85-Year-Old Pioneer Has Spent More Than 55 Years in Cooke City, Saw Boom, Dead Times
“I am the last of the real pioneers of Cooke City,” says J.P. Allen, now in his 85th year. “I went to Cooke in 1882, soon after the country had been taken out of the Crow Indian reservation, and I have outlasted all others.”
Minerals had been found in the Cooke area, along the upper reaches of Soda Butte creek, which runs through Cooke, and over the divide on Clark’s Fork, as early as 1870.
In 1864, Peter Moore, George Huston and others visited the region as a part of the general exploration of the upper Yellowstone and its tributaries in search of gold. They found but little indication of minerals, probably due to their short stay. Indian danger was acute, and small parties of white men dared not linger long if they valued their scalps.
In 1870 James Gourley, Ed Hibbard, Horn Miller and Bart Henderson found float in Soda Butte creek. Indians forced them to leave the area, but they retuned again in 1871 and discovered other leads which promised high values. This time they remained until heavy snows forced them to return to Bozeman. News of their discoveries spread like wildfire. But it was to be more than 10 years before active mining should start.
The Crow reservation boundaries were moved in 1882, and in 1883 settlement began. However, 1882 saw an influx of prospectors who located claims. That year Maj. George O. Eaton, then surveyor general for Montana, bought a group of claims and formed the Great Republic Mining Co., which spent $300,000 in development and in construction of a smelter in the new town of Cooke. In 1883 more capital was attracted, and the foundation was laid for extensive exploration, development and—it was hoped—production.
The greatest need was for a railway, which never materialized. Lack of adequate transportation was to delay Cooke’s place in the sun of prosperity for a half century.
The camp was inactive from 1883 to 1885, when a run of 100 days was made at the Great Republic smelter, turning out 440 tons of silver-lead bullion which sold for $95,000.
Due to the cost of coke, plus 65 miles of wagon transportation from Gardiner over trail roads, the final cost left no profit to encourage further operation.
Since 1886 there have been various attempts at production, and many, many promotion schemes which resulted in another smelter at Cooke which saw but little activity, but which was the basis for mining the bank accounts of eastern investors. Through the years some 100,000 tons of ore accumulated on mine dumps in and near Cooke. Some of it was of relatively high value, but transportation costs made it worthless.
Only in the last five years, with improved highways and motor transportation, has Cooke again attracted attention as an active mining region. New methods of ore extraction, enabling exploitation of hitherto unworkable ground, has brought in capital and resulted in employment of considerable numbers of men during the summer season.
Scenic attraction, too, have brought tourists, an asset which Cooke has not been slow to capitalize.
J.P. Allen entered the camp in 1882 with the first vanguard of locators, secured some claims, worked them during the summer, spent a winter in the restaurant business in Livingston, and returned to Cooke to spend more than half a century, through boom times and dead.
“I was born in Chicago nearly 85 years ago,” says Mr. Allen. “While I was a boy my parents moved to Rhode Island. In 1876, during the gold boom in the Black Hills, I went to Deadwood, S.D., and remained there until 1881, when I went to Miles City. I remember four of us hired a team and wagon for the trip to Miles City for $100.
“When the Cooke stampede started in 1882 after the Indian reservation was moved, I went there ant took up some claims. There was no road from Mammoth Hot Springs; only horseback trails up the Yellowstone, the Lamar and Soda Butte creek. We did have Baronette’s bridge across the Yellowstone, saving a wet crossing.
“At Cooke we were completely isolated, except for horseback transportation for mail and supplies. I worked out my claims that summer, and in the fall I went to Livingston and ran a restaurant. Then in 1883 I went back and built my hotel in Cooke, starting its operation in 1884. I have run the hotel ever since, except that I had it leased two years ago while Mrs. Allen and I spent a year on the Pacific coast.
“I traded in mining claims, too, and put my profits in Cooke property. I remember in 1889 I needed a watch, so I traded a mine for one. Oh, yes, I got some ‘boot’ in the deal.
“In the two or three years up to 1886 or 1887 the hotel business was good from breakup in the spring to the first heavy snows in the fall, but there were lots of years since when we just stayed around with little to do, except get ready for the next winter.
“We had to get in a full winter’s supply of wood—mighty big stacks of it, too—and get in our groceries to last all winter.
“There was nothing to do all winter except feed the fire and wait for the mail. I was postmaster at Cooke during two different periods. Sometimes the mail came through from Gardiner on time, but often it was badly delayed by heavy snows. Once, for a time, the mail was carried from Columbus up the Stillwater and over the mountains to Cooke.
“But with plenty of groceries and lots of wood we were comfortable and happy—the little group of us who made our home in Cooke the year round.
“I have several houses in Cooke that are bringing me an income since the Red Lodge road was built and the road through Yellowstone park has been improved. Tourists make business good in all lines during the summer.
“This year, 1937, should be a good one for business, but I have to leave my hotel locked up, and with Mrs. Allen and I in Livingston it takes about all my houses bring to keep me going.”
Mrs. Allen, about 80 years of age, fell in her home at Cooke early in March, breaking a hip. After a tedious sled trip to Tower Junction in Yellowstone park, she was brought by motor to a Livingston hospital, where she spent six weeks before being moved to a private nursing home. Caring for her is a full-time job for Mr. Allen.
Though Cooke waited until his twilight years to pay dividends on half a century’s accumulation of property, Mr. Allen looks back through the past with much satisfaction.
“I’m the last of the Cooke pioneers,” he declares. “I went there in 1882, and nobody stayed as long as I have.”
The Cosmopolitan Hotel circa 1920s
The Helena Independent, March 18, 1893
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