The history and travails of Sapphire Ridge

Judith Valley

Lewistown, Montana is nestled in Judith Valley in the shadows of The Judith Mountains. The majestic peaks help frame a canvas of an old boomtown that has refused to die, but sits listing like an old cruise ship sitting in an open range where all hope of prosperous saw mills and gold mines fade slowly.

The town was the site of the Gold Rush of 1882. Its crowned by Judith Peak — and if she could talk — she’d whisper tales of sorrow where dying dreams of hundreds of prospectors who’s wails echo in the wind that blows through the ridge where they struck out in search of gold.

Children in Lewistown during the Gold Rush.

The few children that were in town received a simple education, but spent most of their days playing in the prairies and wide open vistas while their fathers were in the fields or out prospecting the mines and ravines along an area called Gilt Edge.

Downtown Lewistown

Main Street Lewiston, Montana is the only place in town where you’ll see people out and about. Unbeknownst to outsiders, the street has a hidden feature — Spring Creek flows beneath it. Yep, during its heyday as one of the nation’s premiere boomtowns, the street was build over the creek as a convenient way to transport gold, ore and sapphire from the mines along Gilt Edge.

Largest home in Whiskey Gulch.

The Big House was built on the sweat and tears of a young man’s dreams. The house sat on a stretch of land called Whiskey Gulch and was considered the largest home in all of Fergus County and central Montana. The former brothel still draw drunken men from the ravines who want to drown their sorrows when dreams of striking it rich didn’t pan out. The house later became the home of a man who was ridiculed for many years and called crazy for his dreams of striking it rich with gold. But the hills that drape Judith Valley had more depth than the hundreds of prospectors rushing to town. The Great Northern Mining and Development Company at Gilt Edge was founded by W.E. Wilson — tell the story of how he won a fortune before blowing it all on a pipe dream that left town folk fuming for years. Not bad for a man who was run out of Nebraska by the plague of the grasshoppers in 1858.

“Limestone” Wilson

Meet W.E. “Limestone” Wilson: Born in Michigan, he grew up reading frontier stories and had dreams of heading west, slaughtering a few tribes and discovering a gold mine. Bent on chasing his dream, Wilson rode into town on tax day — April 15, 1882 without a dollar in his pocket. He nearly starved before reverting to Plan B — he got a job on the railroad, where he stayed until he raised enough money to prospect mines. After 10 years of ridicule and failed partnerships — Wilson laid the groundwork for proper mining development in the nation. He was a meticulous character who dug more than 2,000 feet of tunnel with his own hands. His efforts not only led to the discovery of a large body of ore — where he made his initial fortune — but he also stumbled upon a five mile trek of sapphire after all the gold prospects had dried up.

Alas, but a fool and his money is soon parted. Having been blinded by his success after a decade of ridicule, Wilson and his wife traveled across the nation looking for ideas and prospects to expand his little empire. Salesmen selling everything from snake oil to bridges to nowhere came a calling — knowing that Wilson was a dreamer who still clung to the visions of stories he read in those frontier novels he read as a child.

Now long before a young W.E. Limestone Wilson helped find the five-mile trail of sapphire, he had invested some of his fortune in one of the largest farms in the region. The farm was prosperous for a several years. And Limestone Wilson had hired the best workers in Lewistown to manage his investment while he and his wife travelled the land seeking more prospects. It seemed all was right with the world for Limestone, until his friends and weird partners started showing up.

Initially, town folk didn’t know what to make of the continuous flow of strangers coming to town from far off lands. But Limestone’s long fall from grace began to unravel when the Indian dancers rolled onto the range in Cadillacs in Judith Valley. The troupe had met Wilson and his wife in Gallup, New Mexico and concocted an idea of making Lewistown and Judith Valley the entertainment center of the Rocky Mountains. The promise of bright lights, a new landmark that would be perched outside City Hall and daily processions led by said iconic landmark was just too much for Limestone to decline. So he gave the okay and a date was set.

The Indian dancers and city mascot plan were the brainchild of one Nabon Eliz, who wasn’t native American at all. The struggling artist lacked creativity and was mocked and ridiculed across the region for lacking imagination in his sculptures — which he carved from images on US currency.

Sapphire was going to be the mascot for the town that boasted a motto: Home of the Big Springs and the purest drinking water in the world. Alas, Limestone Wilson was eventually forced out of town when his great plans fizzled to make Lewistown the entertainment capital of central Montana. Her cape was draped with the gems from her namesake. Towns people didn’t know what to make of it. School children could be heard shrieking in fear of the stuffed monstrosity that hovered atop.

A quick town meeting was called and Wilson and his merry troupe of Indian dancers and the hideous elephant atop the Caddy were banished from the valley.

Legend has it that Limestone moved to Florida after his doctor suggested he needed more sun. So he moved to Gibsonton and started a series of carnivals. The moral of this tale is simple: don’t allow the shine of gems to cloud your reality or you’ll surely fall from the slopes along the ridge of life.

*The photos and writing are a part of the Literary Carousel in conjunction with the 3rd Annual Sunlit Festival and are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla.