youtubeAre you looking for somewhere to take the family RVing this summer that doesn’t include visitor centers, amusement parks, crowded campgrounds and traffic? How about enjoying a leisurely week exploring historic ghost towns and mining camps where you might not encounter another living soul, disperse camp in your RV along a babbling brook, rock hound for six-sided crystals, be stunned by nature's beauty as you traverse a scenic byway, maybe see a moose or two all while completing a loop around the majestic Pioneer Mountains of the Beaverhead National Forest in southwest Montana? In the day and age of social distancing this is a great option for young and old alike. 

The Loop - We will start our 70 mile plus loop tour in Wise River, Montana at the junction of Hwy 43 and the Wise River Polaris Road (FS 73) which is the north terminus of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. We will travel the loop south down the Wise River Polaris Road (FS 73) which as mentioned above, is part of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway passing by the turn offs to the ghost town of Coolidge and the upper mining camp of the Elkhorn Mine above Coolidge. The byway eventually becomes Polaris Road which terminates at Hwy 278. From the junction of Polaris Road and Hwy 278 we will head east past the entrance to the preserved ghost town of Bannack until Hwy 278 meets I-15 south of Dillon. Once on I-15 we will head north through Dillon (a good spot to resupply) past the turn off to the mining camp of Farlin to Melrose. At Melrose you will be taking a side trip up Trapper Creek to the ghost town of Glendale along with the mining camps of Lion City, Hecla and Trapper City. You may also want to visit the Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns and Vipond Mines from the Melrose side or choose to visit them from the Dewey side when visiting the ghost town of Quartz Hill. From Melrose, we will head north again on I-15 to the turn off for Divide. From there we will head west on Hwy 43 passing through Dewey and the turn off to the ghost town of Quartz Hill until we complete the loop when we return to the town of Wise River. Road conditions to the ghost towns and mining camps vary from RV accessible to four wheel drive vehicles suggested, so plan accordingly. The entire loop drive consists of paved roads.

Over the next several weeks we will look at the history of these mining sites, view some of the remaining buildings and how to get there along with camping options.

In this entry, the first stop on our loop tour, we will look at the ghost town of Coolidge, the upper mining camp of the Elkhorn Mine above Coolidge and places to camp.


Heading South on FS 73 (Wise River Polaris Road) toward Elkhorn Mine

In 1872, mining began in what became known as the Elkhorn Mining District when rich veins of silver were discovered in the Pioneer Mountains. The claim was called the "Old Elkhorn” compliments of a pair of shed elk antlers found near the strike. Typical of early western mining operations, mining was slow to develop due to the lack of inexpensive and reliable transportation from the mines to refineries. The silver crash of 1893 didn't help either. By 1903 silver prices had recovered enough to interest those with the financial means to develop the mines and the transportation required to make the operation profitable. Plans were devised, capital raised and claims were consolidated. In 1913, the Boston Montana Mining Company was formed by William Allen breathing life into the Elkhorn Mine. The next year the town of Coolidge was born, named after one of Allen's friends, Calvin Coolidge who would become President of the United States in 1923. The new town thrived with modern amenities, including running water, telephone, an ice house and electricity. Construction of the sorely needed railroad was started in 1917 and completed the next year at a cost of $1.5 million. It is worth noting that the rail line was the last narrow gauge railroad built in the United States.


Coolidge Ice House - Walls Were Insulated With Sawdust

In 1919 a large workforce of men moved to Coolidge when work started on a mill to process the ore from the mine. To feed and house the new arrivals, a boarding house and restaurant were constructed, as well as a company store that provided an extensive selection of groceries and dry goods to the growing town’s residents. Unlike most western mining towns, Coolidge never had a saloon or a church. In January 1922, the Coolidge post office was established along with completion of the mill which covered nearly two acres making it the largest mill in Montana at that time in history.


One of the Better Cabins

Sadly, by the time the town and mining operations had been fully developed, it was already on its way to becoming a ghost town as silver prices plummeted and the national economy slowed. The mine continued to operate through 1927 until a dam failure wiped out 12 miles of rail line and several bridges. Without a way to efficiently transport ore, operations were suspended. Out-of-work miners and their families quickly began moving away, the school closed and businesses were shuttered pushing Coolidge further towards ghost town status.

By 1930 the railroad was repaired, however with the country falling into the Great Depression, silver prices were so low the mine could not be restarted profitably. The majority of those remaining moved away followed by the post office closing in 1932 completing the boom to bust cycle and creating another Montana ghost town.

Dozens of buildings still stand in Coolidge, but are quickly succumbing to the elements. The lower mill was torn down in the late 1990's (The picture shown below was taken in the summer of 1998), but part of the upper mill remains which you will have a chance to visit at Upper Elkhorn Camp.


The Huge Mill

When you go: Start by reviewing the links for the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway which you will travel on your way to Coolidge. This link contains a short write up and a map of the byway, while this link has more detailed information and highlights stops along the way including where to dig for six sided crystals.

To reach Coolidge: Head south on paved National Forest Road 73 (aka Wise River Road) which is part of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway to Old Polaris Road, then southeast on the dirt Old Polaris Road to the parking area located at: N45° 30.062 W113° 02.592 From the parking area it is about a half mile walk to the Coolidge site.

Camping: Little Joe Campground operated by the USFS is located on the paved Wise River Road on your way to Coolidge and is the closest RV friendly campground to the ghost town. There are numerous scenic boondocking sites along the Wise River just off of Wise River Road. Several nice campsites can be found by turning northwest off of Wise River Road at: N45° 37.735 W113° 04.711

If you choose to boondock closer to Coolidge, you will find a place along (dirt) Old Polaris Road at: N45° 31.648 W113° 04.405

Upper Camp

While the Coolidge town site contained the typical buildings of a frontier mining camp along with the mill to process the ore, most of the ore processed by the mill came from the Idanha tunnel, located high above town located at what was known as the upper camp. The only developed transportation link between the upper camp and Coolidge (lower camp) was an inclined cable rail line straight up the mountain. Today the rails are gone and from the top all you can make out is the old clear cut through the trees. In fact, if you stand at the edge of the mountain where the ore was loaded into the rail cars you are unable to see the rail terminus or town far below.

Due to this geographical break between Coolidge and upper camp, you will want to treat the two as individual destinations when you visit.

Let's explore upper camp:


Upper Camp Cabin

As mentioned above, most of the silver ore processed by the mill in Coolidge came from the Idanha tunnel at the 300-foot level of the mine (levels were numbered from top to bottom), which was located at the upper camp 800 vertical feet above the mill. Ore from the Idanha could be lowered internally through the mine via a raise to the lower tunnel at the 1000-foot level where electric locomotives hauled ore cars a quarter mile to the mill. Ore from other shafts and adits at the upper camp was brought to the mill via a rail cable car system that ran steeply down the mountain side from an ore bin at the upper camp to an ore bin located just north of the lower mine tunnel portal in the town of Coolidge. The rail cable car employed a gravity system where loaded cars going down the mountain pulled the empty cars back to the top. The rail system had an unusual three rail track design so the rail cars could pass each other. From the ore bin at the bottom, ore was transferred to the lower electric locomotive, which hauled it to the mill.

Due to the separation from the town of Coolidge below, upper camp emerged to support the mining and miners of the upper workings. Structures included multiple houses, a large corral, black smith shop, assay shops, cook house, carpenter shop, mine hoist house, ore sorting building, bunk houses for the miners and a large boarding house. Heavy snows proved difficult for moving ore during the winter months and production would often suffer. As a result, snow sheds were built over the rail lines emerging from the upper mines to keep the tracks clear. As of a few summers ago the timbers of the snow sheds were still standing along with ruins of most of the structures mentioned.


Upper Camp Snow Shed

Getting There: At N45° 28.586 W113° 05.178 turn east off of FS 73 (Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway) onto Comet Ridge Road. Continue east to the first signed intersection at N45° 28.466 W113° 04.326 which will be signed for the upper mine. Continue east from the intersection staying on the most well traveled road while ignoring smaller side roads until you reach upper camp at N45° 29.334 W113° 02.818

The road is suitable for most two wheel drive passenger vehicles with average ground clearance.

Where to camp: Price Creek Campground is conveniently located just off Comet Ridge Road which is the jumping off point for exploring upper camp. The road to and within the campground is paved along with the sites. The long spacious sites complete with picnic tables and fire rings will accommodate the largest of RVs. Many of the sites are pull throughs providing easy access. The latest posted rate for the campground is $8 per night. You will find the campground at: N45°28.773 W113° 04.983 Boondockers will find a nice spot along the south side of Comet Ridge Road just past the turn off to the campground at: N45° 28.617 W113° 04.983

More to explore: After you have explored upper camp you will want to take a short detour to the historical Park Mine located at: N45° 29.064 W113° 02.995 The Park Mine is located just 1/3 (air) mile from the upper camp and the Elkhorn Mine and was believed to have tapped the same mineralized faults. While the neighboring Elkhorn Mine was primarily a silver mine, samples taken by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1995 revealed 1.05 to 5.8 ounces of gold per ton at the Park Mine. Historic records show the mine produced millions of dollars in gold and silver while it was active. It is quite possible that the Park Mine connects to the Elkhorn Mine somewhere deep underground. Remains at the site include the mines and several cabins one which is fully intact and nearly inhabitable.

After you have explored the Park Mine head east about 100 yards to some very photogenic ruins on the edge of a beautiful mountain meadow at: N45° 29.032 W113° 02.934 This could be another part of the Park Mine or a completely different operation. It is unknown as the historic records are unclear. The road to the Park Mine and its neighbor is unsigned and single lane dirt, but should be passable by most passenger vehicles.

If you are still up for some adventure and have a stout off road vehicle, head up Comet Mountain where you will rise above tree line and be rewarded with an outstanding view at the end of the road. Along the way you will pass additional ruins of the areas mining past finding the best ruins at: N45° 27.377 W113° 03.404

While you are camped in the area, be sure and plan a visit to nearby Crystal Park. In the park you can dig for lovely quartz and Amethyst crystals averaging a couple inches in length. Bring along a shovel and sifting screen to find one of these sparkling souvenirs which will serve as a reminder of your Montana RV adventure. You will find the park at: N45° 29.226 W113° 05.982

In the next installment we will look at the ghost town of Bannack under the loving care of Montana State Parks.

Dave Helgeson
Author: Dave HelgesonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Dave Helgeson is the MHRV Show Director. He and his wife love to travel across the west in their RV. Dave writes about all things RVing but loves to share destinations and boondocking advice.

Comments   

0 #2 Dave 2020-07-02 14:30
Quoting Richard:
We were in Wise river in May-June 2020 and the Wise river road south was closed. I don't know when it was to reopen.
Thanks for the heads up. Currently there aren't any closures listed online, but always a good idea to check road conditions locally.
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0 #1 Richard 2020-06-30 16:20
We were in Wise river in May-June 2020 and the Wise river road south was closed. I don't know when it was to reopen.
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