In 1870 Swiss immigrant Peter Wys, prospecting for gold in the Elkhorn Mountains, northeast of Boulder, Montana Territory, discovered silver galena ore. Development didn’t begin until after Wys died in 1872 and Anton M. Holter acquired the mining property.
Holter started mining silver ore in 1875, erecting a simple five-stamp mill and organizing the Elkhorn Mining Company. Soon after the Elkhorn Mine was operating, the C & D, Dolcoath, Golden Curry, Hard Cash, Heggen and Sourdough mines followed suit.
A camp emerged, but its growth faltered in 1882 when the composition of ore at the 300-foot level changed, forcing the Elkhorn to close for a year. The mine reopened after the owners installed a new chloridizing mill, capable of recovering 90 percent of the ore.
The government granted Elkhorn a post office in 1884, and the population soared to almost 2,000 in the late 1880s. Unlike most mining towns, Elkhorn had a high proportion of married miners with families, giving rise to a twolane bowling alley, candy stores and the two-story Fraternity Hall, which hosted dances, box socials, committee meetings, wakes, weddings and Cornish Glee Club concerts. Still, the town did have its harsh frontier side—once, during a dance at Fraternity Hall, two men got into a fight over the band’s choice of music, and the square dancer shot the waltzer dead.
A diphtheria outbreak in the winter of 1889–90 took the lives of many children and tempered Elkhorn’s rising population. In one instance, a mother and all five of her children died within a week. Even Dr. William Dudley—who had arrived in Elkhorn two years prior with his new bride—lost his 1-year-old son, Earl.
As the Elkhorn Mine reached the 800-foot level in 1888, its owners gambled that it was played out, and sold the company to an English syndicate for half a million dollars. The new owners increased the battery of stamps to 25 and by 1899 had recovered a further 6,500,000 ounces of silver and 5,000 ounces of gold.
In 1889 the Northern Pacific Railroad built a spur line to Elkhorn, providing a rapid means of getting ore to market. This saved the district when silver was devalued in 1893.
Spruille Braden, an influential diplomat to Latin America, was born in Elkhorn on March 13, 1894. In the mid-1940s, Braden organized a failed opposition movement against Argentine President Juan Perón, making the cover of Time magazine on November 5, 1945. He went on to organize the successful 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Guzmán.
As the new century dawned, flooding and lower-grade ore caused production to slow and then stop. Miners and their families drifted away. The post office closed in 1924, and in 1931 the railroad tracks, unused for more than a decade, were dismantled for scrap. Despite infrequent attempts to rework the mill tailings, the town was basically left to die.
Today, summer cottage residents watch over the Jefferson County town, and the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society has stabilized the deterioration of Fraternity Hall and the adjacent Gillian Hall.
In December 2006, Elkhorn Goldfields Inc., owner of mines on the north side of town (including the Elkhorn Mine), was granted an exploration license. Early in 2008, the company applied to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for a license to resume mining at what the owners now call the Golden Dream.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.