|Cooke City & Silver Gate
Yellowstone's North East Entrance
Copyright 2008 Robert V. Goss
|"Red Lodge Highway"
Cover photo from a 1936 NPRR brochure proclaiming the wonders of the new highway over the magnificent Beartooth Pass.
Postcard from the author's collection
| The Early Days . . . .
Cooke City is located at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone 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, 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.
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 the next ten years the area was blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with an influx of hopeful prospectors looking to find their fortune. A small boomtown was founded, loosely speaking, in 1872 under the name of Miner’s Camp.
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 early 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 trail from Gardiner to Cooke City. The area never experienced the huge population booms that other mining towns experienced.
Another 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, however, spent little time in the area and the miners were somewhat free to conduct their mining and prospecting operations. But, they could not lay 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.
| The area, finally realizing that mining was not their ticket to fame and fortune, exploited other potential avenues of prosperity. In 1936 a road was constructed from Red Lodge over the almost 11,000 foot Beartooth Pass and into Cooke City. This allowed the area to become another Gateway to Yellowstone. It was not a dead-end road anymore (except in winter), and people could comfortably enjoy a drive over one of the most scenic roads in the country. With a Northern Pacific RR spur running to Red Lodge, visitors could enter or leave the Park via Cooke City and the Beartooth Pass. The YP Transportation Co. ran buses from Red Lodge over the pass to the Park for many years, enabling visitors to become part of the 'Grand Tour.'
The remoteness and ruggedness of the mountains also lured snowmobilers into the area and the region became somewhat of a Mecca to the winter recreational crowd. The district attracts a multitude of hunters, fishermen, campers, skiers and others seeking to “get away from it all.” The introduction of wolves to the northern tier of Yellowstone 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.
|Copyright 2006 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
|"Main Street of Cooke City"
Sanborn Co. postcard circa 1940's
Postcard from the author's collection.
|"Cooke City Store"
A Sanborn Co. Real Photo postcard view of the Cooke City Store and the main street in Cooke City, circa 1930's. For detailed information on this historic store that is still open during the Yellowstone summers, visit
their website at
Postcard from the author's collection.
| 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 backed out of the deal. 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 the man 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.
Another controversy raged for 10 years as 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 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 the potential profits. Mining and ore processing continued in the hopes that a future 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.
|"The Range Riders Lodge"
The 1930's-era rustic log lodge built in Silver Gate to serve those visitors seeking the Old West atmosphere in a peaceful and beautiful setting. The lodge is still open seasonally to serve the public and the exterior has not changed much in the last 60+ years.
Real Photo postcard from the author's collection
The town of Silver Gate is located one mile from the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park and three miles from Cooke City. It is on the route of the Beartooth Scenic Highway.
In 1931, John L. Taylor purchased 160 acres of land from Mr. George Winn who had obtained the land form Horace Double, the original homesteader. Taylor devised plans to create a new town to serve the Yellowstone tourist trade and create an old-west style of town. He envisioned selling lots on which people who ‘wanted to get away from it all” could build their summer resort. After much planning and consideration, Park County Commissioners approved the townsite of Silver Gate in September of 1932.
Covenants were written for the townsite that required the use of rustic building materials and log construction. Taylor and J. J. White formed the Silver Gate Company to manage the business of building a new town. An article in the Helena Independent newspaper of July 4, 1937 proclaimed that “A new town is blossoming in Montana . . . and, according to the man promoting it, the best, newest and nicest little city in Montana.”
The article quoted Taylor as claiming that the water mains and telephone connections had been installed and that a lighting system was in the works. At that time there were reported to be 69 cabins, stores, restaurants, gasoline station and taverns. Construction was to begin soon on a new $10,000 log hotel that would be both “modern and rustic,” feature two stories and be 60’ by 136’ in size. The post office was approved and opened in late October of 1937.
The following year the Helena Independent reported Paul J. Campbell and P.R. Gorham were partners in the construction of the log chalet that would have 38 rooms with rustic-design beds. The main floor would provide space for a café, bar and dance floor. It was expected to open on June12, 1938. The town still retains its quaint, old-western ambiance and all the buildings in the original townsite still feature log construction.
| The Beartooth Highway
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 to construct a highway from Red Lodge over the 10,947 foot Beartooth Pass. The new road would shorten the travel distance to Yellowstone by 50 miles and provide Billings and Red Lodge with new access to the park and hopefully increased visitation through the area.
The road began near Red Lodge, where the Northern Pacific RR had a spur off of the main line. It passed through Rock Creek Canyon, negotiated numerous switchbacks, curves and gained about a mile in altitude before reaching the top of the pass. Down the other side it traversed, passing innumerable mountain lakes and streams, winding within view of Pilot and Index Peaks before meeting the road to Sunlight Basin and finally entering Cooke City. The road opened for travel in 1933, although still a long ways from completion. The Helena Independent reported in June of 1936 that the road had cost 2.5 million dollars and was opening that season as an oiled road.
Famed correspondent Charles Kuralt once dubbed it “the most beautiful roadway in America.” Due to the extreme snow conditions on the mountain, road usually closes sometime in October and does not reopen until sometime in May.
Eight to ten miles from Cooke City a junction turns east from the Beartooth Highway and takes one through the Clark’s Fork Valley, Sunlight Basin, Shoshone National Forest and climbs the steep and winding mountain to Dead Indian Pass. Crossing over the 8.060 foot pass the road twists and turns its way down, ending up at state Hwy. 120, 17 miles north of Cody.
Several tales have been related regarding the naming of Dead Indian Pass; one of which dates to the Bannock War of 1878 where some Crow scouts found a wounded old Bannock warrior on the pass. The Crow killed and scalped him and the warrior was later buried under a pile of stones. In 1877 the Nez Perce passed through the area in their quest for freedom and attempted to avoid the soldiers who were fooled into traveling through the rugged Clark’s Fork River canyon.
The road remains open year-round from Cody to the junction of the Beartooth Highway, where snow-packed roads bar travel by car or truck to Cooke City.
|Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone Park
Less than mile down the road from Silver Gate is the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park where the ranger station was constructed in 1934-35. Its rustic log construction is characteristic of the "parkitecture" style of building common in the national parks of the west during that period. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark on May 28, 1987. It is virtually unchanged since its original construction and reportedly is the best of its style remaining in the national park system.
Real Photo postcard from the author's collection.
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Cooke City History Page
Corwin History Page
Gardiner History Page
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Monida History Page
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