Silver mining supported a busy community high in the Elkhorn Mountains more than a century ago. A handful of year-round residents keep Elkhorn from being a true ghost town, but a beautiful setting and well-preserved buildings make a visit worth the journey.
A Swiss immigrant named Peter Wys discovered the first silver deposits and founded Elkhorn in the early 1870s, according to Bud Smith, 65, an Elkhorn resident since he was three days old. Smith spoke at a Montana Historical Society meeting Wednesday in Helena along with Craig Marr, state parks supervisor for the Elkhorn area.
Wys arrived in the area in 1869, took on a business partner named Simons, and died mysteriously in 1872, Smith said. Local folklore has it that Simons murdered Wys, he said.
Unlike other gulch towns, Elkhorn had no easy access to water because it lacked a creek. The barbershop sold water for bathing and peddlers sold water door-to-door. Unsanitary handling by these water peddlers may have triggered the diphtheria epidemics in 1889 and 1890, Smith said.
A large proportion of the 80 graves in the Elkhorn cemetery are those of children who died during the epidemic. One family lost a mother and five children in a single week, Smith said.
Despite the tragedy, Elkhorn boomed during the 1890s, its population rising to around 2,500. It had a 14-piece brass band, an opera house, schools and more than a dozen businesses. A railroad transported ore and passengers up the steep grade from Boulder to Elkhorn.
But the population declined through the ups and downs of the mining business. Only 75 residents remained by 1921, Smith said. He remembers seeing numerous homes that people had abandoned, leaving dishes on shelves and doors unlocked.
Even today mining refuses to die in Elkhorn. A small mining operation, Elkhorn Goldfields, Inc., still operates there, Smith said.
Elkhorn State Park consists of two late 19th century buildings, the only public buildings in town, Marr said. All other buildings, many of them historic business places, are privately owned, but visitors are welcome to explore Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall.
The Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks purchased the two side-by-side, crumbling buildings from the Western Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society in 1980 and went to work on repairing, stabilizing and weatherproofing them in 1993, Marr said.
"The trick with historic preservation is to keep (the buildings) looking the same," he said. FWP is trying to keep the two old buildings as they are, historically intact and "photographable,” he said.
Built in the 1890s, Fraternity Hall served as a social center, with food served on the first floor and dancing on the second floor, Marr said. The building held concerts, school programs, fraternal organization meetings, even boxing matches, and one person is known to have been shot to death there, he said.
Gillian Hall, next door, may have been built as a saloon, but its exact purpose is not known, he said. Only the first floor is accessible to the public; the outdoor staircase to the second floor collapsed long ago.
Violence was less common in Elkhorn than in other frontier towns, but not unknown. In 1889, two Gillian Hall visitors named King and Fogerty got into an argument over what music the band should play, Smith said. The spat escalated until King shot Fogerty to death in the street. King was hanged in Boulder the following year.
Many descendants of people buried in the Elkhorn cemetery live in Boulder and Helena, Marr said. Some still come out to Elkhorn to visit and tend the graves. A list of all readable grave markers in the cemetery may be viewed at www.interment.net/
Elkhorn has seen a small resurgence in population in the last five years, Smith said. For about eight years, no one lived in Elkhorn full-time, he said, but part-time residents kept that fact quiet in order to prevent vandalism. Now he knows seven people who live there year-round. Smith himself now lives in Boulder, where he runs Bud’s Auto Repair. He visits Elkhorn on weekends.
FWP depends on the locals to help protect the historic buildings from fire, Marr said. FWP, the U.S. Forest Service and the Elkhorn Landowners Protective Association have collaborated on a "Community Action Plan" to protect the town from vandalism, trespassing, wildfire and other threats, he said. The plan included assistance with fire protection; for example, FWP provided pipe for an underground water line, he said.
Vandalism has become rare in Elkhorn, Smith said.
"People's attitudes have changed," he said. "They respect the private property a lot more."