The story of a ghost town

In the mountains southeast of the town where I grew up is an old ghost town. There isn’t as much there today as was the case when I was younger. The years and the weather have combined to collapse some of the structures and more than a few of the items in the old town have been looted and carried away by scavengers who have visited the place. Back in the day, however, a trip up to Independence was an adventure that took a whole day and gave a bit of a lesson about the history of the area.

Gold was first discovered there in the 1860’s, but at the time the area was part of the Crow Indian Reservation and the federal government ran prospectors out of the area. The government reversed its position and forced the Crows to cede the land and shrink the reservation in 1882. That unleashed a flood of miners and a pack trail was cut up the Boulder River to its source and then beyond, nearly to the Slough Creek divide. The divide is nearly 11,000 feet above sea level and the trail that rose up from the 9,000 foot level of the Boulder headwaters was rough and steep.

About three miles from the Boulder River, the town of Independence was founded and quickly grew to be the center of mining activity in the area. There were mining camps at Solomon city and Horseshoe Basin, but they never developed into real cities. Horseshoe basin is so high that until recent years you could always find the edge of the glacier there and pink snow, caused by algae that grows in the summer at the melting edge of a glacier was easy to find. The snow appears normal until you step in it and then it turns bright pink. We used to think it was worth the hike to show it to visitors to our area.

Back in the late 1800’s, travel was slow on the mule and horse track. It took five days to travel the 50 miles to my home town, Big Timber. Independence grew to about 500 people with four saloons, two general stores and cabins of various sizes, ranging from hillside hovels to elegant homes. The first stamp mill opened in 1888. Eventually there were seven stamp mills and at least one roller mill in the area.

Mining in the area peaked by 1890 and the depression of 1893 combined with the exhaustion of the easily accessed ore to bring about the decline of the town. The Independence mine closed briefly in 1894, but was re-opened and operated under a lease for three more years. Three mines, the Independence, the Daisy, and the Hidden Treasure continued to operate beyond the turn of the century. Hidden Treasure Mill burned in 1904.

There were some workings over the early decades of the 20th century and by the time I was roaming the country in the 1960’s there were still a couple of old prospectors who spent their summers in the high country and wintered farther down the valley. They would assume the role of caretaker or cabin builder at one the the church camps over the winter and then disappear up into the high country when the campers arrived. In those days the high country was being leased out by the government as summer pasture for sheep and except for an occasional day trip by folks like us the sheepherders had the space to themselves, sharing it with an occasional visit from a bear. Trouble bears from Yellowstone Park that park rangers succeeded in trapping were deposited at the end of the Boulder Road and would wander in the valley for a while before making their way back to the Park.

We used to enjoy exploring the ghost towns and speculate on what life must have been like for the folks who lived there. Winters must have been long and the isolation deep, but people will endure a lot for the promise of wealth. And nothing promises wealth like gold in the mountains.

Most of the ghost towns throughout the west have some association with mining activity. They were true boom and bust towns, arising very quickly and fading at a slower pace, but not many of the mining towns in the remote country survived. The gold that was easy to access played out pretty quickly.

These days, about 25 miles from the old Independence mine there is an active platinum and palladium mine that has bored through a mountain on the divide between the Boulder and Stillwater rivers. The buses haul workers up to the mine when the price of minerals supports active mining and operations are scaled back when the price drops. The economy is still boom and bust. The town receives a burst of income when mining operations are going and finds itself in a bit of trouble keeping its bonds paid when mining operations are shut down. You can still find people who are certain that mining will make them rich, even though the wealth is pretty much extracted and exported by the big mining companies, with little left in the local economy.

I personally never encountered any ghosts in my explorations of the Independence town site. Mostly I found weathered boards and a few rusty nails and lots of old tin cans and bottles. One summer day when I was a teenager, I backed off the road to turn around and dropped into a muddy hole. The vehicle I was driving didn’t have 4-wheel drive and though I had a shovel, a jack and tire chains, it took a couple of hours to get the car jacked up and placed on old planks to drive it out. I learned a lesson about checking the ground before driving off of the road that day. There were, however, no ghosts to haunt my activities.

These days there aren’t many standing buildings and there are not many people who remember the story of the place. I haven’t made the trip up there for more than a couple of decades.

The stories, however, remain. Some of them will grow larger in the retelling.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!