tours, gold panning, pow-wows, fishing and hunting. For those who just like to kick back and let the world go by for awhile, the Zortman area provides the perfect spot.  For those who don’t want to be quite so out of touch, the information highway runs right through Zortman.  There are several small businesses in the area already taking advantage of the future. 

Check out our area, Zortman will welcome you.

Zortman Montana is Located in: Missouri River Country, Phillips County

Zortman was named for another early-day prospector who hunted gold here in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Out of Zortman there are roads and trails that will enable you to climb up high into the hills to enjoy some great views of the prairie country spread out before you to the east. Following US Highway 191 north from the Zortman road, you'll be traversing the former Circle C Ranch range, one of the first big cattle operations in these parts. The same area was also a segment of the trail of the legendary 'Long-Drives' of longhorn cattle up 1,800 miles from Texas to winter in Montana. With the passing of the bison, the land became cattle country and still is today.

Visitors to this eastern Montana town can enjoy the nearby Little Rocky Mountains and the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge. Together with the surrounding C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the UL Bend is the only place in Montana where elk still occupy their native prairie year-round. Other inhabitants are deer, big horn sheep, mountain lions, black bears,pronghorn antelope, birds and small animals. Consult weather conditions before traveling from Zortman to the refuge.

Zortman is located in northeastern Montana, southwest of Malta off US Highway 191.
"These Headlines of the Day were:
                 
                  "Gold in the Little Rockies!"   
                  "Rich Strike in Alder Gulch!"
                  "Nuggets as Big as Your Fist!"

Were shouted from every newspaper in Montana and beyond the state.  The word spread rapidly up and down  up and down the muddy Missouri, to the camps of Maiden, Gilt Edge, Fort Benton, Helena, Great Falls and Butte. It was on July 3, 1884 that gold was found in the sluice boxes . 120 years  ago the buzz words were mining district, sluice box, mills, ore grade and stakes.  The sound 'bites have changed but they are just as exciting..

The history of Zortman, Landusky and the mountains that surround them begins, geographically, millions of years ago, when magma bubbled up through the earth and cooled into the peaks that make up the Little Rockies, and the rest of Montana’s island mountain ranges, trapping inside deposits of certain minerals that humans would eventually decide were precious

As people moved into the southern Little Rockies and converted the mountains into a labyrinthine search for weath, they formed two new towns, Zortman and Landusky.

According to Wayne Jepson, a Department of Environmental Quality hydrologist, the underground mining operations that first burrowed into the earth in the 1890s started to die out in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the development of a new technology, cyanide heap leach mining, in the late 1960s that interest in Zortman Landusky was reignited.

The cyanide heap leach process starts with blasting sections of a mountain into rubble. This rubble is then placed in a leach pad where it is soaked in a solution of cyanide, a highly toxic compound of carbon and nitrogen, that would sap the gold particles out of the rubble. The cyanide solution was then sucked from the pad and taken to a processing plant where the gold was taken out at high purity. Then the solution was sent back to the pads for more gold.

In 1979 Pegasus Gold filed an Environmental Impact Report with DEQ proposing to place these new leach pads on top of the old holy mountain.
As the project was approved, Zortman Landusky became one of dozens of similarly styled mines popping up all over Montana after a spike in gold prices in 1980, though none would ever match the sheer size what would eventually become Zortman Landusky’s nearly 1,200 acres of pad space.

Through the ‘80s and early ‘90s Pegasus constructed more than a dozen pads named for their year of construction in the Zortman Landusky area. The biggest were the 87 and 91 leach pads, covering about 250 acres of the now bald Gold Bug Mountain, or Spirit Mountain.

For a few years, everything seemed to be working out great. Millions of dollars in gold were coming off the mountain. Some of those dollars were even making their way into the pockets of hundreds of employees coming to the mine from Lewistown, Havre and Malta. But as the mid-90s neared, Pegasus made the first few faltering steps toward failure.


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Chris Keyes is supposed to have found signs of paying placers somewhere in the Little Rockies region in 1864, but he was killed before his partner could join him. Twenty years later on July 3rd, 1884, Frank Aldridge found gold in his sluice box on Alder Creek. It was averaging over $0.12 per pan. “Dutch” Lewis Meyers and Pike Landusky were there and before a week had passed a new gold rush stampede had started and within a month a mining district had been formed. It is thought that as many as 2,000 men may have been involved. The area lay within the major Indian Territory for the northern tribes, and federal troops were sent to investigate the placer activity and keep order at the peak of the rush. A mere two months would pass before a bustling, rowdy, lawless mining camp with tent saloons, dugouts, hastily constructed log cabins, and a dance hall and grocery store sprang from nowhere. This first “strike” did not pan out and soon thereafter only a handful of prospectors remained. It took another 10 years before Pike Landusky, for whom the Landusky town and mine were named, would strike it rich on the August claim on the Landusky side of the mountain in 1893. Pete Zortman, for whom the Zortman town and mine were names, came into the picture shortly thereafter. He and his partner constructed a mill on Ruby Gulch in 1904. This mill had a 120-ton per day capacity and was further enlarged in 1907 to 300 tons per day capacity. Fire destroyed it in 1912 and it was replaced with a 600-ton mill in 1914. World War I idled the mine in 1918. It reopened in 1922 and was plagued with problems. In 1923, a fire destroyed the second mill, forcing the mine to closed until the early 1930’s. Still a third mill was constructed with the remnants still standing today on the north side of the Zortman 89 Leach Pad. All three mills used cyanide leach tanks to extract the gold. A third disastrous fire swept through in 1936, closing the Ruby Gulch and Little Ben mines. The mines restarted and continued sporadically until 1942, when the World War II’s war production boards order L-208 caused the mines to close again. Another attempt at starting in 1946 failed and in 1954 all the property was sold in a sheriff’s sale for $60,000. The low-grade ore associated with Zortman and Landusky lie buried deep in the earth for another 40 years from the mid-1930’s, waiting for the next generation of prospectors. In 1977 a group formed Pegasus Exploration. They drilled 400 test holes on both sides of the mountain with samples taken every 10 feet. Following an Environmental Impact Statement by the Montana Department of State Lands, mining was allowed to start, once again, in 1979 as the modern day Zortman and Landusky Mines were approved. Was there a silver lining or golden parachute for those early pioneers? Not hardly, the two key figures in the early development of the area did not die wealthy or famous. Pete Zortman died penniless at the age of 65, having been a county charge for three and half months prior to his death and was buried in the paupers corner of the county cemetery.

Kid (Harvey) Curry made a name for himself as an outlaw in Eastern Montana at the turn of the 20th century, both as a killer and a bank robber.  Much of his outlaw career was spent in the area of modern day Landusky and Zortman, although he moved in and out of the state.

Pike Landusky met his death in 1894, when he was shot in a bar fight by Kid Curry during one of his frequent visits to the Landusky town saloon with his gang (the “Wild Bunch” and The Sundance Kid.)

In 1894, the Kid killed Powell Landusky, namesake of the community of Landusky, Montana, and a man known as a rough and tumble character.
In 1901, Curry killed James Winters. Winters' grave is now on private ranchland.  Both graves are in the Zortman / Landusky area.
This photograph is of a hideout the Curry brothers used, tucked away in a "hidden" depression just off of present-day highway 191.
Gold Deposits at the Zortman-Landusky Mine


Gold is one of the most economically important metals produced. As of 1991, more than 83% of gold consumption went into jewelrertiary, igneous activity domed the Little Rocky Mountains and formed the laccolithic intrusion, dikes and sills where gold-silver mineralization occurred. The gold is found in small quartz veins that are concentrated in large fissure zones of shattered and altered rock. Some low-grade gold is also present in auriferous pyrite disseminated locally in the syenite and other intrusive rocks. In a few areas gold occurs in higher-grade replacement deposits in limestone.

Exploration and Development History of Gold Mining at the Zortman-Landusky Mine
Gold Bug Pit (Pictured Above).

Gold was first discovered near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in the Little Rocky Mountains in the late 1880's by prospectors from the Black Hills. Only minor placer gold were exploited, although the source lodes were soon found and mining commenced shortly thereafter, first in the Landusky area and then at Zortman. Development of the vein deposits accelerated in the early 1900's with the dawn of cyanide processing, and continued into the 1920's when the operation became marginal, with sporadic working until 1959. More recently a number of the major companies have explored in the area. Pegasus Explorations Ltd commenced development of the shallow, low grade stock work mineralization in 1979.

Cyanide heap leach gold mining began in 1980 with 1.18 mt of ore being mined to produce 1.06 t Au and 1.65 t Ag. By 1985 the annual mining rate was 4.85 mt of ore, yielding 1.88 t Au and 4.90 t Ag. In 1994 13.46 mt of ore were treated to produce 3.35 t Au at a cost of $US 9.75/g Au [$US 303/oz].

In the late 1800's, the Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine opposed the "sale of the mountains," which was advocated by federal commissioners who were assigned to negotiate the sale of the gold-mining country in 1896. By advising the impoverished Indians that they would starve in two years if they did not make an agreement with the government, the commissioners convinced tribal representatives to sell a strip of land, seven miles long and four miles wide, for $360,000. Pegasus Gold Company now mines this site, with heavy opposition from some tribal members. The opposition is compounded by the current reality of contaminated land and water and the accompanying health risks to the reservation people.

This page was last updated: February 7, 2018