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One Dark Mile | Montana #4

After climbing into our tents to escape the oncoming storm, wind gusts and rain continued in fits and spurts for the next several hours. Even with my tent now tied down, a stronger-than-normal gust lifted it - with me inside - six inches, a situation I was forced to remedy during a lull in the storm.

Thankfully however, by midnight, things had significantly calmed down. Winds were in the much-more-reasonable 5mph range, and only intermittent sprinkles fell on our flies. This allowed everything to dry out reasonably well by morning - each of us glad that we weren't putting our tents away wet.

Our earliest exit out of camp, we were ready to go a little after 8:00am.

After a quick breakfast - coffee for Mike @Digiratus and Zane @Speedytech7; a bowl of cereal for me - we set out to complete the final mile-and-a-half of the "short side trip" we'd embarked on the previous afternoon. But Rock Creek Road wasn't done with us yet.

We'd heard this tree fall the previous evening, but hadn't realized that it'd blocked our path!

Whipping out my 10-inch folding Japanese pull saw - a fantastic tool that can often eliminate the need to carry a heft chainsaw - I made quick work of the 12-inch trunk, Mike and Zane hauling the tree off the road a mere two minutes after I began sawing.

With open roads in front of us, liberal use of the skinny pedal ensued.

I really liked the weathered look of this little barn, nestled at the foot of the hills.

Our route this morning carried us through the remainder of our west-east traverse of the Elkhorn Mountains, the last several miles of I-15 pavement popping us out at the little town of Boulder, Montana. This was a place we'd all been looking forward to, but one that Zane - the most go-with-the-flow guy I know when it comes to the specifics of a route - had piped up to say he was curious about and definitely wanted to run. We were headed through the Boulder Tunnel. Or the Wickes Tunnel. Or the Boulder-Wickes Tunnel. Whatever it was called, he wanted to do it.

It's not often that we head toward a ridgeline with plans to drive *through* the mountain.

The final approach.

Records indicate the Montana Central Railway, which constructed the tunnel, called it the "Boulder Tunnel" and "Montana Tunnel Number 6". However, early maps (from 1900) designate it the "Wickes Tunnel". What to call it still causes many arguments among the tunnel's fans.

Work on the tunnel began in March of 1887 and it officially opened on October 25, 1888. On that day, the tunnel was 6,115 feet long - at the time, the longest train tunnel in Montana. In 1893, portals were added to the tunnel, extending it by another 30 feet. Eleven men were killed during its construction, ten of which died in a dynamite explosion in September of 1888.

Construction & maintenance camps existed on both ends, with the southern (Boulder) side camp known as Amazon and the northern (Wickes) camp known as Portal.

After a cave-in in 1891, the tunnel's wooden lining was replaced with one of brick and granite and a six-foot-wide steel beam was inserted into the ceiling.  Doors at both ends of the tunnel were intended to stop ice build-up inside the tunnel, though these doors have deteriorated over the years and no longer provide the protection they once did.

The first train that went through the tunnel was on October 24, 1888, a day prior to the official opening. The last train through the tunnel was on January 9, 1972.

Montana Overland & 4x4 Adventures

Are we really going in there?

Even from outside the portal, it was obvious that we were in for a wet mile - water pouring through the roof of the tunnel and flowing down the road towards our Tacomas. This wouldn't be a problem - we hoped - but better safe than sorry, and not knowing how deep the water would be, we dug out and donned our Muck Boots before slowly inching into the inky blackness.

Knowing that I'd be stopping for quite a bit longer in the tunnel than my buddies, I was bringing up the rear.

While long - in fact, much longer than I think any of us expected - the tunnel is perfectly straight, so a small dot of light (at the end of the tunnel) is visible from each end. I can assure you, however, that the dot of light did not afford us any comfort as the water level continued to climb up the sides of our trucks. 6 inches became 12. 12 inches became 18. Soon we were making bow waves in water 30 inches deep.

It was time to stop for some pictures.

Even in the deep water, we weren't the first to have stopped.

I knew I was quite a way behind Mike and Zane when each puddle I encountered was still enough to reflect the tunnel walls.

Dark... or light?

After dorking around for much longer than I should have - but still shorter than I would have had I been alone - I stowed the LED puck lights and put away the tripod. Surely this is a place I'd be visiting again - for one reason or another - and I didn't want to keep my buddies waiting any longer than I already had.

We made it.

Three abreast.

The tunnel complete, it was finally decision time with regards to the weather. With rain - and rain/snow mix - projected for the remainder of our planned trip, we'd already decided that we'd be heading home by the end of the day. The only question remaining was how we should get there. The easy answer would be to retrace our route to Boulder, hopping on pavement almost immediately. Or, we could follow a route north - on dirt - through the Elkhorn Mountains, to Helena, where we could jump on US-12 before following I-90 the rest of the way home.

After a bit of discussion - and convincing ourselves that we likely had plenty of time to travel the 40 dirt miles before too much rain or snow fell at the higher elevations - we opted for the dirt route. This - we assumed - would take us approximately two hours, as it was a route we'd previously run with Monte in 2018, and neither of us remembered it being anything but reasonably well-graded.

First though we wanted to find a place to have lunch.

Zane's rear suspension doing its thing. And doing it well.

The clouds were looking nice, but we knew they'd soon run us out of Montana.

Only a few minutes later, we arrived in Comet. An old ghost town, we had no idea that this place even existed - much less how cool it was - but it seemed the perfect place to do a little poking around and a little lunching.

Rounding the corner to the impressive Comet Mill was more than enough incentive for us to spend an hour looking around.

Mining began in what would become known as the High Ore Mining District as early as 1869, when a man named John W. Russell began to prospect in the area. However, after working on his claim for five years, Russell sold it to the Alta-Montana Company in 1874, which invested heavily in mining operations and soon a 40-ton-per-day concentrator - a mill process that separates the ore from the dirt and rocks - sat on site. By 1879, the Alta-Montana Company had invested more than $500,000 in developing the Comet and nearby Alta Mines.

However, these efforts were unsuccessful in turning a profit due to the high costs of transportation. Still, director - and major stockholder - of the Alta-Montana Company, Samuel T. Hauser, was determined to make a go of the Comet Mine. So, in 1883, he formed the Helena Mining and Reduction Company, purchasing the assets of the struggling Alta-Montana Company to once again invest in the Comet Mine.

Almost immediately a new smelter was constructed in nearby Wickes along with a 100-ton concentrator at the mine site. At first, silver and lead ore were transported to the smelter by wagon, but a year later a more efficient rope tramway began to carry the heavy loads. When the Northern Pacific Railroad opened their line between Helena and Wickes in 1887, mining operations began to grow.

The town of Comet was officially surveyed and platted in 1876, and its first post office opened the following year. Through the 1890s, Comet and Wickes held a combined 300 people, including a 20-student schoolhouse, numerous homes and businesses, and nearly two dozen saloons. The mine became profitable enough to weather even the silver panic and depression of 1893.

As is always the case, the richest ore didn't last forever. By the turn of the century, the accessible ore was beginning to play out, and the mine sold several times over the next several years, eventually falling into disrepair.

Things changed again in 1927 when the Comet and the Gray Eagle Mines were purchased by the Basin Montana Tunnel Company. A 200-ton concentrator - described at the time as “the most modern in Montana," - was constructed using ore modern techniques and soon the mines were buzzing again, once again employing about 300 men and weathering the depression years. During the 1930s, the operation was the second-largest mining venture in Montana (second only to Butte), and mining operations continued until 1941, at which time most of the equipment was sold, the people moved away, and Comet became a ghost town for good.

Over its lifetime, the Comet mine produced some $20 million in lead, zinc, iron, copper, silver, and gold ore and was the richest mine in the district.

History of Comet, Legends of America

With the main structure we wanted to check out - the 200-ton-per-day concentrator - clinging to a hillside, and with Mike's leg bothering him enough that he wasn't going to climb the loose rock to the top, Zane and I set off to explore while Mike pulled out a chair and his longest lens to watch from below.

Before getting to the concentrator, an enormous boarding hall immediately next door shown bright in the mid-day sun.

Upstairs, a series of identical rooms all fed the same hallway.

Seriously Zane?
(don't fret internet, this was not *our* Zane)

After poking around the boarding hall, it was time for what would be our main event. Not knowing the history at the time, I'd referred to the building that stretched more than 300 feet up the hillside as the mill, and I fully expected to find mill-related machinery in the reasonably well-preserved shell.

Unfortunately, it was just the opposite - with the exception of collapsing timbers, the interior was nearly empty - only a few old concrete sluiceways and an old canvas-belt-driven steel winch inhabiting the space.

The only piece of machinery left, this old winch must have been harder to move than its value in scrap.

Of course, the requisite disrespect was also on display.

Above the concentrator, a few workshops - similarly devoid of machinery - also clung to the hillside. Strewn amongst these were two old rusty elevator cars, each laying on their side, but a cool discovery, nonetheless.

This would have hung from a cable, transporting men and equipment down - and back up - through the vertical shaft that led to the heart of the mine.

Our exploration complete - or at least, as much exploration as we were going to do today, as there are many more buildings and structures to poke around in the old ghost town of Comet - we headed back down to our trucks and had a leisurely lunch in the sun, filling Mike in on the details of what we'd found.

And then, as clouds began to fill the sky from the south, we headed north.

We wouldn't outrun them forever, but we did avoid the initial sprinklings of water that passed through Comet a few minutes after our departure.

Initially, the road towards Quartz Creek was as we'd expected - a reasonable two-track flowing from one hillside to the next - allowing us to make good time as we attempted to outrun mother nature. For the second - or perhaps third - day in a row, we crisscrossed the same set of transmission lines that we'd been following east, their high voltage conductors crackling loudly overhead - a reminder of the lightning we'd experienced the previous evening.

I don't often have the chance to capture a Tacoma disappearing into the distance, so even as I'd catch up to my buddies, I'd quickly fall behind again as I took advantage of this opportunity.

Plent of bracing to keep the conductors from getting frisky in high winds!

Winding amongst the ridgelines, the sky adding some interesting atmosphere to our route.

When the sun broke through, the colors exploded before us.

The further north we got, the less we recognized the route over which we found ourselves passing. This was strange - especially given the fact that I'd clearly marked three camp sites along this route - since the last time we'd visited, we'd come from the north, access to the southern end of the route blocked by snow! Whatever the reason for our disorientation, we also found the terrain becoming more and more rugged. Combined with the first few drops of rain from the sky, we found ourselves wondering if we'd made the right call in trying to squeeze in one more dirt road before calling it a day.

Of course, the answer - as it always is - was yes. There's always time for dirt roads. We don't melt in the rain.

As the trail entered the woods, it narrowed.

Catching the last of the fall colors as we headed north.

We certainly weren't pushing 30mph anymore.

Luckily for us, the slower section of trail didn't last all that long - perhaps an hour, tops - and after rerouting our way around an unexpected, locked gate - we soon found ourselves back on the dirt highways that would deliver us to Helena.

A winter stash, soon to be buried under a blanket of snow.

It's never fun running into a locked gate on one end of a 45-mile road, but with less than a mile of backtracking, we soon discovered a route around the closure.

The rain that'd passed through earlier in the day had only dampened the roads, leaving them fast and dust free!

Just after 3:30pm, we wound our way down through Grizzly Gulch, stumbling unexpectedly on the Lime Kilns shortly after hitting pavement. It was the perfect place to air up, so as our compressors hummed away, we wandered across the street to soak a last little bit of history before heading home.

The dished hearth of one of the kilns was a nice piece of workmanship.

Lime manufacture was an essential industry for building in brick and stone in the nineteenth century. The Grizzly Gulch outcrops, and the kilns below them, supplied the entire region with lime of the highest quality. Joseph O'Neill built the first of these kilns in the late 1860s. Hewn timbers, hand-forged metal braces, and finely laid fire brick shipped from the East illustrate the kilns' sturdy construction. Workers blasted or quarried the limestone out of the hills behind, conveyed the rocks on handcars to the kilns or tumbled them down the embankment, and dumped them into the tops of the chimneys.

Pine fires in the furnace beneath burned constantly. After several days, workers shoveled the powdered lime into the cooling shed adjacent the kiln and teamsters hauled it to the building site. Each kiln could produce some 20 tons of lime every eight hours. Irish-born James McKelvey later leased and then owned the kilns, supplying the mortar for the construction of the Montana State Capitol. Lack of railroad access eventually forced closure circa 1910 although one kiln operated again briefly in the 1930s.

Information sign

Red, white and green, transforming from dirt eaters to pavement princesses. Or something.

Back in civilization, we were the center of attention as we sped along US-12 - three, nicely spaced, fully outfitted Tacomas racing along at 72mph - towards I-90. Up and down through several passes, I did my best to keep up with my supercharged and turboed counterparts, my engine screaming several hundred rpm higher than theirs at the same speed.

Cresting one pass, a wildfire to the south was likely the result of the storm that'd passed through our camp the previous evening.

It'd been another fun trip - most definitely not what we'd expected in terms of participants or length - leaving us with the best feeling of all: we wanted to return, to finish what we'd started.

That, though - with winter on the way - would have to wait.



The Whole Story


    JOHN D MORAN November 16, 2023

    Some of the best photos I've seen with excellent narrative. The tunnel reminds me of back when my friends and I explored and hiked many tunnels and mines in the desert and mountains, always exciting. I hadn't mentioned before but it's great how you insert links to previous adventures and other points of interest, it makes for great story telling. Again, I really appreciate seeing these wonderful places that I will never be able to visit myself, it's the next best thing to being there in person, THANK YOU!

    • turbodb
      turbodb November 16, 2023

      Thanks John, always glad to hear when you enjoy them!

      As for the links - I always struggle with how much to say in a given story, when I may have already said the same thing (fact) in a previous adventure. I know that most people are unlikely to click through, but usually I'll link back to the related story if there are some cool photos or something that I think are really worthwhile; otherwise, I'll just repeat the detail again to make the flow "easier."

  2. David Devoucoux
    David Devoucoux November 17, 2023

    A wonderful trip!
    Loved the tunnel!

    Thank you, Dan...

    • turbodb
      turbodb November 17, 2023

      You're always welcome David - glad as always that you enjoyed it! 👍

  3. Bill Rambo
    Bill Rambo November 19, 2023

    Well told and photographed. Great trip and scenes with friends. Thanks for the ride along!!

    • turbodb
      turbodb November 19, 2023

      Thanks Bill! Was definitely a fun time - though a bit of a bummer that Monte couldn't come at the last minute. The good news on that front is that we're going to give it a shot again. We're headed out in a bit to explore the desert - hopefully all four of us this time!

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