Historical Note - Week of January 31st

How legends are born, includes some falsehoods, but the sentiment is genuine:

Choteau Acantha, February 1, 1940

Cooke City, Almost Completely Isolated From Outside World Until Five Years Ago, Has Had Varied and Colorful History

Frequented by Hostile Indians for Years After Alder Gulch and Last chance Gold Discoveries, Region Near Yellowstone park’s Northeast Corner Resisted Invasion of Prospectors and Settlers Until 1882; “Million Dollars” Was Asking Price for Any Mining Claim in the District

By ELNO

Fifty-seven years ago the curtain rose upon a mining camp stage for the enactment of a many-sided human drama. Hope, struggle, despair, chicanery and self-immolation were depicted during more than half a century in which the world moved on toward its destiny. Few but the players themselves were present to witness the performance.

Until the past five years, isolation was almost complete. Only for a few brief months of summer were indifferent roads open, and even they were mere trails scratched out along water courses in the mountains. With railroads and civilization less than 60 miles away, the isolation was as complete as it ever was in Bannack and Virginia City when Salt Lake City and Corinne were railheads for the first miners.

The stage was Cooke City.

And J.P. Allen is the last of the original players.

With the death of Peter Branser in November, 1939, “Jack” Allen is left as the only living man who can speak with the authority of personal contact with the whole play.

The curtain rose in 1882, when the Crow Indian reservation boundaries were removed eastward from the northeast corner of Yellowstone park, throwing the Cooke area open to settlement and prospecting.

Venturesome prospectors had spent several years setting the stage, it is true, but it was in 1882 that the curtain rose for the life-long drama that is now being ended.

George Huston was apparently more of an adventurer and explorer than a miner. Among the vanguard into Virginia City, he started out in 1864 to find out what was in the mountains to the east. Traversing a part of what is now Yellowstone park, with Peter Moore and others, he visited the Cooke region and found traces of minerals.

Indians were Obstacle

The upper Clark’s Fork valley was frequented by Indians, and they were hostile. White men found the going tough in that country. After the Huston expedition but few ventured into the Cooke country until 1870, when Horn Miller, Ed Hibbard and Bart Henderson went that way and found float ore on upper Soda Butte creek, now in Yellowstone park. Indian dangers forced them to leave. But the next year others came, and they found other mineral leads. News of their discoveries traveled fast, and the next year still others came, but the Indians had the advantage of the vested authority of the Indian administration. Deposits considered valuable were left in their virgin state until such time as the country might be opened to settlement.

In 1882, when the boundaries of the Crow reservation were moved to leave Henderson mountain and the upper Clark’s Fork valley in the public domain, men by the hundreds flocked in.

Those surreptitious adventurers who had braved Indian dangers and the displeasure of the Indian administration had previously blocked out a number of claims, including the Great Republic group. In 1882 Maj. George O. Eaton, surveyor general for Montana, bought the Great Republic group and formed the mining company of that name. With his associates he spent around $300,000 in development work and in the construction of a smelter.

Transportation was the great problem. The nearest railroad was at the new town of Livingston, almost 125 miles away over mountain trails. Supplies coming in and ore going out made even the richest of ores only dross, so far as profit was concerned.

Jay Cooke Jr., son of the financial backer of the Northern Pacific shortly before, became interested in the Cooke area even before the Crow reservation was moved, and the camp was named for him.

After 1882 there was little activity until 1885, when the Great Republic smelter ran for 100 days. Some 440 tons of silver-lead bullion was sold for $95,000, but the cost of coke and transportation destroyed all profits.

After 1886 a number of attempts were made to infuse new activity into the camp, and more than 100,000 tons of ore were put on mine dumps over the years. Some of the ores were good under average conditions, but isolation rendered them worthless.

For 40 years there were periodic attempts to get a railroad into Cooke; for with rails, believed claim owners and speculators, Cooke would become a bonanza. Bills were frequently introduced in congress to secure a railroad right-of-way through Yellowstone park, or to remove from the park the area north of the Lamar river and east of the Yellowstone. Could this area be returned to the public domain there might be other bonanza opportunities in a now forbidden land.

One of the few comedies connected with the Cooke story occurred in 1885, when a bill was in congress to remove the area in question from the park. Speculators at Gardiner and Livingston were watching the legislation. One day a telegram came to Livingston that the bill had passed the house. The recipient of the wire became flustered and thought it had become law. He passed the information to associates in Gardiner, giving the signal for an intendedly quiet safari in late winter into the Soda butte region to stake mining claims.

Outsiders found out something was happening, and set a watch upon the movements of certain individuals. When the “insiders” greeted daylight on Soda butte after a hurried night ride, they found the camp followers were numerous, and coveted claims were snapped up before the original clicque could get their stakes down.

Then came the sad news that it was all a mistake.

Meantime, many of the 1882 pioneers settled down on their Cooke claims to await the “million dollar” deals that were to come pretty soon. Despite isolation which destroyed questionable values, they were sure that a miracle would come to pass and release to them the wealth to which they claimed title.

Some of Them Stayed

Within recent years old men have died who spent their mature lives on the slopes of Henderson mountain or in other parts of the mountains around Cooke. Mostly, they eked out a precarious existence. Occasionally one or more of them would decide that a coin in the pocket was worth more than gold in the mountain. They sold their claims for what might be offered, and found better living elsewhere. But not all of them.

Fresh in the minds of Park county people is the memory of one old couple who wasted their lives waiting for that “million dollar” sale of their claim. They were at various times offered as much as $50,000 by someone who wanted to take a flier in mining But—

“No sir! This mine is worth a million dollars. Why! Just look at that ore; see the gold running through it. We’re going to have a million dollars out of this claim.”

The couple, foreigners, had gone to the Horr-Aldridge coal and coke properties north of Gardiner. They were not in the 1882 vanguard, but several years later they took their stake of $1,200, bought a claim at Cooke and settled down to develop their fortune.

The man grew old before his time. He kept drilling away at a tunnel. A man-sized tunnel meant a lot of work. A small tunnel would move forward faster and reveal quicker the mother lode he was sure was there. The years went by and the stooping in his rathole tunnel bent his body until he was hopelessly deformed. In this condition he kept pecking away at the face of his tunnel.

County charges in their last years, the old man died one day, and it was not long until his wife was taken to the state hospital, a veil of mercy enshrouding her memory in her last days.

This is, of course, an extreme case. But it emphasizes the poker instinct which makes mining me certain that the next stroke of the ick will find the lode.

Remained in Hills 27 Years

William Nichols went to Cooke in 1882 with all the other young hopefuls. He was called to Livingston in November, 1917, as witness in a case in district court. It was the first time he had been away from Cooke in 27 years. Is was the first time he had ever seen motion pictures or a roller skating rink.

Many of these people were for years grubstaked by Livingston and Gardiner business men who had small interests at Cooke or merely liked and felt sorry for the individuals.

Jack Allen and the late Nels E. Soderholm were the two 1882 pioneers who followed the theory of men in many a camp that he who served the miners would profit more.

Soderholm operated a grocery and general store at Cooke for most of his life there. His widow still runs the store, serving today a large tourist clientele as well as the new crop of miners who are going at the Cooke deposits today with modern technique and better transportation facilities.

Allen operated a hotel for so many years that he has to stop and think just when he entered the business. Never a very big business, it catered to the occasional visitors from the outside and the intrepid summer tourist who wanted to bury himself far in the mountains for his vacation. Allen is well into his eighties, and is spending this winter in Livingston. In addition to his hostelry he traded in mining claims and turned his efforts to anything else that offered a profit.

Pete Branser, who recently closed a life of 90 years, was the only one of the sit-tight crowd who finally “cashed in” on his waiting. A few years ago he had an offer of around $35,000 for his properties from capitalists who wanted to try out the Cooke ores with modern ore-treatment methods. He was holding out for a million, which seemed to be the standard asking price for Cooke properties.

A friend learned of the offer and told Pete:

“Look here: They’ve offered you $35,500 for those claims. You’ve been up there about 50 years, living from hand to mouth. You’re not young any more, and you’re not losing any years. You take that offer! Slat away most of it, and it will keep you for the rest of your days. Then take what’s left and have a good time for once.”

Pete was obdurate. He was going to have a million out of that property. After some persuasion, however, he agreed to think it over.

“Well, I sold out,” he told his friend when they met again. He enjoyed a few carefree years before he died.

Virtually the whole speculative world has at one time or another heard of Cooke city, Mont. Over the years men whose business it was to mine the gullible public sold Cooke stocks and securities to any and all takers throughout the world.

Since good roads and motor trucks have shortened distances, Cooke has made a double comeback in the public eye. It is situated in one of the finest scenic regions in the world, and thousands of pleasure seekers pass that way each summer. Modern mining methods are transforming Cooke values into profits as they discover the peculiar requirements for treating.

Another Railroad Boom

Some 25 years ago a group of promoters launched another Cooke railroad boom. The late O.M. Harvey, Livingston attorney, was asked to sit in with the crowd at a booster session. Called upon to discuss the proposition, Harvey grinned in his peculiar way and said:

“When they get a railroad to Cooke and mining takes a boom, I’m going to move my law office up there. For when things really begin to move at Cooke it will take a dozen lawyers a long time to settle boundary disputes and to quiet claim titles.”

Good roads, easy transportation and a new interest in mining has brought about that exact situation in more than a mild degree.

And those interested in Cooke still insist that the New World Mining district is going to be heard from in a big way.


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Cooke City Montana Museum

206 W. Main Street

P.O. Box 1134

Cooke City, MT 59020

Museum Director: Kelly Hartman

Telephone : 406-838-2203 

Email : cookecitymontanamuseum@gmail.com