Elkhorn | Montana’s Smallest State Park

Montana’s smallest state park, Elkhorn Ghost Town State Park, park consists of two buildings set on less than 1 acre of land. Those two buildings, however, may be the most photographed buildings in the state. Quite a few old buildings on private land fill out the rest of the ghost town, a few have been refurbished and house the towns less-than-a-dozen permanent residents.

Elkhorn Ghost Town State Park
Elkhorn Ghost Town

Elkhorn History:

The silver veins of the Elkhorns were discovered by Swiss miner Peter Wys in 1868.  Following his death in 1872, Helena entrepreneur Anton M. Holter and his partners developed the Elkhorn Mine and soon a bustling town developed.  By 1888 the mine was the largest in the area.  It was producing $30,000 of ore monthly when it was sold to an English syndicate.  In 1889, the Northern Pacific railroad built rail from Boulder to Elkhorn.  The rail proved to be very useful as it provided passenger rail service, shipped ore to the East Helena smelter for processing, and delivered coal for use in mining operations which proved necessary because the timber resource surrounding the town was being depleted.

The town continued to flourish with an estimated 2,500 people living in Elkhorn into the 1890s. Elkhorn’s population consisted primarily of married miners with families which created a social dynamic vastly different from most mining camps in the region.  At one time, three school buildings were in use and the student population of Elkhorn reached 200 students.  Town services grew with the population beyond the typical company store, community church and saloon to include a post office, doctors office, newspaper office, livery stable, hotels and boarding houses. Residents could visit Hoffman’s Barbershop, the only place in Elkhorn one could bathe due to the water scarcity in the area, and indulge in purchasing the luxuries found in Ford’s Candy Store and Jewelry Shop.  Other craftsmen present during the town’s heyday include a butcher, shoemaker, and blacksmith.  Additionally, an estimated 500 woodsmen were cutting timber for the mines.  Along with the bustling human population, it is estimated that there were as many as 1,500 mules working in the mines during its heyday.  There were three passenger trains arriving to town weekly and the town was flourishing.

Elkhorn School
Elkhorn School

In 1893, the Fraternity Hall Association was established and built the Fraternity Hall still standing today.  It was regularly utilized as a gathering place for many social activities with the first floor primarily being used for dining and the second floor primarily being used for dancing.  Other uses included prize fighting (boxing), concerts, vaudeville performances, school programs, public meetings and basket socials.  Fraternity groups such as the Masons, Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias, and others used the space to hold meetings and events.

The Fraternity Hall represents a fascinating fusion of Greek Revival and gold camp architecture. Made entirely of wood, the hall features a neo-classical balcony and pillars, along with a false front common among western buildings.  Its architecture and high profile in newspaper and magazine articles made it become the symbol of the town.

Fraternity Hall in Elkhorn State Park
Fraternity Hall in Elkhorn Ghost Town

Less is known about the use of Gillian Hall, however, it was built during the early boom years of Elkhorn and was likely used as a store or a saloon with a dancing hall on its second floor.

The apparent end to the boom days of Elkhorn in 1892 is attributed to the drop in the price of silver and subsequently the Silver Panic of 1893.

The town’s population suffered through the diptheria epidemic during the years of 1884-1889.  Through temporary school closures and deaths the mine continued operating and the town persevered.  There is evidence of many children laid to rest at the Elkhorn Cemetery during the years of the diptheria outbreak.  The headstones of other notable figures of Elkhorn’s history, such as Peter Wys, can also be viewed at the Cemetery.

Headstone of Peter Wys
Peter Wys discovered silver veins in Elkhorn in 1868

By the turn of the century, 8,902,000 ounces of silver, 8,500 ounces of gold and 4,000,000 pounds of lead had been extracted from the mine.  The mines operated off and on into the 1900s except for an idol period of 1912-1916. The Northern Pacific Railroad removed its Elkhorn rail line in 1931 which signaled a symbolic end to the once booming town.  Some mining activity occurred until 1971.

Tips for Visiting:

Elkhorn State Park lies roughly 18 miles northeast of Boulder, Montana and can be accessed by passenger vehicle year round. When traveling from Boulder, the first half of the journey is on paved roads and the second half (about 9.2 miles) is on a maintained gravel road which crosses through private land and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. It is advised to check local weather conditions for winter travel and watch for ATVs and other OHVs on the road.

There are no services and little-to-no cell service in Elkhorn, so visitors are encouraged to plan accordingly.  As you arrive to Elkhorn, you will see a picnic area on the right of the road.  There is a pit toilet and picnic tables.  This is the only public restroom in the area.

Continuing on Elkhorn Road beyond the picnic area, you will find yourself in historic Elkhorn. The Elkhorn Cemetery lies approximately 1 mile beyond the Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall buildings.  Visitors will find this portion of dirt road less maintained and will pass by the Old Water Tower that has received recent historic preservation efforts.  The forested cemetery houses many older headstones (circa 1880s-1910s) and is a unique site to see if you are interested.

Sign pointing to Elkhorn Cemetery
Sign pointing to Elkhorn Cemetery

Much of Elkhorn is privately owned.  Visitors are asked to please respect the historical buildings, private property, and to refrain from smoking near the buildings as this area is highly susceptible to fire.

Other Things to do in the Area:

Elkhorn State Park is located just outside of Boulder, Montana. While you are in the area, we cannot recommend visiting Boulder Hot Springs and Tizer Gardens and Arboretum enough! In addition, the Elkhorn Mountains are popular for Mountain Biking and ATV / Off Highway Vehicles, as with much of Southwest Montana, it’s likely that you will find an opportunity for wildlife watching in the area.

Tizer Gardens
Tizer Gardens | Photo: Andy Austin