Historical Post - Week of September 27th

This past week I attended the Montana History Conference in Bozeman. These conferences are always a wonderful way for fellow historians and museum professionals to gather together to trade ideas, make connections, and understand the rich history of Montana. It helps us to connect our communities to the larger story. This year I was fortunate enough to get the chance to present a talk; “What’s in a Name?: Understanding the “Shoo Fly” Myth.” In this short presentation I was able to discuss the history behind the naming of Cooke City, putting emphasis on our associations with the Cooke Family, and hopefully debunked the legend that we once held the name of “Shoo Fly.” This presentation was audio recorded and when the Historical Society uploads it, I will share a link to the talk with all of you! This weekend has inspired me to push harder in defining our unique history, to find new ways to present this history to the public, and most of all to appreciate the impact this history has had on all of us who find life and play in between the mountains.

- Director, Kelly Hartman

Choteau Acantha, October 3, 1940

Dreams of Jimmy McGinnis Came True the Day He Died

By JACK THOMPSON

Success—then, death!

These words write the story of a Montana prospector, Jimmy McGinnis.

Jimmy followed the rainbow trail of the rich prospect that always was over the hill and, when he at last came upon it, when he took the heavy-wealth-promising ore in his enfeebled hands, when his tired eyes knew that at last he had found that which he had spent his life seeking, his worn body and sick heart at last knew joy. Fate had given him, in the moment before he died, fulfillment of the ambition of his life.

It is our hope that Jimmy McGinnis died happy. At least, he had the knowledge that, after a lifetime of struggling, he had won his victory and somehow, to many prospectors, proving they were right, often means more than finding the gold. Discovery and proof are the things—wealth is incidental.

But, let Dick Strackan of Deer Lodge tell the story.

McGinnis Fine Man

Dick and his brother, Tommy, live together in a small house that overlooks the once-prosperous mining camp of Washoe, Mont. They will tell you exciting tales of gold and oil and fortunes made and lost. Dick and Tommy represent a hardy, carefree class of men; the pioneers of mining who spent their lives in the search for riches, many times found them.

“McGinnis was the finest man ever in the mountains,” Dick continued. “He was a six-footer in his bare feet and an easy man to get along with. His only trouble was that he drank too much whiskey, like myself.”

Dick has reason to remember McGinnis; he was the principal character in one of the most stirring dramas of Dick’s dramatic life.

McGinnis was a prospector. For 30 years he worked on Horseshoe mountain south of Cooke City, searching for gold. Buried somewhere in that mountain was a fortune and McGinnis knew it; but he had never been able to make the strike. He had dug over 1,100 feet of tunnel pockmarked his claim with prospect holes.

McGinnis wondered now if those laborious years had been spent in vain. He was in ill health, near death, and his discovery seemed as remote as ever.

He must have someone to work his claims. Dick Strackan was the man. McGinnis, weak and despairing, rode the long treacherous miles into Cooke City and found his man. The two struck out for the claim, McGinnis hunched painfully in his saddle.

Grizzly Stampede

Halfway up the trail a grizzly stampeded their pack train. McGinnis, unable to control his horse was almost killed in the runaway. Dick spent several hours rounding up the horses, comforting the ailing miner. The remainder of the journey was tortuous for McGinnis, now suffering even greater pain.

At the camp, Dick began work immediately; McGinnis lay in the tent waiting hopefully for the strike. All Dick’s life had been spent in the hunt for ore. He had prospected in Alder gulch and in most of the mining areas of Montana. His skill didn’t fail him now. He struck gold, one of the most promising veins he had ever seen.

He stepped out of the tunnel into the sunlight and examined the specimen of ore. Then he fired a shot to let the stricken miner know of this success and went back into the mine to follow up his lead.

It was several hours before Dick returned to the tent with the news of his discovery. McGinnis was waiting anxiously. He had heard the shot and feared that his partner had met trouble.

“What the hell was the shootin’ for?” McGinnis’ face was pinched with anxiety.

Sees Ore

Dick smiled. “McGinnis, I think I can cheer you,” he said, and placed the rich sample in the old miner’s hand.

McGinnis’ face was alive with excitement as he ran his trembling fingers over the ore. Here it was! The strike that had been the object of his life’s work. He staggered to his feet, breathless with anxiety.

“You’ve struck it Dick! You’re the best miner of them all!”

McGinnis couldn’t rest until he had seen the lead and Dick led him reluctantly to the tunnel. He stood there for a long time, studying the vein.

“It looks pretty,” he said with a touch of sadness in his voice.

That night McGinnis died. Dick still remembers his last words. “I am a millionaire, Dick, but I have to leave it. I hope they treat you right.”

Buries Body

It was 12 miles to the nearest habitation. Dick must have help. He dug a grave in the ice of a glacial formation near the camp, lifted the miner’s body onto his horse and took it to the icy tomb. Covered with the snow, the body would be protected from the blistering summer heat.

Dick struck out for Cooke City.

Four days later he returned with two men from Cooke named Henderson and Van Dyke and Danny Ross from the Daisy mine. They uncovered the miner’s body, tied it to a saddle and began the difficult trek back to the Guggenheim ranch.

No, Dick will never forget that phrase of his career. The mine fell into the hands of a large mining company and, as Dick puts it, “He was a fine man, McGinnis. He had the hardships, someone else got the plum.”


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