The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest contains two additional important Montana ghost towns from its mining era at Argenta and Farlin. Argenta is a few miles off of Montana Highway 278 and represents one of Montana’s earliest mining properties. As I discussed in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986), Argenta was a key early mining operation.
At the height of the Civil War, Argenta began as a placer camp but after a major silver strike in 1864, more intensive development took off. Famous Montana pioneer and writer Granville Stuart said: “The wealth of the Rothchilds is as nothing compared to the riches which lie concealed in the bowels of the Rattlesnake hills, awaiting the coming of the enchanters with their wands (in the shape of greenbacks), to bring forth these treasures.”
Today at Argenta there is little to remind us of what the “enchanters” wrought during the 1860s and 1870s. The Argenta smelter–the first in the territory–came in 1866, courtesy of the St. Louis and Montana Mining Company. Samuel T. Hauser, a later territorial governor, and Granville’s brother James Stuart directed its construction. A second smelter came in 1867 and the next year another group of St. Louis investors added a third. But now only mine shafts, slag dumps, foundations, and a few buildings remain.
Farlin developed as a mining operation later than Argenta, even though first strikes came in 1864. This place was largely a silver and copper operation. The arrival of the Utah and Northern Railroad at Dillon in 1881 spurred some growth but full-scale development did not start until after the Depression of 1893, with most of what you see today dating from the late 1890s to the early 1900s. Unfortunately in the 1984 state historic preservation plan survey I only gave this property scant attention. Returning almost 30 years later, I see that omission as another missed opportunity. Ruins of the Farlin concentrator and many other mining operations help to mark the size of the operations.
Log buildings help to tell the story of the hundreds who once worked here in the early 20th century during the mines’ heyday. A turn of the 20th century log school building is another of the remarkable one-room schools you can find throughout Beaverhead County And it is a beautiful setting, surrounded by snow capped mountains.
At Farlin, the scars of mining are everywhere, surrounded by sage grass, brush, and scattered trees, trying to recover in what was once a denuded landscape. Operations had ended by the time of the Great Depression. While never a huge place–population estimates top out at 500–Farlin is representative of the smaller mining operations that reshaped the rural western Montana landscape. Not every place became a Butte, or a Virginia City. Properties like Farlin help to tell us of the often lonely and exceedingly difficult search for opportunity in the Treasure State over 100 years ago.