Do you enjoy ghost town hunting during boomer travel adventures? If you said, yes, then plan a road trip to Montana. Like much of the Rocky Mountains, The Treasure State is filled with ghost towns waiting to be explored.
So far, Alan and I have visited two Montana ghost towns. We enjoyed the restored ghost town at Bannack State Park, home to Montana’s first territorial capital. But Coolidge Ghost Town remains our favorite. Exploring a place that’s being reclaimed by nature has a certain appeal, not to mention unique, photogenic qualities.
Our visit to Coolidge Ghost Town
On a cold, September day, the one-mile walk to Coolidge Ghost Town is sort of spooky. Trees crowd each side of the level trail that parallels a creek. The trees give the trail a closed-in feeling, blocking out the weak sunlight so that shade accompanies most of our walk. Leftover equipment from Montana‘s silver mining history is scattered here and there in rusted piles.
The crunching sound of squirrels scurrying through the fallen leaves looking for nuts makes me jump. Besides the squirrels, Alan and I are the only visitors exploring Coolidge, the community that sprung up in 1914 around the Elkhorn Mine and Mill. Of course I’m more worried about bears than ghosts, especially since we didn’t bring our bear spray!
Through the trees on the right side of the trail, Alan and I can barely make out the mill building, once the largest in Montana. It will be the only view we get as a gate blocks access to that side of the creek.
Reaching the edge of town, we find log structures in various states of disrepair, some are no more than a pile of rubble while others are still standing. Exploring the structures, I wonder how long it will be until the destructive force of nature eventually tears them all down.
We used this Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway tour from the U.S. Forest Service and the Benchmark Montana Road & Recreation Atlas to plan our trip.
Standing in a clearing surrounded by falling down buildings, it’s hard to imagine that Coolidge once had electricity, telephone service and a post office. But according to the SouthWest Montana site, that’s exactly what we would have found on a visit in 1922, where life would have been accompanied by the clanks and clangs of heavy mining equipment.
A remnant of Montana silver mining history
Although silver mining history dates to the mid to late 1800’s in these mountains, it wasn’t until 1913 that the Elkhorn Mining District began to thrive. That’s when William R. Allen, Montana’s Lieutenant Governor, quit politics to create the Boston-Montana Development Corporation.
All total, Allen purchased 80 mining claims and 1,000 acres in the area, including the Elkhorn Mine. He also spent over 1.5 million dollars on a narrow gauge railroad, known as Montana Southern Railway, to run from Elkhorn Mine across the mountains to Divide, Montana.
As silver prices plummeted, the mine struggled. By 1923, Allen had lost his fortune and ownership of Coolidge and Elkhorn Mine. And then the Pettingill Dam ruptured in 1927, washing out major sections of the railroad and putting an end to any hopes of mining success.
Walking back to the parking lot, Alan and I remark about the hardiness and determination it must have required to live in Coolidge. The winters would have been cold and snowy in this remote part of Montana. But it was a time in U.S. history when men and women didn’t mind hardship if it improved upon their lives. We stop on the trail to listen for their voices.
Where is Coolidge and how do you get there?
You’ll definitely be traveling off-the-beaten-path in Montana when ghost town hunting in the southwestern part of the state. The closest communities with services are Wise River and Polaris. Both villages are found at either end of the 49-mile-long Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway that travels through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Coolidge Ghost Town is a 5-mile drive on a dirt road spur from the paved Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Although the road is narrow, a passenger vehicle can easily drive it unless there’s inclement weather. The road ends at a parking lot with picnic tables and pit toilets.
We recommend a fall visit to Coolidge, or in spring once the snow has melted. In winter, the closed Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway becomes a playground for snowmobiles. If you don’t mind mosquitoes, summer is fine, too.
For our next visit, Alan and I will headquarter at the Grasshopper Inn or Montana High Country Lodge in Polaris. While in the area, we’ll go crystal hunting in Crystal Park followed by a soak in Elkhorn Hot Springs.
Booking a vacation rental in Wise River is another option.
Plan your next trip to Montana with our Montana Travel Planner.
The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800’s resulted in many communities being built in western states like Montana. Once the precious metals were gone, so were the citizens that lived near the mines. The result? Ghost towns that are hidden here and there throughout Montana and the West.
We’ll be introducing you to more Montana ghost towns in future articles. Did you see our article on Bannack Ghost Town?