It takes a long time for a town to give up the ghost. Take Bannack, for example: established in 1862, Montana's first mining town had run out of gold by the 1880s, and yet the town clung on. Determined, hard-headed prospectors kept the town alive even after it became a state park in the 1950s. The last residents left Bannack in the 1970s.
Or look at Virginia City: Prospectors discovered the Alder Gulch gold field-one of the richest placer gold deposits in history-in 1863. By 1875 the town was little more than a shell. But, as the children's song says, the cat came back. Steam dredges gave the town some life from the 1890s to 1937. The town was virtually dead by the 1940s and '50s when the Bovey's started buying up property and importing ramshackle huts, then, with a flourish, the town reinvented itself as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
Bannack lives through the floods of people that visit it each year. Virginia City lives because it replaced mining with a new economy and industry: tourism. A few towns lack much in the way of economy or industry, but still refuse to die: Marysville, Rimini, and Pony are all ghost towns with non-ghostly inhabitants. The few residents live comfortably amid a profusion of abandoned and historic buildings. Montana is chock full of ghost towns, some with modifiers-living ghost towns, working ghost towns, preserved ghost towns-and some that need no other description. A school house, grave yard and only a few dilapidated husks of homes mark the site of Farlin, a mining town that once prospered in the Pioneer Mountains. Only badgers and ground squirrels tunnel around the sprawling ruins of Comet, once the second largest mining operation in Montana. In Granite, on the crest of a hill so hard they couldn't dig holes to bury their dead, only the gaping maws of shallow foundations mark the place where three thousand people once worked, lived, played, and prayed.
The ghost towns of Montana are stark memorials to the state’s boom and bust cycles, but even the deadest of towns still bear the promise of those same booms and busts. Abandoned once before, the town of Coolidge was erected in 1914 with the recovering silver prices. As its counterparts, Coolidge slowly gave up its ghosts and sits today an unkempt and scattered collection of decaying structures waiting for a venturesome soul to happen upon its skeleton, bringing the town whirring back to life — for that is the nature of the Boom and Bust.
What's Happening in Southwest Montana?
***The summer months are always busy in Southwest Montana, don't miss these great events throughout August***
Virginia City Art Show - Virginia City, MT | August 7-9
20th Annual Madison Valley Arts Festival - Ennis, MT | August 8
4th Annual Lincolnstock - Lincoln, MT | August 8-9
Madison County Fair & Rodeo - Twin Bridges, MT | August 12-16
Tri County Fair - Deer Lodge, MT | August 12-16 An Ri
Rah Montana Irish Festival - Butte, MT | August 14-16
Bike Helena Shuttle Fest - Helena, MT | August 14-16
The Grand Victorian Ball of Peace 1865 - Virginia City, MT | August 15
Brewers Festival - Helena, MT | August 15
Powell County Demolition Derby - Deer Lodge, MT | August 16
Haying with Horses - Grant Kohrs Ranch | ends August 20
Symphony Under the Silver Screen - Butte, MT |August 20
Aber Day Reunion Concert - Philipsburg, MT |August 22
Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo - Boulder, MT | August 27-30
Bozeman Trail Commemorative Chuckwagon Cook-off - Virginia City, MT | August 28-30
Boulder Car Show - Boulder, MT | August 29
Tizer Gardens - Jefferson City, MT | August
A Recipe for the Perfect Campfire
There is certainly no better time to write this blog than now, sitting among my family and friends enjoying the glowing embers, the quiet evening, and the nearly cloudless night sky. What makes the perfect campfire? someone asked. As with any question a variety of opinions quickly cropped up, but I-being one of the most vocal in the group-think I have come up with the recipe for a perfect campfire. A tall order to fill, my sister quickly pointed out, but I have heard little in terms of disagreement.
As with most camping trips, the day will start shortly after the sun rises, a multitude of possibilities for how to spend the coming hours lie before you. Will you be hiking? Spending the day on the water? Enjoying a picnic? A scenic drive? A short trip into a neighboring town? Fishing? Reading a book that has been on your list for longer than you would care to admit? Or simply spending time with those around you? Any way you spin it, the perfect campfire starts with a day filled with relaxing activity that takes your mind off of the daily stressors you have put aside for the weekend.
The heat of the day is finally wearing off, maybe you are just about to make dinner or maybe you just finished a taste bud pleasing dish. The bugs are settling in, and it is time to reclaim your once pleasant campsite. As a child, I was taught that there are two easy options for setting up a fire, the "tent" and the "log cabin." The names give away more than they should, one of these layouts is very sturdy but a little harder to get burning; and, the other, though not a clear winner on stability will go up in flames in half the time. Once the logs are on fire, it is simply a matter of maintaining the flames-that is until you are ready to begin the cooking of one of the world's best desserts.
Next up is a variety of great conversations, games, memories, and of course the guitar is brought out for some of your favorite tunes. Nothing serves as a better bonding agent than the singing of off-key songs, at least that is how it works in our family. The best however, is yet to come. S'mores! S'mores are a delectable, culturally significant, camping icon. I would almost go as far to say that if you have not had a perfectly cooked s'more you have not lived, or at the very least, you have been missing out. Your stomachs are now officially filled to maximum capacity, and the sun has finally set. Many would argue that this collection offers the perfect combination and would qualify as a top notch campfire. Unfortunately, you would be wrong to stop here.
What would a campfire be without the telling of creatively devious tales that rest on the edge of plausibility, and leave you questioning your safety, sanity, and motives. From creatures that go bump in the night and Halloween style monsters to talking snowmen and friendly forest animals, there is no limit to the portal you may step through. I have found this to be increasingly true when you allow the youngsters of the group to take over the twisting plot. Once everyone has had a chance to give their two cents, silence takes over. Nothing left in the fire pit but embers, you realize that there is very little that could compete with this experience, the perfect campfire. Quietly you glance from the embers to the starry sky above and appreciate all that nature has to offer.
Southwest Montana has a wonderful selection of campgrounds to choose from, check out our campground finder to plan your perfect camping adventure today.
The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same: a History of Camping
With camping season in full swing, I thought I might write a piece about how camping has changed over the years. Turns out, it hasn't. Oh sure, superficially some things have changed, but overall, not much is different between camping today, and camping a hundred years ago. It is reassuring to know that in all the ways the world has improved, in all the ways the world has gotten worse, camping remains much the same as it has always been; dirty, complicated, inconvenient, uncomfortable, and worth every minute.
In 1883, Margie Cruikshank set off from her home in Minnesota to spend two weeks in Yellowstone National Park. While there, she discovered what any Montanan could have told her: August in Yellowstone means that the tourists are out in full force, and that most of the water features have dried up for the season. She also discovered that the Park was "beautiful enough for a poet's dream," but we already knew that too. Visitors to the park that season included President Chester A. Arthur and entourage, and Rufus Hatch, who was schmoozing not one, but two, groups of railroad officials and promoters, trying to drum up investments for his Yellowstone Improvement Company. At Norris Geyser Basin, Cruikshank described seventy people trying to fit into accommodations designed for eight. The modern visitor to the Park sympathizes. As anyone familiar with SouthWest Montana or the Yellowstone region know, rain is a seasonal thing, and August is not its season. The dust and heat Cruikshank described is more than familiar to anyone who has ever camped in the area, and given the conditions, it's not surprising to read that many of the smaller paintpots had dried up. Still, she wrote in ecstasy, "earth could no furnish another such beautiful sight," and she departed quite enamored with the Park.
Thirty years after Cruikshank, Dorothy Johnson was a teenager in Whitefish, Montana. Like any self-respecting Whitefish-ian, Johnson spent her summers in the mountains of western Montana, and, like any good camper, teenage Johnson seems to have tended toward enthusiastic ineptitude. Johnson recognized flexibility as key to camping. Who knows what might happen? The person in charge of the horse carrying the food might wander off, forcing you to survive a night and a day on nothing but bacon. Skinny dippers might suddenly appear in an uninhabited lake. Your sense of direction might not be nearly as good as you always said. Or you might chance upon a remote stream and a tiny beach covered in brown-gold butterflies that alight on you "wing-quivering, in such hordes that [you think you] too might fly."
The final contribution to our theme of "the more things change, the more camping stays the same" comes from Kathryn Stephen Wright who, in 1922, set off with her aunt and her friend on a road trip from Missoula to California. The journey had all the hallmarks of an ideal road trip. Meaning to start the last week of May, the trio didn't depart until June 2nd, because a sudden snowstorm had closed all of the roads out of Missoula. When they finally got ready to depart, they found they had twice as much stuff as room to put it. They compensated in part by spreading their bedding out on the back seat, and shoving odd ends of luggage wherever they could find room. Packing a car defies whatever sort of organizational method you may have started with. Later on, she describes spending an hour in the pouring rain on a muddy road outside of Dell, shoving sage brush under the tires to try and get traction. For all her talk of oil cans and pumping up tires by hand, Wright's trip seems like it could have taken place last week. In fact, the last camping trip I went on, I sat on an unrolled sleeping bag in the back seat, clutching a box of cooking utensils on my lap.
Honest descriptions of camping owe more to Pat McManus than to Ernest Hemmingway. Show me someone who claims to have had a camping trip where nothing went wrong, or no essential item was left at home, where the road was in perfect condition and there was no one else about, and I'll show you a person with a highly selective memory. Of course, campers need selective memories. We need to be able to recall the butterfly-and-beach moments so that we can brag to our friends, and we need to remember the stuck-in-the-mud moments so that when the time comes (usually no more than 40 or 50 year later) we can look back and laugh at how much fun we had.
Park to Park Memories
In honor of the coming centennial of the National Parks Service, SouthWest Montana bloggers Bert and Katya sat down to share some of their favorite memories of visiting Montana's National Parks. During the conversation, the same topics kept coming up. Below is an edited version of the conversation:On driving:
Nearly all of my memories from Yellowstone stem around a whirlwind day trip through the park. On a mission to see all of the sights and sounds, we wove our way through the park, stopping only for the most notable landmarks: the Painted Pots, the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, and of course Old Faithful. A picnic in the car, and the tales of my parents and grandmother's childhood visits to the park kept us entertained as we stared out the window. Bert:
We made it all the way from Two Medicine to Kiowa Junction (15 whole miles!) and the transmission on our van went out. So there we were. Sitting in the parking lot of the Kiowa store (Kiowa, in case you didn't know, consists entirely of the store and the parking lot). Luckily we also had a truck, two of our number hitched the van to the truck and headed toward Helena, to try and get the van fixed. How did we get back from Kiowa? I am not sure. We clearly made it back, but all I remember is sitting in the parking lot, waiting. We crammed into other vehicles and made the drive over Going-to-the-Sun. Because transmission or no transmission, a Glacier trip without Going-to-the-Sun is simply inconceivable.On hiking:
When you think about visiting a national park, one of the first things that may come to mind is hiking, it's the perfect way to stay active, spend time with the family, and continue to explore some of the "best kept secrets" in the parks. In 2005 (when my sister was 4 years old), our family, grandparents included, decided that during our annual trip to Glacier we would hike Dawson Pass starting from the Two Medicine campground. A 9 mile hike that would gain 2500 feet, and provide a spectacular view from the ridge of the Continental Divide looking into the valleys below. Although completing the Dawson Pass hike was a feat that will always be remembered, the preparation for the trip holds even more memories. Countless hikes up Mount Helena were mastered--actually, countless consecutive hikes up the mountain were mastered. According to our grandfather, we really needed to ensure that we were prepared for the elevation gain. The obvious course of action was to then hike the same mountain, the same trail twice.On escaping reality:
When I was in third grade, some relatives made a trip from Sweden, and wanted to spend time in Yellowstone. So one Friday my parents took me out of school around lunchtime (I told everyone I was going to the Grand Canyon, in retrospect, I'm not sure I made it clear that I was headed to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone). I remember a sky the color of granite and flurries of snow that melted on contact. I also remember realizing for the first time that we would take the same road to get to Virginia City as we did to get to Yellowstone. We made it to the campground with huge wet flakes falling around us. We went into the RV for a quick snack, and realized we couldn't go out again. A herd of bison and their calves had decided to take up residence in our campground. We brewed more hot chocolate, and whiled away the day watching the snow fall thickly on the hides of the bison. Katya:
Glacier lakes, carved out by the giant ice fields that gave the park its name, have a tendency to drop off quickly from the shore, making them the perfect place to dive in… that is as long as you can handle the cold temperatures! Swimming has always been a featured aspect of our trips, but the memories that I will keep forever are sitting on the shore with my grandpa learning to skip rocks. In those moments, nothing else mattered. The lake was still, the mountains stood as guardians, and nothing could break the serenity of the moment.
For the bloggers at SouthWest Montana, all parks stories are SouthWest Montana stories. All parks stories begin and end in SouthWest Montana. Whether we are preparing for our trips by hiking hometown hills, or desperately trying to salvage a trip with a quick 3 hour trip to a Helena mechanic, SouthWest Montana always features in our tales of adventure, in the parks and beyond.
Park to Park: 10 Things to See Along the Way
Glacier Park Lodge, East Glacier
One of the most popular road trips in the state is to drive from one National Park to the other, but this trek from Yellowstone to Glacier covers over 270 miles, leaving plenty of exploration between the two! Here are some suggestions for what to do on the original route from Park to Park!
So here we go, a trip from West Yellowstone to East Glacier:
1. Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center | West Yellowstone, MT
The Center is an AZA (American Zooliogical Association) accredited non-profit. It takes bears, wolves, and raptors that couldn't survive in the wild-either because they were orphaned, problems, injured, or bred in captivity-and gives them stimulating natural homes.
2. Norris Hot Springs | Norris, MT
Norris Hot Springs, or the self-proclaimed "water of the gods" is a geothermal feature located along the Madison River. Native Americans were known to use the springs for healing purposes before the time of the white settlers; then, in the 1860s, miners built the original pool. This is a great stop for a soak and an opportunity to take in the beautiful landscape, that some are lucky enough to call home.
3. Lewis & Clark Caverns | Whitehall, MT
The Lewis & Clark Caverns are Montana's first State Park and offers a beautiful campground, trailhead, discovery center, and of course tour of the caverns. The caverns have been shaped by the water in the area. Drop by drop the beautiful formations of stalagmites and stalactites have increased in size, number and majesty. This tour is roughly 2 miles long, and winds through an amazing natural formation.
4. Tizer Botanic Gardens & Arboretum | Jefferson City, MT
Set on 6 acres of land, Tizer Gardens offer an array of beautiful gardens to explore. While visiting, don't miss the Rose Garden, Wildflower Walk, Children's Garden, or the Secret Garden. This is the perfect place to pull off for a peaceful picnic lunch, stretch your legs, and appreciate all that nature has to offer.
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, Bynum Montana
5. Cathedral of St. Helena | Helena, MT
The ground for the Cathedral was purchased and donated by Thomas Cruse in 1905, construction started in 1908 and it was completed June of 1924. The architect, Mr. A. O. Von Herbulis, suggested a Gothic style for the building which was then approved by the Building Committee and Advisory Board. Today, the Cathedral is open for tours and will not fail to strike your hearts with awe.
6. Archie Bray Foundation | Helena, MT
This institute was founded in 1951, as an environment to stimulate creativity in ceramic arts. This institute is internationally renowned as a "gathering place for emerging and established ceramic artists." You are free to wander around the grounds, poke your head in several studios, participate in Helena's Geotour, and appreciate the wonderful history that surrounds you.
7. Gates of the Mountains | Helena, MT
The Gates of the Mountains boat tour is a Helena staple, offering insight to the history of the beautiful area. A collection of stories, pictographs, rock formations, disasters, and discovery mark the land. In 1805, the Corps of Discovery paddled their boats through the area, watching the rocky cliffs appear to open and close their way of passage. In his journal, Meriwether Lewis wrote "I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains."
8. Two Medicine Dinosaur Center | Bynum, MT
Museum of the Plains Indian, Browning Montana
This center was established in 1995, and since its conception has brought in over 5,000 visitors a year. TMDC is a nonprofit dedicated to providing a hands on educational experience to their visitors. In addition to their exhibits, the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center offers a unique opportunity to participate in an actual dinosaur dig, where you will learn field procedures, fossil recognition, excavation procedures, and area history.9. Museum of the Plains Indian | Browning, MT
As you enter into the land of the Blackfeet, you may be interested in learning more about the Native American culture and influence in the area. This museum highlights a variety of historic objects that were essential to the everyday lives of various Indian Tribes across the United States. Founded in 1941, this museum rich in history, artwork, and culture has helped to education many passing through the area.10. Glacier Park Lodge | East Glacier, MT
Nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Glacier Park Lodge has served as a natural stopping point for visitors since the opening of the park in 1910. This lodge was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1912 to satisfy the demand created by the travel. Located just miles outside of the entrance to the park, this beautiful building is the perfect place to make a quick stop for a bite to eat, a souvenir, a step back in time, a quick cup of coffee, or a nice resting place for the evening, before finishing your journey from Park to Park.
The Benton Road
The route from Yellowstone to Glacier meets all the requirements of a perfect road-trip road: it is well maintained, it's short enough to allow for plenty of stops along the way, the scenery is spectacular, and it is bookended by the best National Parks in the west. The route also follows one of the oldest and most important trails in Montana: the Benton Road.
By 1843, Fort Benton was, technically the most inland seaport in the world, because you could take a boat from Fort Benton all the way down the Missouri and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic. In the late 1850s, the army put Captain John Mullan, already an accomplished road-builder and explorer in the area, in charge of building a road between Fort Benton and Walla Walla, Washington. The Mullan Trail followed the Missouri from Fort Benton, through the Wolf Creek Canyon, and into the Helena valley before turning west to Missoula and beyond. Mullan had established this route in the early 1850s, but the construction of the Trail allowed him to survey and expand the road.
With the 1862 discovery of gold in Bannack, enterprising freighters realized the advantage of a road that linked Bannack to Fort Benton. So they made roads from the Helena Valley south to Bannack. The discovery of gold in Alder Gulch came quick on the heels of the Bannack discovery, and the "Benton Road" became established: branching south from the Mullan Trail in the Helena Valley, running south through the Boulder River Valley and into the Madison River Valley before turning west through Alder Gulch and into the Beaverhead Valley to Bannack. The Benton Road proved even more useful with the discovery of gold in Last Chance Gulch in 1864 since the road already went right through the Helena Valley. However, the road did not go into the Gulch itself-it was much too crowded for wagon teams-and it didn't follow the route of present-day Benton Avenue.
Beyond Helena, Highway 287 branches off from the Mullan Trail, following instead the much older "Old North Trail" that runs abreast of the Rocky Mountain Front and was used extensively by the Blackfeet and other Native tribes.
Bannack, Virginia City, and Helena were all capitals of Montana in their turn. They were also the sites of the three most important gold discoveries in Montana, and some of the largest placer gold deposits in the country. The Benton Road became a well-travelled thoroughfare-the backbone of the state. The road also linked Montana to the rest of the world. At its northern end, the road linked to the Missouri River. At its southern end, the road linked to a trail to branches of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and, in 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad. Trade goods and settlers streamed into Montana from both ends of the Benton Road.
As you drive from Yellowstone to Glacier, you follow the Benton Road-first on Highway 287, then Highway 69, then Interstate 15-all the way to Wolf Creek. As you drive, try to imagine the stage coaches, mule trains, and freight wagons that followed the same route: without asphalt or air conditioning, crossing and re-crossing Prickly Pear Creek; thousands of travelers and millions of dollars of gold wending their way through the heart of early Montana.
SouthWest Montana June Events
SouthWest Montana comes alive in the summer with festivals, events, and activities galore. Whether you prefer rodeos set against the stark backdrop of the Rocky Mountain front, or enchanted gardens on gurgling creeks, there sure to be something that will tickle your fancy this June.
Gears for Beer, Virginia City - The 2nd Annual Virginia City mountain bike poker ride starts at the Bale of Hay Saloon at 9:00 AM, and takes participants on 18 miles of poker playing mountain biking through scenic Alder Gulch.
Territorial Days, Deer Lodge - From the "Prison Break" fun run to the night-time live music, Deer Lodge's annual summer celebration features all sorts of vendors and activities.
Grand Victorian Ball, Virginia City
- Travel back to 1864 for a weekend celebration of the past. Attend a Victorian High Tea, classic melodrama, and the Ball itself, featuring fashion from 150 years ago. Oh, and don't miss the Bale of Hay's Brothel Days on Saturday and Sunday.
Brews, Blues and BBQ, Philipsburg -The name says it all, a day of beer, live blues, and bbq competition in Philipsburg, Montana.
Fairy and Wizard Festival, Tizer Gardens -On this whimsical day, Tizer Gardens comes alive with magic, fun for all ages, come dressed as your favorite fairy-tale creature, meet fairy godmothers and trolls, play in the garden and listen to stories.
American Legion Rodeo, Augusta - One of the largest one-day rodeos in Montana, the Augusta Rodeo has become a summer staple in Montana, one of the best rodeos in the state.
For even more events and activities, visit the SouthWest Montana events calendar.
Getting the Last of the Gold: Hydraulic Mining
Panning for gold in Bannack
The gold fields of Alder Gulch and Last Chance Gulch were two of the biggest placer gold deposits in the world. Placer deposits consist of loose particles of gold mixed into topsoil, sand, and gravel. Placer gold is near the surface. The easiest way to get placer gold is to wash loads of sand/gravel/etc., the heavy gold particles sink while the lighter dirt and rock and sand particles wash out with the water. This is the method used when panning for gold. As well as when you use a sluice or rocker. In Montana, miners started out by digging the topsoil and running it through sluices. Eventually, however, all of the easy gold had been found. Prospectors either left, or turned to stronger methods of excavation, like hydraulicking.
In hydraulicking, miners would blast hillsides with water, causing high-speed erosion, like a pressure washer. They would direct the slurry of water and dirt through huge sluices. The gold would sink to the bottom and the water and dirt (tailings) would usually get dumped into the nearest creek. Hydraulicking was much more efficient than digging and hauling, but it was really bad for the environment. It was, after all, high-speed mass erosion. Hydraulicking tore apart entire hills, stripping them of topsoil and vegetation. Hydraulicked land was not good for anything else. The tailings-the sand and gravel left over-were either just dumped, leaving giant piles of waste to mar the countryside, or were dumped into streams. That much sediment in the water caused the streams to change course, shift direction, or flood unpredictably. Hydraulicking in the mountains could bury valleys in unusable tailings. The farmers of the Sacramento Valley actually sued miners on the basis that hydraulicking was ruining their farms. In Montana, you can still see evidence of extensive hydraulicking around both Bannack and Virginia City, as well as many of the other mining ghost towns in SouthWest Montana.
Goose Bay Handblown Glass
Once you walk past the friendly yellow facade, you immediately get the urge to hold your breath and walk on tiptoes. The towering shelves and the delicate glass vessels that fill every surface make you aware of your own awkwardness in a way you haven’t been since middle school.
After you get over the initial feeling that you are going to break everything in sight (but not too over the feeling—you don’t want to get careless), you begin to look around. Amid the swirls of translucent color, you begin to make out individual pieces: goblets, vases, decanters, pitchers, plates, bowls, baubles, balls. Delicate ripples of pigment, fading to clear.
The glassware at goose Bay Handblown Glass is exquisite, but that’s not why you should visit their shop in Townsend. You should visit to watch art happen before your eyes. The back of the store (congratulations, you made it that far without knocking anything over!) opens into a workshop, and an assortment of mismatched chairs, including at least on church pew, cluster around the wide door into the workshop, where almost every weekday owners Jim and Terry Gunderson create art out of blown glass.
It starts with a molten glob, I like to think of it as lava, but it is probably crystal. Whichever Gunderson happens to be making glass at the moment puts a glob of crystal onto a long pipe and into a homemade 2,800 degree furnace. Once the crystal gets nice and hot, almost too bright to look at, they take it out of the furnace and roll it through grains of dyed glass—which gives the finished pieces their characteristic swirling colors. Then they begin to work it, sometimes blowing through the tube, sometimes using tools, sometimes using molds. The whole process, from start to finish, only takes ten minutes or so. Ten mesmerizing minutes in which a hunk of melted rock blossoms into a delicate dish, like the bud of a flower.
The Gundersons started Goose Bay Glass in 2002 when Jim Gunderson decided to retire form blacksmithing. They opened the store in Townsend in 2003, so that people could watch the glass blowing take place.