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Comet ghost town: Silent witness to a thunderous past
Photo by Eliza Wiley, IR Photo Editor - Log structures that were once homes to miners and their families still stand, in what is now the privately owned ghost town of Comet, between Basin and Boulder. Pictured Ellen Rae Thiel, a local history enthusiast from Boulder, tells tales of Comet's history.

COMET -- Once lauded as one of Montana's most intact ghost towns, Comet is slowly collapsing into the surrounding grass and sagebrush.

What vandals and thieves haven't carried away, the wind and the weather are. So too goes its history, drifting away with the passage of time and people and fading memories.

A visitor can't help but notice the silence while standing on a hillside street, which once bustled with horses pulling ore wagons, children playing, miners walking to work and citizens stopping to visit with each other. The town rumbled with the overwhelming roar of the mill.

Now, the street is overgrown with sagebrush, rabbit brush and currant bushes.

During this recent summer-day visit, a hawk silently circles overhead. A lean dog on the hillside lets loose with a spat of ferocious barking. Occasionally, there is the crunch of gravel and swirl of dust from a passing car.

Over the tumble and gurgling of a nearby creek rise the voices of local history enthusiasts Ellen Rae Thiel and Nancy Alley. They will share some of the history of Comet Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Montana Historical Society.

What is known about the town, located between Boulder and Basin, is frankly piecemeal. These are bits of stories and facts gathered from conversations, articles, old newspaper clips, mining summaries and a photo album.

Thiel and Alley's voices echo across the valley and bounce back. For just a moment, the voices are surprising as they drift back, seeming to come from within the walls of the shuttered gray metal mill across the way. Could it be miners conversing over their lunch of pasties?

In 1885, the greater Comet area was home to 300 residents and contained approximately 90 buildings, according to news articles and records.

Now a dozen or so buildings remain in various stages -- some still standing firm, but many others with sagging roofs, falling-in porches and floors and gaping broken windows.

Walking down High Ore Road, Thiel and Alley point out the town's most prominent structure, the Dailey Hotel, now closely wrapped by an aspen grove.

Long ago, a nearby spring fed water into a barrel at the hotel and local children would bring buckets here to haul home water.

On a hillside, stands a simple, L-shaped wooden house, where members of one of Comet's early families, the Mattsons, lived, said Thiel.

On another hill stands the house of Stephan and Maria Giulio (see side story).

The Giulio family has been prominent in Comet's history, with family members mining the area for generations. They later purchased much of the town, seeking to protect it from theft and vandalism.

"John (Giulio) had files and files and files of information about this town and mining in general," said Thiel. However, Giulio now lives at the Veterans Home in Columbia Falls, and the fate of the files is unknown, she said.

Protecting the town takes vigilance.

A typed, fading sign posted years ago on one of the deserted houses reads, "Will the party who stole the clothes, closet doors, shelves from the kitchen cabinet and also the dresser, please return them." It is signed Jennie O. Giulio.

Thiel and Alley, both founders of the local Heritage Center in Boulder, have worked with the 21st Century Community Learning Center Program at Boulder Elementary to provide historic tours of Comet.

There's talk and dreams of someday having a map and interpretive signs, telling some of the town's history and identifying the buildings, said Thiel.

What is known from historic records is that John W. Russell began mining in the Comet area, probably as early as 1869.

By 1874 he filed for a patent on the Comet Lode. Later that year, Alta-Montana Company purchased the mine and built a 40-ton-per-day concentrator.

In 1876 the town was platted and surveyed. It consisted of 12 blocks laid along three east-west streets and three north-south streets.

In 1877, the Comet post office opened. It would later be robbed twice, said Thiel.

Despite substantial investments, area mines failed to turn a profit in the early 1880s because of the high cost of transportation for everything from building materials to shipping ore, according to a recent Montana Magazine of Western History article.

But the opening of a branch line of the Northern Pacific Railroad near Comet led to expansion of mining operations.

The Helena Mining and Reduction Company invested in new efficient equipment at the Comet Mine in the 1880s and added hoists and water pumps, and a $20,000 aerial tramway to transport concentrates from Comet to the Wickes smelter.

The Comet Mine was profitable through the rest of the decade and the 1890s, weathering the silver panic and depression of 1893. The mine was sold several times in the early 1900s. Although most precious metals had been mined out by then, the mine continued to produce valuable lead, zinc and iron.

During these prosperous years, the Comet School had at least 20 children attending. And the town "boasted 22 saloons," according to one state document.

In 1926, the Basin Montana Tunnel Company took over the mine and built a 200-ton flotation mill or concentrator. The mill was called "the most modern in Montana."

Mining would continue at Comet through the Great Depression, employing about 50 men, who earned an average of $5 per day, according to the Montana Magazine of Western History. Comet was referred to in the 1930s as "the largest mining venture in Montana outside of Butte."

"The Comet and Basin areas were little Buttes really," said Thiel.

By 1911, the Comet had produced $13 million in silver, lead, zinc, gold and copper, according to historic records. It would eventually be credited with producing a total of $20 million before the mine finally closed when the United States entered World War II and the townspeople left.

There were dreams that the prosperity would return. Local newspapers in the 1960s carry stories of possibly reopening Comet Mine.

There are also blurry photos in 1967 of a delegation of ranchers, county commissioners and sportsmen who volunteered to rechannel some of the mill and mine waste so it wouldn't flow into the Boulder River during spring floods.

Mining ghost towns may stir the imagination with romantic images, but the reality is that many were also toxic.

"Poisonous minerals are causing damage to cattle in the Boulder Valley and with another wet spring could cause loss of fish in the Boulder River," reads the 1967 photo caption.

Metal mining wastes and tailings from Comet eroded into High Ore Creek for more than 80 years, according to Department of Environmental Quality reports. This included 32,000 cubic yards of streamside tailing and 5,800 cubic yards of waste rock.

In 2006 DEQ earned a national award for its cleanup of the Comet Mine. When reclamation began, fish could only survive 72 hours in High Ore Creek because of its toxic brew of lead, zinc, copper and arsenic.

"The area was a danger to wildlife, livestock and people," the award states.

Today, the mine site, tunnels and tailings piles are gone, replaced by gently curving hillsides of golden brown grass, yarrow, rabbit brush and sagebrush.

However, in the minds of those who lived there, such as the Giulios, they can still see every detail of the mine and its tunnels and hear the din and thunder of the flotation mill.

Presentation:

"Exploring the Ghost Town of Comet," a presentation by Jefferson County history enthusiasts Ellen Rae Thiel and Nancy Alley.

When: 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 13

Where: Montana Historical Society

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