Monday, November 6, 2017

BEARCREEK, MONTANA: A BEGINNING AND AN END



At the end of the end of this week I will be moving to Montana for a few months. The area I’m going to is now known for tourism, but in the early 1900s coal mining was what brought thousands to this mountain area of the state. On a drive around the area, I found a piece of history.

In Carbon County Montana, there’s a  small town consisting mainly of a U.S. Post Office and a saloon.  Plotted in 1905 by George Lamport and Robert Leavens, in its heyday during World War I, Bearcreek boasted a population of nearly 2000 people. Ethnically diverse the town included Serbians, Scotsmen, Montenegrins, Germans, and Italians.  There were seven mercantiles, a bank, two hotels, two billiard halls, a brickyard and numerous saloons.

Old merchantile in Bearcreek (photo by Kirsten Lynn)


The town also had concrete sidewalks and an extensive water system. Something odd about Bearcreek, for a Montana town, no church was ever built in Bearcreek.  

Many of the buildings were constructed from the sandstone quarried in the nearby hill.  The local railway, the Montana Wyoming and Southern carried coal from the mines through Bearcreek where it was shipped to communities across Montana.  The Lampert Hotel, once located there, was built in 1907 and was described as, “well furnished…the beds being especially soft and sleep producing.  The meals are served with a desire to please the guests and no one leaves without a good impression and kindly feelings for the management.” 

However, not all times were good in the bustling town.  The Smith Mine is the site of the worst underground coal mine disaster in Montana history. The decaying buildings that still stand are a memorial to 74 men who gave up there lives in the mine on the morning of February 27, 1943.

Smoke pouring from the entrance to No. 3 vein was the first indication of trouble, “There’s something wrong down here, I’m getting out,” the hoist operator called up. He and two nearby miners were the last men to leave the mine alive.

Smith Mine (photo by Kirsten Lynn)


Families of the men anxiously awaited as rescue crews came from as far as Butte and worked around the clock to clear debris and search for survivors.  Their efforts in vain as there were no survivors.  Some men died as a result of a violent explosion, but most fell victim to the deadly methane gasses released by the blast. The tragedy sparked investigations at the state and national level that resulted in improvements in mine safety.

Long before any other markers or historical posts marked the site, a simple marker was left by two miners trapped underground waiting for the poisonous gas they knew would come.  “Walter and Johnny. Good-bye wives and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.”

The tragedy at the mine hastened another death…that of the town. Many buildings were moved to other communities or demolished. The railroad tracks were removed in 1953 and the last mine closed in the 1970s.

The tragedy of the mine has stirred some plot bunnies for a story I’d like to write while living in the area. The rise and fall of Bearcreek is not an unfamiliar tale, but a part of the history of Montana and the region that should never be forgotten.

I hope that over these past few years since I have been a part of this amazing group of storytellers that I’ve been able to give you all a small glimpse into the history of Wyoming and Montana.  It has been an absolute pleasure and honor to be a part of Sweethearts of the West.  Unfortunately, while new opportunities arise something has to end.  Thank you all for reading and commenting on my posts, for sharing the information you’ve found in research, and for your support.   Hope to see you on the trail soon!

I leave you with the words of Walter and Johnny.  Be good. 


Kirsten Lynn is a Western and Military Historian. She worked six years with a Navy non-profit and continues to contract with the Marine Corps History Division for certain projects. Making her home where her roots were sewn in Wyoming, Kirsten also works as a local historian. She loves to use the history she has learned and add it to a great love story. She writes stories about men of uncommon valor…women with undaunted courage…love of unwavering devotion …and romance with unending sizzle. When she’s not writing, she finds inspiration in day trips through the Bighorn Mountains, binge reading and watching sappy old movies, or sappy new movies. Housework can always wait.

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating about Bearcreek. thank you. I wish you the best in your time there.

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    1. Thank you, Savanna! Glad you stopped by!

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  2. Mining for coal has never been an easy or risk free way to make a living. My maternal grandfather was a coal miner in Shamokin, PA when he was a young man.
    I can see why a town would die after such a tragic catastrophe in the mine.
    The story of this real life mining tragedy reminds me of the Hallmark Channel series "When Calls The Heart" which apparently takes place in Wyoming or Montana, but there are Canadian Mounted Police there. What's that about? Kind of confusing. Was Montana once part of Canada?
    Great article, Kirsten. That was a very touch and sad story about the two men who left notes to comfort their families when they knew they would die. Hard to imagine how they must have felt. Just heartbreaking.

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    1. Thanks Sarah! I actually think When Calls the Heart takes place in Canada, at least the books did. But I know the episode you're referring to and it is similar to the real tragedy at Smith Mine. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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