When exploring the Little Rockies, you have to divide the exploration into four areas: the Zortman area, the Landusky area, the Hays area, and the north area around Lodgepole.
Much of the history of this area revolves around mining and Landusky is where it began. On July 3, 1884, Frank Aldridge found gold in his sluice box on Alder Creek. Dutch Lewis and Pike Landusky were right there with him. Landusky, not exactly the quiet type, headed for Lewistown immediately with news of the strike and plans to create a mining district. The rush was on. Within a week the first hopeful prospectors were staking out claims up and down the creek. A month later a mining district was formed, and within two months the little camp had turned into a bustling, rowdy, lawless community of tent saloons, dugouts, and hastily ramshackle log cabins. A dance hall and grocery store also sprang up. The town was robust and the gulches were lined with prospectors working their claims. Arguments erupted which were often resolved with gunfire. Indians and prospectors jostled each other on the main street. Deals were made daily for claims, lumber for sluice boxes, liquor, and news of more profitable sites. The calvary from Fort Assiniboine camped in a clearing nearby, sent to keep the peace.
But the gold didn’t pan out. Optimism was maintained by the salting of mines, of false reports of strikes up or down the creek. It was said the same nuggets turned up in one sluice box after another. In fact, the miners worked hard just to buy their beans and bacon. By fall it was all over.
It was 10 years before the ever optimist Landusky and his partner Bob Ormond struck it rich at the August mine.
Landusky is mostly a ghost town today. This was the town where Kid Curry shot Landusky in the saloon Landusky owned. This was where the “Kid” started his life of crime and ended it in these parts. You can still see the grave where Pike is buried here under a pile of rocks with a carved wood grave marker.
Pete Zortman arrived soon after gold was discovered here. He and his partner built a mill near the town named for him. They proved that you could extract gold from low-grade ore and make a profit. The mill ran for five years.
Soon after the Ruby Gulch Mine was discovered, followed by the Independent, and the Carte.r, Mint, and Divide. Four partners including Charley Whitcomb acquired and developed the mine and constructed a mill that at one time was producing as much as $14,000 a day in gold bullion. The Ruby Gulch Mill was built in 1904, enlarged in 1914, and later destroyed by fire. A new 600-ton mill was built to replace it. All work was suspended when World War I broke out, and the town quickly became a ghost town. The new mill burned to the ground in 1923. Whitcomb was the only one of the original partners to keep his interest in the mine and in the 30s he returned to purchase the August Mine, found a new strike, and built another mill. The first car of ore they shipped from the August returned close to $15,000. Whitcomb later opened the Ruby Gulch Mine again. The mill still stands now hidden in growths of brush and trees. The mill was the second largest cyanide mill in the world at the time it was operating. WW II forced the closing of the mines and in 1936 a terrible fire swept the Little Rockies. Since that time there have been no big mining developments.
History records that the Whitcombs made and lost several fortunes through the years. At times, they occupied a mansion in Helena. When their fortunes faded, they would move back to their homes in Zortman or over the divide near Beaver Creek. The old cemetery in Zortman has a special place for the Whitcombs. It is an impressive part to see and a testimony to the influence they had on this community. Townsfolk today can point out the Whitcomb house in Zortman and give directions to the ghostly Dutch-style house that still sits, deserted and intriguing. Mine officials will sometimes allow visitors to another Whitcomb house by the old Ruby Mill. That house, built by the only Whitcomb boy, George, has a fireplace constructed of high-grade ore. It is a unique house with an incredible view from the long glassed-in porch looking out through the Little Rockies across the vast eastern prairies.
When you’re in Zortman, visit the tiny Catholic church that sits high on a hill watching over the small town. The church was built around 1910. One of the favorite activities for visitors here is gold panning. Stop in and see Candy Kalal at the Zortman Garage and Motel. She’ll set you up and tell you where to hunt the precious metal. If you like old mines, you can explore Alder Gulch. On the bluffs to the east of town, there are caves and indentations filled with tiny fossils.
Hays and the Mission Canyon
On the southwest side of the Little Rockies is the tiny town of Hays. You are on the Fort Belknap Reservation here which is home to the members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes. In Hays is a mission founded by Father Eberschweiler before the turn of the century. The mission still stands and is still in use today. Driving up to the mission you will pass Our Lady of the Lil Rockies shrine to a religious statue. The story is told of the miracle of the statue on a sign outside the shrine.
Leaving the mission and heading east you drive into a canyon of towering limestone cliffs and a very narrow gorge. The road follows Mission Creek. One of the first things you come upon is the Natural Bridge. While this is the one most people come to see, there are others further from the road but visible as you drive. The upper canyon is home to powwows each summer as well as religious ceremonies. Along the road, you will see interpretive signs describing various Indian personalities important to the tribe’s history. There are several picnic spots along the way.
At the north end of the Little Rockies is a road that connects the Malta highway and the Harlem highway. The road skirts Lodgepole pine forests. In the distance, you can see massive limestone cliffs separating the mountains from the prairies. There are some natural warm springs near here.