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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bumpy road to Independence (Montana) best traveled on an ATV

The old road that dates back to the 1880s up the Main Boulder to the Independence mining area has become increasingly more popular with four-wheel drive enthusiasts in the summer and with snowmobilers in the winter. The sign notes that it is 4 miles to the old mining camp, but the road continues on to the top of Independence Peak. (Photo by Brett French)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

Near Big Timber, Montana, where the difficulty of travel once contributed to the downfall of gold, copper and silver mines, folks now visit for exactly that reason – to travel down a bumpy, rutted route to the old mining town of Independence.

“The road to Independence (mining district) is a popular place for folks on all-terrain vehicles and utility task vehicles,” says Kathryn Baker, trails and wilderness manager for the Yellowstone Ranger District.

It’s one of the few places left where four-wheel drive enthusiasts can drive a Jeep or truck, said Logan Todd, president of the Sweet Grass County Recreation Association.

“But you need a serious rig to get up there,” he added. “I’ve seen several trucks parked up there that have lost an axle or drive line. That road really hammers larger rigs.”

The route accommodates the increasingly popular utility terrain vehicles, larger car-like four-wheel-drive vehicles that can haul up to four people.

Todd said that the route isn’t scary or “dangerous enough” to frighten away less hardy riders, so a lot of families take their children along for the ride.

The Independence mining district is located past the end of the maintained portion of the Main Boulder Road, about 50 miles south of Big Timber in the Custer Gallatin National Forest and surrounded by the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

A large parking area for horse trailers marks the beginning of the rougher section of old road that continues on for 4 miles to what used to be the town of Independence.

Gold was first found in the area of Basin Creek in 1864, when that portion of Montana was still part of the Crow Indian Reservation. It was the discovery of gold and other precious metals that prompted the U.S. government to reduce the size of the Crow treaty lands in 1882, thereby making mines like the ones on the Boulder open to exploitation.

By 1888, the mining boom was flourishing. The Hidden Treasure, Independence and Daisy were the main mines bored into the steep, rocky flank of Independence Mountain, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s website.

Gold, silver, copper and lead were separated from the ancient rock by mining crews that grew to a high of about 150 men supported by a variety of townsfolk. At its peak, the population expanded to about 400 in the remote mountain valley, located at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet.

A stamp mill fire in 1904 prompted the closure of the last mines still being worked.

At one time, the road to the Independence mining district was considered for extension across what is now the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness southeast to Cooke City. Although that route never materialized, up until 2004 Sweet Grass County sheep ranchers used the route to drive their sheep up to summer pastures in the same mountains, just north of Yellowstone National Park.

A 1951 excerpt from the Big Timber Pioneer noted that, “Nothing is left at the Independence town site (below the Independence mill), except a few rotting log cabins and some rusty mining machinery… The only people who see these ruins are hunters or sheepherders.”

Now more than 60 years later, the ruins are the popular play area of motorized recreationists, even in the winter when snowmobilers ride into the mountain valley.

“I’ve been going up there on a snowmobile since I was 8 years old,” Todd said.

But most of the increase in traffic in the area in the summer has come from the rising popularity of UTVs, he added, which are perfect for the route because of their large tires, independent suspension and short wheel base.