Montana’s mining hero was left behind

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Comet, Montana, is a ghost town. To get there, get off I-15 at exit 160, which is about halfway between Boulder and Basin, and follow the gravel High Ore Road as it snakes north.

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Three people live in this boom-and-bust mining town right now. One family lives in what may be the only building that can be lived in. Comet hasn’t been kept in any way like some other abandoned towns in the area have, and it’s not as well-known, but it’s still an interesting place to visit.

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John W. Russell was the first person to stake a claim here in 1869. Since then, about $20 million worth of silver, copper, gold, lead, and zinc ore has been taken from Comet’s mines, making it the richest in the area. But there were waves of success. Russell worked at the site for five years before selling his claim to the Alta-Montana Company.

The mine’s new owners put money into building a 40-ton-per-day concentrator to separate the ore from dirt and other rocks that don’t belong there. But they had trouble making a decent profit, and it took a while for settlers to move to the area around the mine. In 1876, the town of Comet was surveyed and put on a map.

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In 1883, the Alta-Montana Company was bought out by the newly formed Helena Mining and Reduction Company. This was despite the fact that the company put another $500,000 into its operations at Comet and Alta.

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Comet’s fortunes grew under the direction of Samuel T. Hauser, who had been a director of Alta-Montana and a big stockholder. It looks like Hauser’s belief that you have to spend money to make money was just what the mine needed to be successful. At Wickes, a new smelter was built, which at the time was the largest in the state. At Comet, a 100-ton concentrator was put in place. The Helena Mining and Reduction Company also built a tramway to move ore from the Comet mine-works to the smelter.

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Hauser must have been a powerful and determined man, because he is credited with getting the Northern Pacific Railroad to build a branch line from Helena to Wickes, which led to Comet’s first boom time. The mining operations started to do well, and the number of miners and mining tools started to grow.

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Around 1890, the town of Comet was at its best. Its 300 people made it through the Panic of 1893, when the price of silver dropped, and the town did well. It had its own school and about 20 saloons at the time. But by the early 1900s, the mines were making less ore, and the end was in sight. Comet became a ghost town for real in 1913.

It stayed that way until 1927, when both the town and the mine were bought by the Basin Montana Tunnel Company. Better technology came with the investment, and the town of Comet was reborn. Comet, in this form, made it through the Great Depression as Montana’s second largest mining operation.

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This was a good time until 1941. When the mine ran out, Comet became a ghost town again, but this time it stayed that way. Comet has mostly been left alone and untouched since a cleanup project was done in 1997 to stop heavy metals from leaching out of the mine tailings.

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