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Mike Steel and mining partner F.W. Parish were prospecting the northern Pioneer Mountains in southeastern Montana Territory when, on October 24, 1873, they discovered silver-bearing ore. They named their mine the Elkhorn.

Although the ore assayed at a rich 260 ounces of silver per ton, the partners had to transport it by bull team out of the mountains, then by freight wagon to the nearest railhead in Corinne, Utah Territory, for shipment to smelters in Swansea, Wales. The cost of doing so cut into their profit margin, thus the operation remained modest. With the devaluation of silver in 1893, the partners abandoned it altogether.

The turn of the century brought an uptick in metal prices and renewed attempts to mine silver in the Elkhorn district, but the remoteness of the diggings remained an obstacle.

In 1911 William R. Allen, outgoing lieutenant governor of Montana, recognized the potential of the district. The son of a mine owner, Allen had spent his early working years employed by Marcus Daly, one of the three “Copper Kings” of Butte, Mont., and was familiar with tough mining problems. The well-connected businessman and politician also had a number of wealthy friends.

After obtaining favorable engineering reports for the region, Allen used his own money to buy up several claims in the Elkhorn mining district. He then tapped moneyed friends in New England and formed the Boston and Montana Development Co. to put his plans into motion.

Allen first ordered construction of a road along the Wise River to enable ore from the mines to be freighted out by wagon to the Northern Pacific railhead at Divide, Mont. He then hoped to persuade friend James J. Hill, president of the Northern Pacific, to extend a spur line to the mines along the new roadbed, but Hill was in poor health and had relinquished control of the railway.

Undaunted, Allen built his own narrow gauge line, naming it the Montana Southern Railway. Given the necessary tunnels and high trestles, work crews didn’t finish the line until 1919, when the first of three Baldwin locomotives, purchased from Colorado’s Cripple Creek Railway, began rolling on the track. The railway enabled Allen to bring in heavy equipment for the construction of a massive mill close to the mines.

The completed mill measured 200 feet wide and 750 feet long, topped out at 60 feet and was steam-heated for year-round use. Built on the side of a hill, it used gravity to process the ore through its machinery. The company strung 35 miles of high-tension wires across the mountains to power the works, which recovered up to 93 percent of the ore processed, yielding silver, lead, copper and gold. The mill had a capacity of 700 tons per day.

To house the builders, mill workers and miners, Allen started a camp that he named Coolidge after friend (and some believe key investor) Calvin Coolidge, soon to become 30th president of the United States. Being a company town, Coolidge lacked saloons, but it did have a company store, a school, streetlights and electricity in every cabin. Its population peaked at about 400.

The massive mill never did work at full capacity, as the mines simply could not produce 700 tons of ore per day. The financial depression of 1920–21 hit the company at about the same time bonds it had issued came due, resulting in its forced bankruptcy in 1923. Allen had lost his own fortune, yet he faced charges of conspiring to defraud stockholders, and directors drummed him out of his own company in disgrace.

The company reorganized without Allen and struggled on. A flood in the spring of 1927 washed out a key bridge over the Big Hole River, suspending production. Crews rebuilt the span in 1930, but the Great Depression swept away the remaining mining operations by 1935.

The mill remained standing in 1970, but soon after demolition crews tore down a third of its walls, which still adorn the interior of a restaurant in Idaho Falls. Citing safety hazards, the current owners demolished the rest of the mill in recent years. The Bureau of Land Management owns the town site, which lies along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, southwest of Butte, between Montana Routes 43 and 278.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.