The High Ore mining district, also known as the Comet district, is on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, north of Interstate 15 and the Boulder River between the towns of Basin and Boulder. Often the Cataract and High Ore districts are considered sub-districts of a larger Basin district. Basin, Cataract, High Ore and Red Rock creeks flow from the high mountains north of Basin into the Boulder River, all within three miles on either side of the town.
The Basin, Cataract, and High ore districts are primarily underlain by quartz monzonite of the Boulder batholith. The quartz monzonite of the northern portion of the district is overlain by tertiary dacite, and the quartz monzonite on the western edge of the district is overlain by late Cretaceous andesite. The andesite deposits are pre-batholithic, and the dacite deposits are post-batholithic. The andesite and monzonite formations are cut by dikes of dacite and rhyolite.
The district contains both placer and lode ore deposits, the lode deposits being of late Cretaceous and Tertiary ages. The older lodes are valued for their silver, lead and zinc content, while the younger lodes are valued for their gold and silver content. Limited open fissures occur, which contain deposits represented by both groups (Sahinen1935:47).
Mining may have begun on High Ore Creek in the vicinity of the town of Comet as early as 1869. Prior to 1874 John W. Russell obtained a patent on the Comet Lode. In 1879 large-scale development was brought to the area when the Alta-Montana Company invested over $500,000 in developing the Comet and Alta Mines. While the first development was unsuccessful, Samuel T. Hauser, a director of the Alta-Montana Company made a second attempt in 1883. He formed the Helena Mining and Reduction Company which absorbed the assets of the Alta-Montana and launched new improvements to the property. A 100-ton concentrator was built along with a tramway to carry the concentrate to the smelter at Wickes.
The failure of the Wickes Smelter to produce a profit led Hauser and associates to a new venture in East Helena. Again Hauser formed a new company, the Helena and Livingston Smelting and Refining Company, which absorbed the assets of the Helena Mining and Reduction Company and all of its properties. Ore from the Comet Mine began to be shipped to East Helena and the mine was worked profitably throughout the 1890s despite the silver panic and the Depression of 1893.
The property changed hands in 1906 when the Cataract Copper Mining Company acquired the mine and installed new equipment. The next year the Montana Consolidated Copper Company obtained control of the Comet and made additional improvements. Thereafter the Comet and the Gray Eagle Mines were operated together. In 1926 the mines were obtained by the Montana Tunnel Company who built a state of the art 200 ton flotation mill in Comet to treat the ores. The mill was second only to the giant operations of the Anaconda Copper Company operations as a custom milling operation, and the entire operation second only to Butte in scope. The mill was closed in 1941 and the equipment salvaged. The mine has been operated intermittently on a small scale since the 1940s.
The town of Comet has seen several boom and bust cycles. As many as 300 people inhabited the town in 1885, but by 1913 the town was deserted. The 1920s and 1930s brought prosperity to the mines and 300 were employed at the mill or mines. The Comet school at one time boasted 20 pupils and the town boasted twenty-two saloons. Since the 1940s, the town like the mill, has been abandoned and has deteriorated from age, weather and vandalism (Anderson 1990).
BOUNDARIES OF THE DISTRICT
Historically, the High Ore District has been referred to as the Comet sub-district which has been labeled variously as belonging to the Colorado/Wickes district, a sub-district of the Basin District or as a sub-district of the greater Boulder District. The Comet mine was included in the Wickes district by Knopf (1913), but later was considered to be in the greater Basin district after the railroad to Wickes was abandoned and the mine began shipping ore down High Ore Creek to be processed in Basin. The district's individual identity only emerged after the ore began to be treated in East Helena rather than in the nearby Basin smelter (Pardee and Schrader 1933).
The sub-district of High Ore may be currently defined as those mines in the vicinity of the confluence of High Ore Creek and the Boulder River along with those mines accessed by transportation routes along High Ore Creek. Figure 1 shows the High Ore sub-district boundary.
HISTORIES OF SELECTED MINES
The High Ore district, although having some placer activity, was centered around lode mining from primarily the Comet and the Grey Eagle.
The Comet was the richest mine in the district with a total production of around $20,000,000. Discovered in 1874, the mine was not developed until 1883 when it was run by the Helena and Livingston Smelting and Reduction Company, which also ran the Alta mine. At first the ore was shipped by wagon to Wickes, but in 1884 a continuous rope tramway with buckets carrying 300 pounds of concentrates was built from the mine to Wickes. The earliest mill on High Ore Creek apparently was not very efficient since later the company treated the tailings and recovered $1,400,000 worth of gold and silver (Anderson 1990; Swallow 1890).
The mine was developed to the 500 ft level and tunnels run the entire length of the claim. Although the operation closed briefly in 1888, the mine managed to continue to operate with twenty-three men through the 1893 panic. Finally it was forced to close in 1897, in part due to the high cost of firewood needed to operate the pumps that kept the mine dry. In 1900 the Montana Consolidated Copper Company bought the property and did considerable development work although not much production resulted from the effort. The Basin Montana Tunnel Company then took it over in 1927 and built a 200-ton per day mill to process ore from the Comet and the nearby Gray Eagle mine. From 1934 to 1940 the mine produced an average of 58,000 tons of ore and year but by 1941 the known ore bodies were considered to be worked out and the mine was closed. An open pit mine at the site is still intermittently active (Anderson 1990; Hogan 1891; Swallow 1890).
Gray Eagle Mine Complex
Located on Comstock Hill on Bishop Creek, a tributary of High Ore Creek about four miles northeast of Basin, is the Gray Eagle Complex. The Gray Eagle was discovered in 1891 but not claimed by John J. Holmes and Henry Dahlman until January of 1896. The claimants received a patent on the property in July of 1899. In 1897 silver and lead ore was extracted by eight men and treated in East Helena. The next year 22 men were employed in the existing shaft and excavating a new one. By 1902 the mine had three shafts, the deepest at 1400 ft. By 1905 10,000 tons of ore worth $350,000 had been shipped to the smelter. In 1907 the operations of the Gray Eagle and nearby Comet Mine were joined by the Montana Consolidated Copper Company -- the Grey Eagle was working a continuation of the Comet vein. By 1913 when the mine changed hands to the Northwestern Metals Company, total production for the mine had risen to $500,000. In 1926 the mines were purchased by the Basin Montana Tunnel Company. The next year extensive improvements were made to the mines; tunnels were extended 3,000 ft and electrical equipment installed. In the mid-1930s the company began treating the ores at a new flotation mill that they built in Comet (Anderson 1990; Mierendorf 1982).
While the Comet Mine was the larger of the two producers, the Gray Eagle contributed substantially. By 1935 the Comet had produced $13 million in ore while the Gray Eagle produced $2 million. In 1941 operations were suspended at the two mines. While the tailings were reworked on a lease basis during 1942, the mines never reopened. It has been estimated that 100 - 150 people worked at the Gray Eagle during the peak of productivity (Mierendorf 1982).
The Rumley was located near the Comet. In 1891 it was worked by A. M. Holter and Bros. and was described as having a two compartment shaft that was 297 ft deep with two levels. Work had stopped on the upper level and begun on a crosscut on a new third level. Thirty-two men were employed at the mine and its ore was shipped to East Helena. During the period from 1902 to 1941 the mine produced 1230 ounces of gold and 95,786 ounces of silver (Hogan 1891; Mierendorf 1982).
The High Ore mine operated by the High Ore Gold & Copper Company employed five men in the late 1890s to drive a 1800 ft tunnel to penetrate the ore bodies at depth.
At the confluence of High Ore Creek and the Boulder River there are a number of small Depression era mines that worked the bedrock under the terraced gravels above the Boulder River. These coyote-style mines were one or two man operations that were never formally claimed or patented. No information exists in the mining literature on their production or even of their existence. However, they are typical of the shoe-string operations that were common during the Depression.
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