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Monte's Out | Montana #1

Since my first fateful trip with "the guys" from TacomaWorld in 2017, we've tried our best to get together every summer for an adventure. That's not to say that things haven't changed as some of the young guns - once carefree as school let out for the summer - have grown into jobs and families, our two-week jaunts shifting to five days of paid time off, our summer outings shifting into fall. Still, our friendships have persisted - and grown - and this year we are heading back to where (for me) The De-Tour started it all: Montana.

As always, trip preparation was tackled differently for each of us. Mike @Digiratus was ready to go several days before blast off. Zane @Speedytech7 and I took care of a few small tasks each day but were never anxious that we might not be ready to go. And of course, Monte @Blackdawg waited until 24 hours before departure to even glance at his truck.

Still, as Monte looked over Igor and swapped out the various bits and pieces that needed attention, everything was going smoothly - too smoothly we'd all reflect as we look back now - as evening fell and we readied ourselves for adventure.

Even the weather was looking good, the weather guessers predicting that a solid week of wetness would end just as we were crossing the state line.

Then, three hours before my departure - and eight hours after Mike had blasted off to meet up with Zane - everything changed.

There's the wrench we're used to!

I’d already gone to bed by the time Monte shared that little tidbit with the group, so I didn't discover it until 3:00am, as I headed east towards Zane and Mike in Spokane. At that point, there was nothing to do but drive through the night - decisions impossible to make now - hoping that the trip was still on.

It was just before 8:00am when Zane let me know that they were only a few minutes behind me. Pulling off the highway so they could catch up, I poured a quick bowl of cereal and enjoyed the brisk sunny morning.

After warm hellos and only a couple minutes of catching up, discussion turned to the inevitable. It seemed strange to explore Monte's home state without him, so ideas were floated that would take us to warmer weather - south to the red rock of Moab, the Owyhee of Oregon, or even somewhere in Idaho.

Of these, only Moab would have nicer weather than our current plan, but a 20-hour drive to get there put a bit of a damper on the idea. And so - at least for the first few days of nice weather - we decided we'd continue with our original plan.

Heading east, I took up my favorite position. One where I don't have to worry that I'm slowing anyone else down.

It was near noon as we rolled into Missoula. After a quick lunch of liquid dinosaur for the Tacoma's, it seemed only reasonable that we eat as well. Luckily, we'd mapped a route just out of town to the top of Blue Mountain, where a fire lookout an observatory would surely provide spectacular views as we downed our first trail meal of the trip.

Still fully aired up, we hit the dirt.

Fall was in the air, larches still clinging to the last of their summer green.

Turns out that the final mile - and 1000 vertical feet - of road to the lookout is closed to vehicular traffic, and while it seemed like there could be other roads that might allow us to bypass the locked gate, we opted for a quick lunch on the side of the road, allowing us to continue on towards a small ghost town outside of Philipsburg - our destination for the evening.

We made good time along the Skalkaho Highway, each end of it paved, the middle consisting of well-graded gravel.

Admiring Skalkaho Falls.

Dual cascade.

I think it was Zane who spotted the ghost town of Granite and suggested it as the spot those of us coming from the west could meet up with the one of us coming from the east. And, though there was no longer such a location needed, we figured that it might make for a nice camp area for the first night.

Up we went, quickly climbing from 5000-feet to 7000-feet. Still fully aired up, the roads here were a good bit rougher than those we'd encountered earlier in the day, and airing down would have been the right call. So, we didn't.

Just below the old Granite townsite, a tower from the Bi-Metalic Aerial Tramway was slowly deteriorating. Built in 1889 to carry ore from the Blaine shaft in Granite to the Bi-Metallic Mill near Philipsburg, the tramway was the longest in the United States - dropping 1225 feet over a distance of 9750 feet - at the time of construction.Information Sign

One of the wooden towers, still sporting the rollers that once supported a large cable that the tram cars were attached to.

Shortly after passing the tram tower, a plaque welcomed us to Granite.

Granite was often called the "town without night." Its round-the-clock mining activities created prospective customers at all hours. Many businesses operated 24 hours a day. For over a decade this town of 3,000 reigned as one of the richest and busiest sites in the West. It was Montana's "Silver Queen."

Both the Granite Mountain Mining Company and later the Bi-Metallic Mining Company operated side by side beneath the town. At the height of the operations, output from the mines ran between $250,000 and $275,000 per month. In the years between 1885 and 1892, more than $30 million in gold and silver was taken out through the Granite portals.

Charles McLure, a seasoned mining man and foreman of Philipsburg's Hope Mill is credited with taking turning the early, modest, mining successes on Granite mountain into the enormously profitable venture. With the help of his brother-in-law Charles Clark and risk capital from St. Louis business interests, McLure built the Granite operations to legendary status. Initial investors were paid back their investments within a year. They later split more than $11 million in dividends. It is estimated that McLure and Clark each made more than a million dollars from the claim.

The collapse of the silver market brought on by the repeal of the Sherman Act sealed Granite's fate. On August 1, 1893, the mines' shutdown forced a frantic mass exodus of most of the town. Word has it that a mining foreman tied down the chain of the mine's whistle, and its mournful, one-note dirge accompanied the now unemployed down the mountainside and away from Granite forever.

After the collapse, Granite Mountain Mining Corporation combined with the Bi-Metallic Mining Company as a smaller scale operation for the next three decades, but try as they might, the mines never achieved the successes seen before the crash. In 1934, the combined company ceased all operations and dissolved, leaving nature to quietly reclaim the mountain peak.

Information Sign

In the distance, the hillside was covered with tailings from what I'd later discover to be the upper aerial tramway terminal of the Ruby Shaft. This tramway extended east rather than west, and was 8750 feet long.

Finding a spot for our trucks along Main Street, the question wasn't so much if we were going to explore Granite, but rather for how long. Unfortunately, Mike's leg was acting up a bit, so as Zane and I headed up the hill towards the Ruby Shaft, Mike hung out along the main drag.

We got the best parking spots.

Several buildings still stood along main street, but none was more grand than the Miner's Union Hall. Built in 1890, this three story building cost $23,000 and was the social center of town. The first floor was constructed primarily of granite quarried locally, while the upper stories were brick.

The second floor housed union offices, a library, and a large hall with an 18 ft. ceiling, wallpaper and a special maple "spring floor" for dancing. At the back was a stage. 500 folding chairs provides seating for concerts, operas, and theatricals. The first floor was a recreation hall for the miners, with billiards and card tables. On the third floor was a meeting room used by clubs and secret orders.Information Sign

The multi-material construction seemed strange, but certainly added a unique flare to the hall.

Accented window headers.

The tin roof on a nearby building, similar to that which once covered the Union Hall.

Leaving Mike, Zane and I headed uphill towards the mine itself, following a small footpath we found through the woods. We'd later discover that a larger, Tacoma path, would have delivered us - with Mike - to the same spot with less exertion, but after a day of driving, it was nice to wander under our own power, noting the numerous stone foundations of long-collapsed homes, churches, and storefronts that once clung to the hillside.

And then, through the trees, we caught sight of a building that looked much too new. With similar stone-and-brick construction as the Miner's Union Hall, this was the Superintendent's House. Recently renovated by those who maintain this place - preserving what they can and rebuilding what can't be saved - it sported a new roof and cupolas, the new wood still bright in the early evening sun.

The super's place.

By 1889, this house stood at the head of Magnolia Avenue, or "Silk Stocking Row, " where the elite of Granite lived. The first floor housed living quarters for the Superintendent of the Granite Mountain Mining Co. The second floor may have originally housed the mine office, accessed through a door at the back reached by a plank bridgeway from the hillside. No inside connection has ever existed between the two floors.

From 1889 to 1893, Superintendent Thomas Weir lived in this house. A capable manager, Weir did much to improve living and working conditions for the miners. Sweat soaked miners would emerge from the 1,000 ft. shaft into winter's bitter cold, prime candidates for pneumonia. Without antibiotics, the death rate was high. Weir built a "drying house" and a hospital, had bunkhouses cleaned and fumigated, and gave the men one day off a week and good wages... $3.50 a day.

Information Sign

From there, we wandered a bit further, hoping to see the upper tramway terminal that we'd seen from the other side of the ravine, but soon realizing that it was several hundred feet higher up the hill - atop a tall pile of tailings - an endeavor that would have required more time and effort than we were ready to expend.

And so, it was back down to Main Street where we met up with Mike and set off in search of camp for the night.

Zane had noted a couple places from the satellite view, but with limited depth perception from outer space, it was no surprise that what we'd considered to be the prime location was anything but. A washed-out-road, on a 30-degree slope, with no view to speak of, was not our idea of an ideal camp site, and so after a quick radio exchange, we decided to split in order to speed up the search for an alternate location.

Selfishly, I volunteered to search further up the hill - along the road that Zane and I had discovered on our way back from the Superintendent's House - to see if there was something up at the mine site worth considering. Perhaps a tailings or waste pile that would afford spectacular views of the hills to the west, or a sheltered granite cove with an explorable adit. At the very least, I hoped to see that tramway terminal that'd eluded me so far…

Heading up to the top, I passed the remains of Mills A and B.

The Granite Mountain Mining Company constructed two mills adjoining the mining operation known as the Ruby Shaft. These structures, Mill A and Mill B, housed a total of 70 stamp mills which processed ore. Crushing ore to be separated by amalgamation with mercury, the mines and mills all operated six days a week.

When the production of the Ruby Shaft exceeded the capacity of Mills A and B in 1889, the Granite Mountain Mining Company built a mill in Rumsey to handle the additional ore.

They named this new operation Mill C.

Information Sign

What little wood was left was likely the supporting structure for a handful of the 70 stamp mills that once echoed across the mine.

Proceeding past the mills, I finally reached the enormous ore chute at the top of the Ruby Shaft.

At this point, I have to admit that I was both looking for a camp site but also doing a bit of sight seeing. The later was semi-rushed however, for two reasons: first, I knew Zane and Mike were waiting for me, and second, there were a couple guys with a semi-automatic-rifley-gun hanging out, looking at their phones, and enjoying the sunset. It was enough for me to hear one of them say, "I should probably turn the barrel around so it's not pointing at you," for me to decide that this might not be the safest place for us to setup camp for the night.

A small workshop below the ore chute was still in pretty good shape.

The amount of wood that went into this ore chute-tram terminal was impressive, but it's not going to be here forever!

A commanding view.

After a quick look around for somewhere that was a little more protected from errant ammunition, I called back to Mike on the Ham and reported my lack of success in finding a place for us to call home for the evening.

He and Zane hadn't had much more luck, and the route they'd taken had been rough. Mike suggested that - rather than following their track - I should head back down to Philipsburg the way we'd come up, where we'd meet up and then head to a camp site about an hour north. It was a site that Mike, Monte, Devin, @mrs.turbodb and I had camped at on the last night of our spring trip to Montana some six years earlier, and one that I'd marked on our maps as "great camp site: on a ridge, with views of the Crazies."

And then, just as I was at the fork - where I could go back the way we'd come or follow the fun route that Zane and Mike had explored - Mike came over the radio to let me know that Zane had found a site that he thought "would work."

It was the understatement of the day. Or maybe the trip.

Heading down to rendevous, I arrived to find both of my buddies with their tents deployed, chairs arranged, and a fire ring in the process of being rebuilt. Around us, a cluster of buildings - in various states of disrepair - nestled into the trees. I found a flat spot and knew that this was going to be something special.

A bright yellow aspen behind an ore chute that I was sure to investigate before we broke camp!

With the light waning, I wasted no time in looking around a bit before setting up my own digs for the night. Directly behind camp, an enormous hole in the ground - a collapsed vertical shaft - was strewn with beams more than 18" square. A little further on, a machine shop and bunkhouse - nestled spookily into the trees - were going to be on my short list for morning exploration.

I headed back towards camp. And on arriving, I couldn't help but gather up the small puck lights that Mike @mk5 had introduced me to, so I could get my first Halloween photos of the year.

Haunted bunkhouse.

Brimstone Boiler.

Darkness setting in, I gathered up my ominous lighting and made a beeline for the safety of the camp fire - now crackling away next to what would become my dinner: a big bowl of Mike's famous salsa.

Spectacularly spicy, I scooped chip after chip into my mouth. Conversation meandered from one topic to the next, log after log sustaining the warm glow that kept the chill of the night air at bay.

It was a little after midnight when we - or at least, I - finally called it quits. It'd been a strange first day, but it was only the first of a series of days that can only be described as strange.




The Whole Story


    JOHN D MORAN November 5, 2023

    Another fine adventure, thanks for sharing! The start reminded me one backpacking trip. Every year a friend at work & I would backpack into the High Sierra for a week of fishing/hiking. One year 2 other workers wanted to join us and demanded that we take a different pass over the Eastern Sierra (we usually did Whitney Portal). We told them it wasn't a good idea as the other pass was much more difficult & longer. They were determined & said they were up to it. Well, they were NOT! Jim & I were up front while the other two were dragging along. We had to keep stopping until they could catch up, it was a long slow slog and we thought the other 2 were going to die, literally. We had to camp on the side of the mountain as the two couldn't get over the pass so we lost another day on the trail. Once we finally got over the pass a storm blew in cutting the trip short. Jim & I would have waited out the storm but were afraid the other 2 wouldn't make it out if we didn't head out after only one day fishing. The lesson we learned is that many people don't know their limits and don't go with amateurs! LOL.

    • turbodb
      turbodb November 9, 2023

      Thanks so much John, glad you enjoyed as always!

      Packing up into the Sierra sounds amazing. Not for me - I really don't like carrying weight on my shoulders (though I often carried my body weight or more as a scout growing up) - but I do love the long hikes into remote country.

      I haven't been up Whitney Portal (something that I've been wanting to do for a few years, but just haven't been able to squeeze in), but we did head up a nearby pass in the John Muir wilderness. It was an absolutely amazing experience. I love it up there.

      • JOHN D MORAN
        JOHN D MORAN November 9, 2023

        I see that pass out of Bishop, we were much farther south. The pass the other 2 guys wanted to take was Old Army Pass, it's rated difficult and I told them they were not up to it but they were adamant. And we didn't realize just how out of shape they were. That pass is long, hard, and steep at about 12,000' elevation. I think we were lucky one of them didn't have a heart attack! I always enjoy back packing, pretty easy for us as we hiked almost every week, usually about 20 miles or so.

  2. Gussie
    Gussie November 5, 2023

    Love those photos you made with the puck lights. Great writing and excellent photography overall - as usual!
    Be safe out there - looking forward to your next post.

    • turbodb
      turbodb November 9, 2023

      Thanks! Those puck lights have been a ton of fun, and I always look forward to putting them in play. Though, they are a huge time suck (mostly because I'm not all that adept at placing them and end up moving them countless times to get the right effects!)

      Next post is up if you haven't seen it yet. It's one that's slightly embarrassing for me, so by all means skip it. (Or don't 😉)

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