The following is a project I’ve been working on for a little while now. The Elkhorn Mine and the Coolidge Ghost Town, in Beaverhead County, Montana. The mine itself was located in the mid 1870’s and its history from then on was full hardships.
The town of Coolidge, located just across the river from the mill, was the lower camp, where the majority of the miners lived, some with their entire family. At its peak the population was around 350. Unfortunately corrupt ownership, terrible business practices and a flood ended what was hoping to be one of the biggest and most successful mines of its time. But don’t all miners hope for that? Thanks to Matt Stanchfield for the extensive tour and the use of his photos, and my key grip Todd Hughes.
This is a view looking down on the mill. The tracks I’m on are coming from the cable carts which served as transportation between both camps about 300 yards behind me.
This is the view now.
The Ghosts of Coolidge. This was taken at the Upper Camp; a much smaller living area than the town below.
The Upper Camp is not as exciting as the town below, but it does offer a great view of the valley.
The structure on the bottom right of the photo above is the top station of the tram system between the upper and lower camps. We had arrived, just after the first snow, so the fall colors had just left us, and the beauty of a full, snowy Montana landscape had not quite reached us. Hence the black and white. I thought it was more pleasing to the eye than dull browns and mushy greens.
If you walk back towards the main upper camp area you’ll trip over the foundations of these buildings…at least I did.
One of the only building standing up top was this, “Refurbished,” structure. I put that in quotes, because it is on it’s way down to the ground again.
Here is a shot from the Lower Camp looking back up towards the mill. As you can see the 1000 feet in elevation between the two camps effects the amount of snow that stays on the ground. You can see the building on the bottom right of the old photo collapsing outside its frame.
These two are a looking straight up at that same mill. It spanned over 2 acres and, at the time, 1922, was the biggest of its kind. It was stripped throughout the 70′s and 80′s of its beautiful shell and all we are left with is this foundation.
This is looking down the main street of Coolidge Town.
And if that mad had kept walking past me, this would have been his view. Note: He may have actually continued walking past the spot I was at, but there isn’t any way to tell.
Another look down the main street towards the mill…I wonder if they called it, “Main Street”…or maybe just, “The Street,”…I’ll look into that.
Here’s an then/now view of one of the few two story buildings in town.
Another Shot of the mill from the Town, taken on the main street.
This was taken a few miles down the road, towards Wise River. It was the easiest way to get to the Lower Camp. You were lucky if you got in on the train.
All the restoration work done on the town of Coolidge as of now has been volunteer. From supplies to labor, it’s been the locals who appreciate the history of this site, and do what they can to keep it preserved. The contribution by the Forrest Service is laughable at best and the few plastic covered notes and markers scattered around the site don’t do it justice.
We can point fingers when it comes to availability of funds and how they’re allocated, but the longer we wait the more this site and many like it in our country will deteriorate. Coolidge itself is not a massive undertaking that would cost millions. What the locals have donated out of their own pockets, with their own time, gave me something to shoot and to understand a sense of life at that time, but without their contributions, all we’d have are skeletal foundations and rusty piles.
Beyond the original prospecting done on this site, I can see what appealed to the early miners who settled this town. It’s a beautiful place, harsh, but beautiful. It’s just a shame to see it neglected. We’re a relatively young country and it’s hard to find history that is truly American, void of European influence and taste. Railroads, mines and metals were the driving force behind populating the western half of our country and we should do everything we can to preserve that history. Expanding west helped define us as a people. It’s in that history where we find the genetic code for the hard working American; who’ll do what it takes to create a good life, to embrace liberty and pursue happiness. I hope we can keep that alive.