Gateways to Wonderland
Cooke City Mont. - Northeast Entrance
Brief History of the Early Days
Copyright 2020 by Robert V. Goss. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by an information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author.
"Cooke City, on the Red Lodge Highway to Yellowstone National Park.
Insert shows Pilot and Index Peaks"
[E.C. Kropp Co. postcard, #20291N]
The Founding of Cooke City . . . .
Cooke City is located at the northeast entrance of the park in the rugged environs of the Beartooth Mountains. Due to its remote location and being surrounded by high mountain peaks and passes, the only year-round road access is from Gardiner, Montana and through the northern tier of Yellowstone Park and the beautiful Lamar Valley. Road access from Red Lodge over Beartooth Pass and Cody over Dead Indian Pass are seasonal, opening late in the spring and closing very early in the winter
Mines in the West were generally located in remote and unpopulated locations. It was mining that fueled the engines of settlement and "civilization" in the West. But even by those standards, Cooke City was remote - it was over 130 miles from Cooke to the closest settlement - Bozeman, Montana. It was not until 1883 that the Northern Pacific Railroad came through Montana and drove a spur line south to the boundary of Yellowstone Park, where the small burgs of Gardiner and Cinnabar sprang up. Even then, it was still 60 miles of rough trails from Gardiner to Cooke City. The area never experienced the huge population booms that other mining town experienced.
The area was relatively unknown to white men until the late 1860's when gold miners prowled through the area prospecting for the elusive bane of Midas. Bart Henderson, Adam Miller, Ed Hibbard, and James Gourley were the first known miners to discover gold in the area in 1869-70. In 1871 the first mining claims were filed on Miller and Henderson mountains. The same year, prospector and explorer John H. “Jack” Baronett (or Baronette) built the first bridge over the Yellowstone River near the junction of the Yellowstone and Lamar River (then known as the East Fork of the Yellowstone. He charged a toll for men and animals and saved many a man from a wet and potentially dangerous river crossing.
Baronett's Bridge in 1871,
photo by Wm. Henry Jackson
One factor that negatively influenced growth and expanded mining opportunities was the fact that the area was a part of the Crow Indian Reservation. The Crow spent little time in the area and the miners were somewhat free to conduct their mining and prospecting operations. But, they could not file any legal claims to their land or prospects. This of course, led to a certain amount of claim-jumping and the miners had to be on their watch to make sure they, or a worthy representative was physically in the area to protect their claims.
Map of SW Montana showing the Crow Reservation Boundaries. The dotted lines are from the 1868 treaty, The cross-hatch lines were ceded to the whites in 1882.
In 1880 Jay Cooke Jr. came to the area with the idea of investing in the rich potential of some of the mines. He and his cohorts examined the prospects carefully and believed the mines would be a grand investment. However, due to the legal ambiguity of the mining and land claims, he eventually ended up backing out of the deal. However, in the meantime, the local miners were ecstatic with the prospect of having someone with deep pockets buying their claims and filling their pockets with cold cash. In anticipation of what they thought would be their financial salvation, they decided to name their town Cooke City, in honor of who they thought would be their benefactor. Even though Jay Cooke bailed out, they kept the name, hoping perhaps when the lands came into the public trust he would return. Finally in 1882 a treaty was made with the Crow and the land on which they squatted became public land, upon which they could finally file legal claims. This they did, along with making formal surveys and creating a legal townsite with lots that could be bought and sold in a normal fashion.
Jay Cooke Jr., undated. 1845-1912
[Photo courtesy Find-a-Grave]
“Meanwhile, in June 1880, the miners held a meeting and Trustees were elected to be in charge of having their new town surveyed and platted. The town site was to be a 1/4 mile wide, lying along Soda Butte Creek in the narrow defile between Miller and Henderson mountains on the north and Republic Mountain on the south. Corner lots initially sold for $20 with inside lots going for $10. A letter from a resident of Cooke City to the Bozeman Avant-Courier reported that there were “about 35 men and one woman in the new town of Cooke City. Every man has staked one or two lots in town . . . Two substantial log houses have been built on Main Street and work is progressing on more houses.” Miners that intended to purchase property included George Huston, Jack Baronett, P.W. Norris, Adam Miller, X. Beidler, J.W. Ponsford, James Gourley, and Bart Henderson. When the 1882 treaty was signed, the new town lots and mining claims became legal, after properly filing claims. The stage was set - businesses were established and homes built to form a permanent Montana town.”
[From "Pack Trains and Pay Dirt in Yellowstone", p148-150, by Robert V. Goss, 2007]
Pack Trains and Pay Dirt in Yellowstone, book written by the author. George Huston was an important founding father of Cooke City. He maintained mining operations in the nearby mountains until his death in 1886.
Copies of this booklet are still available from the author. Email for details.
Early Street Views of Cooke City
Top Left: Street view of Cooke in 1883 looking East. The Cosmopolitan Hotel at left w/half-round false front. [YNP #1714]
Top Right: View in 1887 looking West. [YNP #8217]
Bottom Left: Aerial view of Cooke City ca1887. Difficult to identify buildings, but Cooke City Store may be center left. [YNP #8221]
Bottom Right: Street view ca1930s. On right: Cole Drug, Mary's Cafe, and Shell gas station. Cooke City store at left. [Sanborn postcard #Y1319]
Top Left: "Main Street" Gas station on right, with White House Hotel center right. [Richardson Curios postcard]
Top Right: Main Street view in 1939. [YNP #24176]
Bottom Left: Main Street view in 1939. [YNP #24176c]
Early Cooke City Businesses
Cooke City Store
The ground on which the Cooke City Store was built was originally part of the "Cache of Ore Millsite," owned by George A. Huston, the earliest known prospector in the region. By the spring of 1886, John Savage and John Elder had purchased the site and were hauling milled lumber from the lower elevations around Cooke City to begin construction of their store. By the late 1880's Savage and Elder's was providing supplies for the community and area miners, but also had competition from Bause and French's mercantile store.
By the summer of 1889, Savage and Elder had sold their store to Wm. Nichols and Hiram Chittenden for $800. On Nov. 14, 1895, the court authorized the sale of the store to Sophia Wetzstein for $600. She and her husband owned other property in Cooke City and were involved in the wholesale liquor business in Livingston. George Allison, leased the Wetzstein's Cooke City Store in 1906 for $300 a year for use as a general store and began an extensive remodeling of the building. In the spring and summer of 1907, the store was enlarged to about twice its length and a basement built under that section, and sided with decorative pressed metal. Allison operated the store for two years, but encountering financial problems sold the store In July 1908, to Nels and Elizabeth Soderholm for $3,000 with $500 as a down payment, and $500 per year for five years at 6% interest. Nels was Postmaster in Cooke for many years and with his death in 1939, his wife Elizabeth was appointed to take his place. She passed away Nov. 17, 1959.
Ralph and Sue Glidden purchased the store in 1979 and ran it until 2003 when they sold it to employees Troy and Beth Wilson. The Cooke City Store remains in operation and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Early views of Cooke City Store.
Above: Late 1800s.
Below: 1920-30s Real Photo postcard
The Cosmopolitan Hotel and saloon in Cooke City was built in 1883 and opened the following year by John “Jack” P. Allen. It has been said that during the boom times, up to 150 people a night stayed at the hotel. Sometimes called the Allen Hotel, he operated the hotel until around 1937-1938. Mrs. Allen fell and broke her hip in 1937, requiring an extended hospital visit and nursing home in Livingston, cared for by Jack. It forced him to lock up the hotel. He passed away Dec. 10, 1944 at age 92, and was interred in Mountain View Cemetery in Livingston, Mont.
Right Top: Advertisement for the Cosmopolitan Hotel, from the Livingston Enterprise, 3Oct1885
Right Bottom: Cosmopolitan Hotel in 1923.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with him from the Big Timber Pioneer, 17Jun1937. Thanks to the Cooke City Museum for posting this interview:
“I am the last of the real pioneers of Cooke City,” says J.P. Allen, now in his 85th year. “I went to Cooke in 1882, soon after the country had been taken out of the Crow Indian reservation, and I have outlasted all others . . . When the Cooke stampede started in 1882 after the Indian reservation was moved, I went there and took up some claims. There was no road from Mammoth Hot Springs; only horseback trails up the Yellowstone, the Lamar and Soda Butte creek. We did have Baronette’s bridge across the Yellowstone, saving a wet crossing. At Cooke we were completely isolated, except for horseback transportation for mail and supplies. I worked out my claims that summer, and in the fall I went to Livingston and ran a restaurant. Then in 1883 I went back and built my hotel in Cooke, starting its operation in 1884. I have run the hotel ever since, except that I had it leased two years ago while Mrs. Allen and I spent a year on the Pacific coast . . . I was postmaster at Cooke during two different periods. Sometimes the mail came through from Gardiner on time, but often it was badly delayed by heavy snows. Once, for a time, the mail was carried from Columbus up the Stillwater and over the mountains to Cooke. But with plenty of groceries and lots of wood we were comfortable and happy—the little group of us who made our home in Cooke the year round."
Above Left: Photos of the Cosmopolitan Hotel with inserts of Mr. & Mrs. J.P. Allen.
[Livingston Enterprise, 1Jan1900]
Above Right: "Allen Hotel, Cooke City, Montana." Undated real-photo postcard, perhaps ca1940s - the building to the left has been torn down.
John F. Curl was born in 1853 in Pennsylvania and moved to Cooke City in 1883 to prospect for gold. He often partnered with pioneers Adam “Horn” Miller and George Huston in his various mine holdings. John married Zona Frazea, also of Cooke City, in June 1890. Together they built the Curl House that served as a combination hotel, restaurant and boardinghouse. Curl and his wife Zona sold their properties in Cooke City and moved to Gardiner around 1915 and ran the Cottage Hotel on East Main Street. The family moved after 2-3 years to Bozeman so that his children Mary Margaret (born 1898) and Thomas (born 1902) could attend college. The couple moved to Bozeman around 1918, perhaps due to health issues. John died October 1, 1924 at 71 years of age and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Livingston. His pallbearers included W.A. Hall and Herb French. Zona Curl moved to New Haven Conn. after John’s death and passed away in Feb. 1929. Her body was shipped back to Livingston for burial.
Above Right: CurL House at right.
[Courtesy Cooke City Chamber of Commerce]
Left: Curl House on left, with A.O. Saloon to its right. Real Photo postcard ca1930s
Right: Isabel Haynes across from the Curl House ca 1920s.
[FJ Haynes photo, Mont. St. Univ. #1507-002064]
Shaw's Camp & Lodge
In 1919, Walter Shaw, formerly a partner of the Shaw & Powell Camping Co. in Yellowstone, established the rustic Shaw’s Camp in Cooke City in 1919. He later setup Shaw’s Goose Lake Tent Camp by Goose Lake along the trail to the famed Grasshopper Glacier near Cooke City. The trail to the glacier was twelve miles one-way and required a 10 to 12-hour round-trip on horseback. The savvy traveler could spend the night at Shaw’s Camp and be able to spend more time in the area and not be so rushed. Shaw also maintained a guide service in Cooke City with saddle and packhorses and experienced guides. The trail to the glacier was opened up in 1921 and the camps were in use at least through 1928. In 1928 the camp was honored to welcome Ernest Hemingway and his wife for a brief respite during their travels through Montana and Wyoming. They stayed in a warm cabin and were surprised at the quality of the food in so remote of an outpost.
According to the Circular of General Information Regarding Yellowstone (NPS):
“At Cooke City are local hotels, but the organized Glacier Service is from the Shaw Camp which maintains a good string of saddle horses, operated by competent and experienced guides. The round trip can be made in one day by hardy travelers, and occupies ten or twelve hours, the ride over good mountain trails requires between three and four hours, the distance one way being around twelve miles. It is better to use more time and to spend the night at Shaw’s Goose Lake Tent Camp. This camp brings one within a mile of the saddle summit beyond which the great glacier lies. The climb to this saddle covers about 1000 feet of elevation and for a part over rough rocks, but for the greater distance over a very fair path.”
Walter died in June 1925 while crossing the Gardiner River near Gardiner. His wife Lillian continued to operate the Shaw Camp & Cabins in Cooke city until at least 1935 and perhaps later. In 1946 the Shaw Camp was taken over by Sam & Euphie Fouse, who operated the business until 1959. Around 1965, Don & Ada Ellis purchased the lodge and advertised it as the Anvil Inn. In 1974 they removed to Livingston. It is now known as the Antler’s Lodge.
One traveler noted that, “I spent a day or so at the Walter C. Shaw tourist camp at Cooke City. It was opened to the public July 16 and it is certainly a credit to the country. The camp is right in Cooke City and Mr. Shaw has tents and cabins to accommodate 150 people each day. There is a large dining hall and tourists can secure pack horses and saddle horses at the camp, Mr. Shaw takes his guests to the Grasshopper glacier, making the trip up one day and returning the next.” [Billings Gazette, 21Jul1921]
Above Right: Ad for Shaw's Camp, with Mrs. Walter Shaw, Prop. [Billings Gazette, 16Jun1935]
Above Right: Ad for Shaw's Camp, with Sam & Euphi Fouse, Prop. [Billings Gazette, 9Jul1946]
Below Left: Postcard view of the log Shaw's Camp lodge. [Sanborn Souvenir Co. #Y-1040]
Below Right: Shaw's Camp late 1930s-40s, with Yellowstone Park Transportation Co. buses. It was probably a mid-day stop between Red Lodge Mt. and Mammoth Hot Springs. The route traversed the recently completed Beartooth Highway.
Selected Historic Personages of Cooke City
John F. Curl
was among the earliest businessmen in the mining camp of Cooke City in 1883 where he operated the Curl House hotel. He was involved in mining and in partnership with George Huston and Adam "Horn" Miller. Curl and his wife Zona sold their properties in Cooke City and moved to Gardiner around 1915 and ran the Cottage Hotel on Main Street. John died October 1, 1924 at 71 years of age and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Livingston.
discovered gold in the Cooke City area with Bart Henderson and others in 1869-70, naming their mine the Shoo Fly Mine. The next few years he helped Henderson build the road from Bottler’s Ranch to Mammoth. Miller was one of the scouts under Gen. Howard during the Nez Perce War of 1877. Later on he settled down in a cabin across the Yellowstone River from Yankee Jim. He died in 1913 and an obit described him as a "man of sterling character, a man without enemies of any kind, it is said, and a citizen who always had a kind word for everyone."
George A Huston
In 1864 George Huston conducted a party of 30-40 miners up the Yellowstone River into the Lamar and Clark’s Fork drainages. Later in the year he led another party up the Madison and Firehole rivers. In 1866 he guided a small group of miners through the west entrance of Yellowstone up the Madison River to the geyser basins and prospected around Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, Mirror Plateau, and Lamar Valley. Huston was also heavily involved in the Cooke City gold mines and was one of the original Cooke City founders and townsite residents. One of his properties was known as the ‘Cache of Ore Millsite,’ part of which the Cooke City General Store was built after his death in 1886.
Colonel George O. Eaton
Was a native of the State of Maine. During the rebellion he enlisted in the army and served in the volunteer service, and after the war was appointed a cadet at West Point at the age of twenty. He later entered the cavalry service of the regular army, and in that capacity was over the whole western country, serving as member of Gen Sheridan's staff. Having become interested in mining and in stock raising, he resigned his commission in the army and gave his attention to those interests. In 1881 he came to Montana, having made large investments at Cooke the year previous. He owns personally some of the most valuable mining property at that place; he is president of the Republic Mining Co., which includes the “Great Republic,” the “Greeley,” the “Houston” and the "New World” mines; is also president of a large placer company located in Bear gulch, a tributary of the upper Yellowstone. He has disposed of his interest in stock-raising and devotes his attention to mineral interests. Col. Eaton was elected a delegate to the first constitutional convention of Montana and served as a member of that body.
[Excerpts from "History of Montana 1739-1885", Michael L. Leeson, 1885]
Nels E. Soderholm
Nels Nels and Elizabeth Soderholm purchased the Cooke City Store in July 1908 for $3,000 with $500 as a down payment, and $500 per year for five years. Nels became Postmaster in Cooke in January 1909, and held that position for many years. With his death in 1939, his wife Elizabeth was appointed to take his place. She passed away Nov. 17, 1959. His obit read,
“Death came yesterday morning to Nels E. Soderholm, for the past 39 years a resident of Cooke City, in a Butte hospital He was born in Parke. Sweden, but had lived in the United States for the past 70 years. He resided in Kansas before moving to Cooke City, where he owned a mercantile store. Surviving are his widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Soderholm; a son-to-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. William Bross, and two grandchildren. The body will be forwarded today from the Richards funeral home to Livingston for services and burial.” [The Montana Standard, Butte, 13Jan1939, p5]
Until the mid-1930’s, Cooke City was mostly at the end of the road, blockaded by the vast Beartooth Mountains. A crude road existed from Cooke City to Cody via Sunlight Basin and over Dead Indian Pass. The road was narrow, steep and winding and hazardous in inclement weather. That situation changed when plans were made in 1933 to construct a 70-mile highway from Red Lodge, over the almost 11,000’ high Beartooth Pass and into Cooke City. With a railroad spur running from Billings to Red Lodge, visitors could enter or leave the Park via Cooke City allowing the area to become another Gateway to Yellowstone. Journalist Charles Kuralt once called it, “the most scenic drive in America.” Cooke city ceased to be the terminus of a dead-end road anymore (except in winter), and people could comfortably enjoy a drive over one of the most breath-taking roads in the country. The highway officially opened to the public June 14, 1936. The Yellowstone Park Co. ran White Motor Co. buses from Red Lodge over the pass to Yellowstone for many years. The road usually closes for the winter sometime in October and reopens in May, depending on weather conditions. It may close periodically, as snowstorms in that high elevation can occur during any month of the year.
Above Left: Real-Photo postcard of a portion of the Beartooth Highway that went Red Lodge, over Beartooth Pas at an elevation of almost 11,000 feet, down to Cooke City.
Above Right: "On the Red Lodge Highroad to Yellowstone National Park in June.
In the 1880s, the miners and Montana businessmen fought Congress and Yellowstone Park advocates over the creation of a railroad line that would extend from Cinnabar through park lands and into Cooke City. This would be the only way the miners could really profitably exploit the riches of the area. Hauling ores from Cooke to Cinnabar by wagon or mule train was slow and costly, eating up most of any potential profits. Mining and ore processing continued in the hopes that the railroad would save their town and mines. Park proponents eventually beat down the railroad plan in the early 1890's, squashing the miner's hopes for riches. Mining continued on and off for the next century, with various new generations of investors hoping to make a buck off the mineral wealth. Attempts in the 1980-90's to begin a new round of metals mining generated intense opposition due to environmental factors and the New World Mining district plans were thwarted in 1996 by President Clinton.
Realizing that mining was no longer their ticket to fame, local businessmen promoted other avenues of prosperity to enhance their economy. These included, snowmobiling, hunting, hiking, 4-wheeling and tourism, and have helped to keep the local economy alive. The introduction of wolves to the northern tier of Yellowstone, although opposed by many, has added another dimension to the economic community as thousands of wolf-watchers annually trek to the Lamar Valley to scan the valleys and hills for the elusive canine, bringing extra dollars into the Cooke community.
As the old saying goes, “Gold is where you find it.” These days finding gold is perhaps more easily mined from the pockets and billfolds of the Greater Yellowstone area visitors, than it is from the earth below them.
I will not attempt to explore the vast and complicated history of the Cooke mining district, as it is beyond the scope of this article. However, a link to the Montana Dept. Environmental Quality website will provide much of the basic information.
For additional detailed material on the history of the Cooke City area,
please viisit the Cooke City Museum website.