Gold Creek and Pioneer: bypassed landmarks

Gold Creek overview from school

When I began my fieldwork for the state historic preservation plan in 1984, there was one spot I was particularly eager to visit:  Gold Creek and Pioneer on the west side of Powell County.  Granville Stuart and Conrad Kohrs both loomed large in the history of Montana; they were associated, respectively, with the two mines.  Stuart was been among the party who first struck gold there in 1858; Kohrs later owned the Pioneer mines.  Plus the two mining areas were counted among the state’s earliest.  Then one winter in 1982 traveling along Interstate Highway I-90 I had looked to the west and saw the faded wooden signs marking what they called the first gold strike in Montana–one of 1858 even before the Mullan Road had been blazed through the area.  Not far away was

NP last spike,jpg (2)

another nondescript sign–this one about the last spike of the Northern Pacific Railroad–it too was visible from the interstate. I had to know more.

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Gold Creek store and post office, 1984.

What I found was not much, at least anything much that could become part of public interpretation.  The folks at the general store and post office, where exterior signs proudly noted that it began in 1866, told me that the granite marker for the Gold Creek strike was on private property–well maintained but something no one was interested in doing more with.  The last spike for the Northern Pacific Railroad was a similar story. Once that spot was all in the national news.  Now it was a place on the railroad right-of-way and Burlington Northern wasn’t interested in visitors being on such a heavily traveled section.

Tailings at Pioneer, Powell Co

The road west of Gold Creek led into the later placer mining of the Pioneer Mining District (established 1866)–with the high mounds of tailings coming from much later efforts to dredge every bit of precious metal from the property.

Pioneer tailings, Powell CoRanchers had taken bits of older buildings from Pioneer and incorporated them into later structures between the mining district and Gold Creek.  Pioneer as a ghost town barely existed then and little marks its past except for the scars of mining.

Log barn E of Pioneer, Powell Co 2

Old buildings grafted into barn, E of Pioneer, Powell Co

Gold Creek, Powell Co

Gold Creek has existed since the dawn of Montana Territory but it has rarely caught a break–its monument about mining is landlocked on private property.  The interpretive markers about the Northern Pacific’s last spike are on the interstate at the Gold Creek Rest Area.  Much of what is there today dates to its last “boom” when the Milwaukee Road built through here c. 1908, but as regular readers of this blog know, the success of the Milwaukee and short lived and by 1980 it was bankrupt. Today little is left except the roadbed, as is the case, almost, in Gold Creek.

MR corridor, Gold Creek, Powell Co

I say almost because the Milwaukee Road located one of its electric transmission buildings in the middle of Gold Creek, along the electrified line. Abandoned when I surveyed the town in 1984, the building has been restored and put back into business.

MR power plant, Gold Creek, Powell Co

Milwaukee Road Electric Station facing the Northern Pacific line.

Two community institutions still shape Gold Creek. On the “far” end of town is the St. Mary’s Mission Catholic Church, built c. 1910, with its original Gothic design still intact.

Catholic Church, Gold Creek, Powell Co 1But the most important community institution (yes, the Dinner Bell Restaurant out on the interstate exit is important but it is a new business) is the Gold Creek School, a rather remarkable building in that residents took two standard homestead era one-room schools and connected them by way of a low roof “hyphen” between the front doors.

Gold Creek school, Powell CoAdaptation and survival–the story of many buildings at Gold Creek and Pioneer.  Historical markers are scarce there but the history in the landscape can still be read and explored.


Beaverhead’s Argenta and Farlin Mines

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 5

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.





IMG_3581At 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.