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A couple of miles east of the village of Sheridan, Montana, in the foothills of the Tobacco Root range, the pavement ends at the site of a once bustling mining district named Brandon. Lacking a post office, it was never officially a town.

After the 1863 gold rush in Alder Gulch, a dozen miles to the south, latecomers fanned out to tap other streams leading from the mountains. In 1864 a lucky few hit pay dirt along Mill Creek, and soon the Toledo (originally Toleda), Tamarack and a score of other mines were in operation. Prosperity brought the 12-stamp Brandon Mill in 1865.

In 1874, when territorial officials held a plebiscite to move the capital from Virginia City, the citizens of Brandon reportedly put their burg up for consideration—as a lark more than anything else. The story goes that when the ballots were tallied, Brandon lost to Helena by one vote.

Brandon saw three mining booms and at its peak boasted a boardinghouse, two blacksmiths, several saloons and about 300 people.

In 1896 brothers John and Tom Cavanaugh and James McDonnell filed a claim in the district, but they only managed to scrape out an 18-foot shaft. A year later the trio sold the mine to a Dr. Edgar Fletcher, who dubbed it the Emma B after his wife. By 1904 Fletcher had installed a hydroelectric plant on Mill Creek, supplying electric power to his mine and the small mill he built. The claim changed hands the following year, and the Fletchers faded from district memory.

In 1929 Alex Walker, of Butte, either bought or jumped the Emma B claim, registering the property under his existing Smuggler Mining Co. In the February 5, 1931, issue of Mining Truth magazine he ran an ad seeking investors in the reclaimed property.

According to period mining journals, Walker installed a telephone line, a flotation mill, more machinery, a heavier hoist and a pumping plant and sank the shaft to around 500 feet. Due to the remote location, by October 1931 Walker had established a permanent camp of some 30 log cabins for his miners and mill workers.

Walker made a fair profit in the first half of the 1930s, and the mine was producing ore until the latter half of the decade. After that the miner’s cabins were abandoned and fell into decay.

Today ranches and vacation homes dot the landscape at the Brandon town site. Little remains of its original structures, although north of the site are scars from the abandoned Tamarack and Toledo mines. Seven miles of dirt road farther up the gulch, however, a surprise awaits—about a dozen of the Smuggler Mining Co.’s abandoned, dilapidated buildings. Though the settlement most likely never had an official name, Smuggler City seems a good fit.


Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.