Montana’s gateways into Yellowstone National Park are known far and wide. The most popular are associated with the trains that delivered mostly easterners to the wonderland of the park–West Yellowstone for the Union Pacific line and Gardiner for the Northern Pacific Railway.
Cooke City, located in the corner of Park County, was never a railroad town but an overland connection that did not become popular until the development of the Beartooth Highway out of Red Lodge in the 1920s.
It is all about the Beartooth Highway (U.S. 212) here–when it opens, Cooke City booms as a tourism oasis. When the highway closes for its long winter, business doesn’t end since the road to Mammoth Hot Springs far to the west is kept open as best as it can be, but the number of visitors drops remarkably. Snow mobile traffic in the winter has meant a lot to local business in the last 30 years.
The one building I focused on when I visited Cooke City for the state historic preservation in 1985 was nearing its 100th year of serving as a general store to this old mountain mining community. The historic Savage and Elder’s store began business c.1886 and passed through many different owners but remarkably few changes until the time in the second half of the 20th century that it became a community icon and cherished building. New owners in 2003 undertook needed repairs and the old place looks as if it is well on its way to its 200th birthday. In 1986 the state office listed the Cooke City Store in the National Register not only for its late Victorian commercial look but also as a commercial business–general merchandise–that held on through the highs and lows of Cooke City’s history.
Cooke City uses its mining past to define its identity today, from moving log mining shacks and cabins into town, as shown above, for potential new lures for tourism, to the recently established visitor center and museum, which includes some of the local mining
technology, a moved and restored miner’s cabin, and interprets these resources for the public–a major positive change in the last 30 years.
The rustic log architecture of the miner’s cabin is reflected in several other Cooke City buildings from the mid-20th century as well as from nearby Silver Gate, Montana, located right on the national park border. Some of these properties speak to the local vernacular of building with log, but they also were influenced with the more formal Rustic style buildings constructed by the National Park Service as its signature look in the early decades of the 20th century–witness the Northeast entrance to the park on U.S. 212 next to Silver Gate.
Perhaps the best example is the rustic yet modern styling of the Mt Republic Chapel of Peace between Silver Gate and Cooke City on U.S. 212. It is no match for the soaring mountains that surround it but its quiet dignity reflects well the people and environment of this part of Montana.
Montana architect Charles Sumner designed the building in 1971 and first services came a year later. Not yet 50 years, it awaits its National Register future.
The same can be said for Hoosier’s Bar–a favorite haunt here in Cooke City for several decades, easy to find with its neon sign, and then there is the throwback telephone booth–a good idea since many cell phones search for coverage in this area. Cooke City and Silver Gate are the smallest Montana gateways into Yellowstone National Park but they tell and preserve their story well.