By Jolene Ewert-Hintz EBS Contributor
An afternoon drive along a gravel road in the High Ore Gulch will lead you to a true Montana ghost town and a piece of its history. As one nears the town, remnants of a once thriving mining community pop out among the looming sagebrush and dry terrain. The silence speaks volumes, accompanied by the voices of the tumbling cabins and abandoned mill.
It all started around 1869 when John W. Russell located a claim in the area. The rich lode wasn’t developed until a few years later after Russell had sold the claim to the Alta-Montana Company. They got things rolling by building a 40-ton per day concentrator which would separate the ore from the dirt and rocks. However, early mining efforts showed little profit as high costs of transportation, equipment and living expenses took their toll.
In 1883, the Helena Mining and Reduction Company bought the struggling business and constructed a new smelter in nearby Wickes. At first, silver and lead ore were transported by wagon to Wickes, but a year later a rope tramway began to carry the heavy loads. When the Northern Pacific Railroad opened their line between Helena and Wickes, 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. By the 1880s, Comet and Wickes held a combined 300 people. Comet was once home to a school with 20 pupils, numerous homes and businesses, and of course, it’s fair share of saloons. By 1900, the ores had started to play out.
By 1913, the town was described as a ghost town. A revival came about in 1926 when the Basin Montana Tunnel Company took over operations and built a 200-ton concentrator. Described as “the most modern in Montana,” the mill became the second largest mining venture in Montana, after Butte. The local mines would go on to produce over $20 million in silver, lead, zinc, gold and copper. Work continued off and on until 1941. People started moving away and Comet became a ghost once more.
Such a large venture did not come without a cost. Toxic metal wastes and tailings eroded into High Ore Creek for more than 80 years according to reports by the Department of Environmental Quality. In 1997, a reclamation project was done to ensure the safety of people, livestock and wildlife in the area. In 2006, DEQ earned a national award for their cleanup efforts.
Comet still holds much intrigue for the local adventurer. The two-story boarding house can be seen to your left from the “main drag.” Miners could find room and board here for 75 cents of their average workday wage of $4. On the opposite side of the road you can view the old mill and bunkhouse. Many cabins and their scattered remains still dot the 12 block radius of the town. Home now to just one family, the town’s current population is three.
Comet is privately owned so please take only photos, leave only footprints and respect the owners and the town itself.
As is the case with many of Montana’s ghost towns, Comet has been victim to vandalism, bad weather and time. Comet has been neither preserved nor restored and many buildings are collapsing into disrepair. But even as the town fades away, the memories and stories live on. For now, the wind still whistles through the cracks of yesterday’s old buildings.
Directions: Comet is located about 40 miles northeast of Butte, between Boulder and Basin. From Interstate 15, take exit 160. Then follow High Ore Road, a gravel road, the final 5 miles to town.
Jolene Ewert-Hintz is the editor/publisher of “Ghost Towns of Montana” and Beyond Magazine. She shares her passion for Montana through stories and photographs on her Facebook page: Ghost Towns and History of Montana. You can visit her storefront, The Ghost Town Gallery at 427 Main St. in Deer Lodge, or visit her website, joleneewert.wixsite.com/gthofmt.