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Ghost Town Trails: Coolidge, ‘Montana’s Mystery Camp’

Coolidge, Montana, is the featured ghost town in this month’s installment of Ghost Town Trails. Last month we visited Elkhorn, Montana and the two buildings that graced the cover of a very popular 1970’s coffee table book. That book, “Ghost Towns of the West,” was the start of many ghost town adventures for me and my family.

While Elkhorn was well-publicized, the ghost town named Coolidge was not. In fact, my first glimpse of Coolidge was in a book published in 1974 titled “Ghost Towns of Montana.” But it wasn’t called Coolidge—it was referred to as “Montana’s Mystery Camp” by the author, Don C. Miller. On page 88 of that book was a picture of a huge abandoned mill and the following text. “A well-preserved mill—probably the state’s largest—still clings to the side of the mountain, and a couple dozen structures stand on what is perhaps the Treasure State’s least-desecrated ghost town main street. It hasn’t been restored. No efforts have been made to preserve it except indirectly—for those that know of its existence refuse to give out information about it. They fear this historic place will be desecrated by man. Odds are excellent they are correct.”

Mill at Coolidge, Montana
The mill as featured on page 88

Where was Montana’s Mystery Camp?

The pages that followed showed many intact structures, including a residence with a unique diamond-shaped window over the front porch. Oh, how I longed to visit that place, if only I knew where it was. Fast forward to the mid-1990s. I was reading an article about snowmobiling that included a photo of snowmobiles parked in front of an old, abandoned residence with a unique diamond-shaped window! I immediately recognized the residence as the one being located in Montana’s Mystery Camp. A bit more reading revealed the name of the old mining camp was Coolidge. It was located just north of Polaris, Montana. Moments later I had the location of Coolidge circled in my copy of the Montana Gazetteer.

The residence with the diamond-shaped window

History

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 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 mining camp of Coolidge was born. It was 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 icehouse, and electricity. Construction of the sorely needed railroad was started in 1917. It was 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.

Ice House
The icehouse. Notice the sawdust spilling from the walls and doorways.

A new town was built at Coolidge

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. A company store was built 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. The mill covered nearly two acres—making it the largest mill in Montana at that time.

Becoming a ghost town due to economy

Sadly, by the time the town and mining operations had been fully developed, it was already on its way to becoming a ghost town. Silver prices had 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 and the school closed. Businesses were shuttered—further pushing Coolidge towards ghost town status.

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

Our visit

We first visited Coolidge in the summer of 1998, a year or so after discovering its location. Just in time, too, as the predictions that the camp would be desecrated were coming partially true. It seems the huge mill, which I was told was on private property, was being “mined” for its barnwood. Lucky for us, a majority of the mill was still standing when we visited, allowing us to marvel in the enormity of the structure.

After exploring the remains of the mill, we walked the streets of town and were greeted by the residence with the diamond window over the porch. Most of the other buildings pictured in the book were still standing in various forms of decay. One of the more unique structures is the icehouse, with its thick walls insulated with sawdust. Since our visit, the forest service has taken some interest in Coolidge. It has installed signage and dedicated parking, and stabilized the residence with the unique diamond-shaped window over the porch.

Remains of the mill in 1998

Second visit – Upper Camp: With the advent of the information super highway (aka the internet), I discovered Coolidge had an “Upper Camp” high on the mountain overlooking the town (Lower Camp) we visited in 1998. Ore was mined and sent down the mountain via a steep inclined cable rail line. Due to the separation from the town of Coolidge (Lower Camp) below, Upper Camp emerged to support the mining and miners of the upper workings.

Structures at the Upper Camp

Structures included multiple houses, a large corral, blacksmith 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 the summer of 2014, when we visited, the timbers of the snowsheds were still standing, along with ruins of most of the structures mentioned.

Mine ruins at Upper Camp

Getting there

Lower Camp: Head south on I-15 from Butte exiting on State Highway 43. Travel west on Hwy. 43 to the small town of Wise River. Head south on paved FS 73, which is part of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, to Old Polaris Road, then southeast on graveled 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. The road is suitable for most any vehicle including small RVs.

Upper Camp: At N45° 28.586 W113° 05.178 turn east off 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.

Structure at Upper Camp

Camping

Little Joe Campground, operated by the USFS, is located on the paved Wise River Road on your way to Coolidge (Lower Camp) and is the closest RV-friendly campground to the ghost town.

There are numerous scenic boondocking sites along the Wise River just off Wise River Road. Several nice campsites can be found by turning northwest off Wise River Road at: N45° 37.735 W113° 04.711

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

Price Creek Campground is conveniently located where you turn off the highway for Upper Camp. A paved access road delivers you to the campground, where you will find paved roads and spacious paved campsites, many of which are pull-throughs.

##RVT1061

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Donald N Wright
26 days ago

I never travel to ghost towns, but I have visited several of them. A Walmart opens sixty miles away, folks start shopping there and local stores start closing down. Pretty soon it’s just a dollar store and one gas station still open, and a street of shuttered buildings. Ghost towns with parks, museums and libraries, but no volunteers to operate them, schools with no children, a loss to many, an opportunity to some.

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