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The Mosey Through Marysville

Standing up on that hill beneath the shadow of Mount Belmont was the crown of the town, an old cabin with only its walls still vertical. The dwelling faced east, and the wood stain from long ago had been bleached lighter and lighter with the decades of sun, only holding on in the boards' most porous spots. The front wall with its steep pitch cast a distinct shape upon the hills, and It made me wonder if my young great-grandfather had laid his own eyes on the same structure looming above the town so many years ago.


I turned onto Main Street with not a soul in sight, even though the town still holds onto a population of around 50 people. Pulling into the parking lot of the Marysville House, a famous old spot in the town known for their steaks, I sauntered up to the door. I was soon dismayed to see that they were closed for the next few weeks during the start of the offseason. Having a quick late lunch in the camper while looking at a plot of the town, I then set out down Main Street and found an informative board with paper maps of the town, explaining some of the history of many of the old buildings still standing.


Image courtesy of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library


The town found its beginnings with the luck of Tommy Cruse along Silver Creek on a fateful day in 1876. He was an Irishman who had come up looking for the motherlode and went on to found the Drumlummon Mine. Eager miners soon began to arrive in droves, and the early settlement was born, getting its name from its first female resident, Mary Ralston. The first post office came to town in 1881, and within a couple years, the mine proved so profitable that Cruse sold it to an English company. They expanded operations, and by 1884, building out a massive 110-stamp mill.


The town continued to blossom as people flocked to support the dozen mines in operation. There were over 50 businesses, including nearly 30 saloons, half a dozen hotels, and numerous shops selling food, dry goods, and supplies. Soon enough, there were two railroad lines servicing the town, and the mines operated around the clock. Nearly 4000 people called the town at its peak, and the local school had over 250 children to keep busy in their books. Similar to the Montana ghost town of Garnet, Marysville was a very social community shortly after its beginnings, with family activities like ice cream socials as well as events that drew a wider audience, such as the drilling contests.


In these competitions, men would see who could take their hand drill and bore the deepest into the hard rock. With the heavier hammers, they acted in teams of two, trusting each other to hit their mark and not obliterate the other mans hand who was holding the drill. Miners from across the world would compete in these contests to see who could hold the world drilling record. They would have special drills made, and in this case, a 'drill' just means a piece of round or octagonal steel with some sort of point at the end. These drills would have a special edge as well as unique flaring, and some competitors even went as far as to have custom hammers made. These competitors were the modern pro athletes of the mining world back then, and the prize money often included "cases of champagne and liquors."


Miners had a few other contests as well, including pushing mine carts and machine drilling, but the hand drilling drew the largest crowds. On August 18th, 1907, one of the largest contests was held in Butte, also known as the "Richest Hill on Earth," with its behemoth infrastructure of miles of mines and tunnels beneath its modern skyscrapers. This hand-drilling contest drew over 25,000 spectators in a city not much larger than 35,000 residents.



Main Street in Marysville these days is a bit sparse, with the Masonic Lodge and the J. A. Shaffer Mercantile standing front and center. The mercantile, which consisted of sturdy stacked stone walls, was likely built from stones leftover from the mines. It was unfortunate that the fence was necessary, since it shielded the interior from view, but at least an effort of preservation was being made. Across the street was Marysville House, and down the street was a thin, deep building constructed of a similar stone, now operating as a small shop. Based on the haphazard arrangement of the surviving buildings, it appeared that there had been a ruinous blaze at some point, like nearly every single settlement across the arid west.


Just down the street stood the Shaffer House, now shrouded in aspens and guarded by a 1930's rust-smattered sedan. Originally occupied by James and Donalda Shaffer just after the turn of the century, they had several children in Marysville while running the Mercantile pictured above. Their children ended up donating their parents Victorian abode to the Marysville Pioneer Association in the late 1960s for preservation. The things that Victorian front porch must've seen with its carved corbels and custom-designed screened door. Seated right there on Main Street, it surely witnessed countless mining wagons full of supplies bustling by, along with the sound of the steam engine screamin' up the grade from the east right besides the home. Not ten yards away was the edge of a vast depression in the earth where the old Northern Pacific turntable rested. The gargantuan iron machine was used to turn the engines around for their return trip down the mountain. The Northern Pacific came to Marysville in the 1880s, and service continued for nearly 40 years.



Continuing on, I took in the late afternoon air as the sun settled, soon to disappear, dropping the line of sunshine lower and lower, nearly out of the town now. It was quiet, and all was clam, with barely any wind, even though the town was relatively exposed, perched on the mountainside. If it weren't for a few modern amenities spotted here and there, accompanied by the occasional bark, one could think the town was still abandoned. Following the map on a pamphlet I'd acquired, I walked through the streets of town and came upon the old Methodist church, one of the only buildings in town listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The boarded-up windows were a bit surprising for an occupied town, but perhaps they just wanted to protect the original glass panes from 1886.



Merely a few feet away stood the Catholic church, painted a stark white in contrast to the Protestant house of worship. Further along, at the end of the street, the map indicated the oldest building still standing in town, a cabin where the first doctor resided, was located somewhere in front of me. Peering into someone's yard, I could make out a small, sturdy square structure, obscured a bit by some brush and sage. Appearing to be just a single room with walls made of well-aged timbers, I wished I could walk up and poke my head inside. It looked as though it wasn't much anyways these days, likely used for storage.


The yards were all well kept, and the late-fall grass was cropped close to the ground, giving the ghost town a tidier feel than most. A dog wandered the streets, watching me as I moved about. At one point, he let a few harsh barks escape, reminding me that that was his turf and I was merely a passerby. I have tried to research more into my great-grandfather's birth in 1908 and subsequent early life in Marysville, but like many boomtowns of the time, written records of most things were just an afterthought. He moved all around Montana throughout his life, from logging trees up in Cut Bank to building homes in downtown Columbia Falls. He was a man of many talents. A lifelong hunter, he and my great-grandmother both played their parts to help fill the icebox each fall with deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and occasionally a moose.


At the corner of Marysville Road and Main Street was an expansive single-story building made of large rock that had been recently restored. The owners had turned it into a commercial space used for weddings these days. It was nice to see that someone had achieved the goal of fully reviving one of those old spots. On its side was a plaque with some history: As early as 1898, there had been a general store there, operated by Ann and Bibal Betor. Bibal was originally from Lebanon, where he sold ornate rugs. His new store had a bit more variety to offer its customers, including "Dry Goods, Gent's Furnishings, Children's Ware and 'Notions.'" It was also noted that they sold nice things for the ladies as well. Like most frontier establishments, the first version of the store was made of wood, and it burned in a fire somewhere around 1900. The next version of the general store that came about was constructed of the stone seen in the photo below. By the 1940s, the store had closed, and the building had become the Cotton Club Saloon and Dance Hall. A few other tenants used the space for a decade or two afterwards, but then the building fell into disrepair. In 2004, a group began to stabilize the structure, and nearly 15 years later, in 2018, the restoration was complete.



Moving on from the end of town, I went back past main street towards Marysville Road, which continued on past to wind up the mountain itself, following Silver Creek to its source. I knew the mine was up there, and I had hoped to explore for tunnels, but the site was shrouded in trees behind homes on what looked like private property. It was also getting dark, and I figured I would have to get going before long and find my campsite for the evening.


Behind that, I wandered towards the hillside where cabin walls lurched up out of the weeds, leaning this way and that, barely holding on against the unstoppable forces of nature, time, and gravity. Standing in the middle of those walls, my legs staggered between old timbers, and my mind ran wild with the untold and unrecorded moments that must've happened in that small space alone. The cabin had likely been the home of a family at one point, perhaps multiple. Children were likely born on its floors, and meals shared around its center. Laughter had hopefully echoed off of those walls, as well as unfortunate cries muffled by them all the same. The occupants likely endured plenty of hardship to get there, and it surely failed to terminate upon their reaching their intended destination, up there perched a mile high in Montana's Rockies.


Further above was the shell of a cabin I mentioned in the beginning. Walking up from behind now, I could see markers jutting out of the rocky soil behind the home on the hillside. Flashes of pink and red at their bases came into view among the dormant grasses, and I noticed that they were fabric flowers placed there to decorate the final resting places. One of the crosses even had a full bottle of beer as a companion. Shifting my eyes, I was surprised to see a recent date on one of the crosses: 2016. Most ghost town cemeteries, in my experience, have usually laid quiet for a long time, with no new souls added in the past 50 years in the majority of cases. Though there were occasional 21st-century additions, once such as this, not even five years old, was surprising to me. Then again, if they had been one of the few modern residents who lived in town, that wouldn't be out of the ordinary.



What still puzzled me, however, was the general unkempt state of that graveyard and its proximity to a house, or was it just a house? Perhaps it was a house of worship that led to the establishment of a cemetery. The house was perched on a central hill above town after all; however, the structure bore no substantial evidence to indicate that it had been such a place. No steeple, though the roof was gone anyways, and it lacked the big double doors on the front; besides, it was much too small to fit more than a few people in any case.


Perhaps the cemetery was a more modern one compared to the mining days; there was a steel cross as one of the markers after all, too important of a commodity back in the day to be used for headstones. There was no fence surrounding the place either, another oddity. I could see why people had wanted to be buried there, though; the view looking down the gulch was sure a sight, as the baby blue sky faded to brilliant white on the horizon with the shimmering sun setting behind the ridge to the east. Giving forth the last burst of brightness to the ever-advancing line of light at the shadows edges before the evening slumber settled in.


Like so many other early Montana towns, Marysville had its heyday, and then the ore played out, leaving little opportunities for work, forcing most residents to move on. That's what my grandfather did, finding his way north following the work in the timber and the building of infrastructure in the form of the Hungry Horse damn, named after a couple of starving horses who wandered off during the winter of late 1900, Jerry and Tex.


This time to move on for many Marysville residents had begun by the time of the First World War. After a 1909 fire decimated the town and a few mines shuttered their doors, many people could see the writing on the wall. The Drumlummon Mine remained open until 1948, but the town slowly shrank. Homes were moved in the 1950s, and the town was soon abandoned. Only in recent years has the town seen a rebound of activity, with more residents moving in and fixing up old homes as well as building a few new ones. When the price of gold went up around 2010, the Drumlummon Mine actually reopened briefly before falling prices forced its closure once again not long after.


These days, Marysville's main street remains a relic of the past, looking a lot more like what it once did compared to what the rest of the world has now become. It is good to see a ghost town that still lives and breathes with life these days. The Great Divide Ski Area is just up the road and likely helps with the presence in Marysville in the 21st century. Good old Mount Belmont isn't giving up anymore gold for now; her value lies in the swift turns and rocky mountain powder raining down from that Big ole' Sky.















Sources:


Alexander, Kathy. “Marysville, Montana – Home of the Drumlummon Mine.” Legends of America, Legends of America , Nov. 2022, www.legendsofamerica.com/mt-marysville/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2024.


Grame, Doug. “Competition Drilling .” Bisbee Mining and Minerals , www.bisbeeminingandminerals.com/competition-drilling-. Accessed 04 May 2024.


“Vinnie Margaret Shaffer.” FamilySearch.Org, Intellectual Reserve, Inc. , ancestors.familysearch.org/en/GS8Y-CM2/vinnie-margaret-shaffer-1909-2001. Accessed 28 Apr. 2024.


Heilbronner, Chas, and Lyman A. Sisley. View of Marysville, Montana, and Drum Lummon Mine and Mill (110 Stamps) . Western Mining World, Souvenir Edition Vol IV, No. 68 , 1896.


U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Montana: Hungry Horse Dam. National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/montana-hungry-horse-dam.htm




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