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Harmon’s Histories: Gold strike on Cedar Creek shaped early Missoula

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Much of the early history of Missoula is reflected in the name of its first newspaper: Missoula & Cedar Creek Pioneer. Gold was discovered on Cedar Creek (near modern-day Superior) in the late 1860s. 

T. Tinter, an early prospector who filed “Claim No. 8” on December 3, 1869, wrote to a friend describing the gold being “as fine in quality as any on Montana Territory.”

He added, “This camp is making Helena tremble in her boots. It is believed to be the richest camp ever struck in this country.”

The Pioneer agreed, predicting it would become “the largest, richest and most remunerative gold field in the Territory.”  The miners, it said, would “reap a golden remuneration.”

Many of the men spent their winter off-time and their gold dust in Missoula’s hotels, bars and restaurants, contributing greatly to its economic base.

Others chose to remain at either Cedar Junction or Louiseville, a couple of the towns that sprouted up near the mines.

As you might expect, a few of those miners spent too much of their idle time in the local bars. Trouble was bound to follow.

Dave Lyons was a prospector and miner who had lived in Diamond City and Fort Benton before arriving in Louiseville in the fall of 1870. He quickly built a reputation as a gambler and a drunk.

Late on an October night, Lyons stumbled into Aaron Ross on the streets of Louiseville and tried to borrow $5 “to go down the street to play poker.” Ross declined, assessing him to be “too drunk to play” and worried if Lyons got into a game, the other players would rob him.

Ross continued down the street as Lyons hit up another man, a storekeeper, for a gambling stake. Ross turned and again told Lyons: “Dave, you are too drunk to play and if you do play, get your back to the wall.”

Ross then headed home to bed.

Just after midnight, a man named Humphrey Healy observed Lyons running down the street looking over his shoulder as if he thought someone was pursuing him. Moments later, he heard Lyons yelling, “Turn loose you sons of bitches – I want to die anyway.” 

Then he heard a shot, followed by a second voice yelling, “Murder! Help!” That was followed by the sounds of rocks rolling down the hill like someone was climbing the mountainside.

Ross, awakened by the yelling and the gunshot, recognized the second voice as that of Dick Moore, a well-known and well-liked Irishman who served as night watchman at Louiseville.

Moore had been hit with a blast from a double-barreled shotgun that “riddled (him) from the abdomen to the breast.” He died a short time later.

Lyons was promptly arrested, but grabbed a pistol from one of his guards and “deranged from dissipation … shot himself through the left breast,” dying 36 hours later.

Justice of the Peace Chauncey Barbour conducted the inquest.

Ross testified he and Healy found Lyons on the hillside and took him to his cabin while another man left to find the deputy sheriff. 

They tried to put Lyons to bed, but he “struck at the shadow on the wall,” yelling “he would not let any damn Yankee son of a bitch take $50 from him and put him out of the house,” and other incoherent statements.

When Healy told him he had killed Dick Moore he said, “My God, did I kill him in shooting down the street?” 

Apparently so. 

Thomas Sheehy was there that night.  He told the court as he and another man walked up the street, “Lyons heard us coming up. He called to us to stop or he would shoot. I jumped into the alley, heard a shot, came out and found Moore shot.”

With both assailant and victim dead, the case was closed in what unfortunately had become a familiar scene in the mining camps in Territorial Montana.

Over the coming years, the mines at Cedar Creek played out – they never did rival Last Chance Gulch. But they did contribute greatly to the economic growth of Missoula.

Justice of the Peace Chauncey Barbour went on to become the publisher of the Missoulian newspaper from 1875 to 1879.

With the passage of time, Montana Territory and its gold towns became much more civilized.

In its 1874 Christmas edition, the publisher of the Helena Weekly Herald cited the likely cause of that civilizing effect: “None of the dissipations so noticeable in the early days of Helena, when the restraining and elevating influences of women were unknown, were seen (this year), yet it is more probable that a higher state of enjoyment was reached now than in those early days.”

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.