The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

South of the Border In the Sweet Grass Hills


February 13, 2019

This photo shows some of the facilities of the campground recently built on the old town site of Whitlash, about a quarter of a mile from the present community. The old town site was abandoned sometime in the early 1900's, repurposed into a sheep ranch and now is a campground with cabins and RV hookups. Above: Sometime after the town of Gold Butte was abandoned in the 1940's, the cemetery was moved to its present location overlooking the West Butte and surrounding prairie of the Sweet Grass Hills.

Dateline: Whitlash, Montana. In my first "South of the Border" column I wrote generally about the location of the Sweet Grass Hills (visible most days looking north from US Highway 2 from the Joplin/Chester area). More specifically the Hills are set in a line extending for about 50 miles east to west in a 10-15 mile wide band from north to south and adjacent to the national border. The various buttes/mountains/hills that make up the Sweet Grass Hills stand 3,000 feet above the surrounding prairie, with the promontories maxing out at 6983 feet elevation (West Butte). There are several peaks more than a mile high.

After first moving to Whitlash I had a hard time identifying landmarks in the Hills and keeping my directions clear. Locals, using a topographic map for reference, explained the Sweet Grass Hills are best understood by envisioning three "buttes"-areas that roughly define the three major parts of the Hills. From the east, East Butte, is made up of two main promontories, Mount Brown (6958 feet elevation) and Mount Royal at 6918 feet. Slightly east of these two, really the east boundary of the Hills, is Mt. Lebanon which stands at 5800 feet.

The Middle Butte area is made up of a slightly flat-topped, forested butte and Gold Butte, the most famous peak in the middle area. Some locals refer to Middle Butte as Gold Butte-however those peaks are labelled, they make up the middle area of the Hills.

Finally, on the west edge of the Hills is West Butte, another slightly flat-topped and forested promontory and the tallest peak in the Hills at 6983 feet. Other lower free standing buttes, like Haystack and Grassy Buttes, can be seen along the center of the southern edge of the Hills. Keeping the three main "buttes" in mind helps a traveler identify their location in the Hills.

Whitlash: a surviving community

Whitlash became a community before towns down on the prairie, like Chester and Joplin, because there was more moisture up in the hills. While not particularly well suited for farming, it was good country for livestock with abundant grass and water. First the livestock of choice was sheep, later cattle. Cattle still dominates the ag economy in the hills. However, coming south from the Hills dryland grain farming is widespread.

The present Whitlash community is basically in the center of the Hills at the intersection of Montana Secondary Roads 217 and 409-six miles south of the Port of Whitlash. Road 217 approaches from the west, originating about 20 miles east of the community of Oilmont which is on I-15 north of Shelby. Road 409 heads north from US Highway 2, starting about two miles west of Chester. Taking Road 409 from US 2 is 33 miles to Whitlash, all but the first five miles on gravel.

The original town site of Whitlash is about a quarter mile west of the community's current location along Road 217. The original town had a hotel, creamery, store and other businesses that supported the surrounding settlers. Sometime in the very early 1900's the town moved to its present site. The Ranchers Cash Store completed in 1917 helped spur the relocation of the community as did a fire at the old town site about the same time.

This photo shows a recent burial at the cemetery using ropes to lower the casket into the opened grave. The funeral director described the process as, "The way the cowboys did it."

The old town site was eventually used for a sheep operation. More recently Broken Mountains Ranch has repurposed the old town site with hookups for RVs as well as rental cabins for bird and big game hunters coming to the area. The old sheepherder cabin is still in place, a testament to the adaptations the original town site experienced.

Gold Butte: a ghost town

Julia Dafoe and Megan Maki published information about Gold Butte in the "Winter, 2001 Montana Heritage Bulletin." Both writers, Chester High School students at the time, grew up on ranches in the Whitlash area and drew from some available historical documents about the old town, but mainly relied on interviews with senior family members and longtime residents of the Hills.

Per their research, the town of Gold Butte began with the discovery of gold in 1888 and folded during the 1940's. The two students set out to 'solve' the mystery surrounding one of the few remaining graves in the old cemetery at Gold Butte. Most of the graves were moved to the current Gold Butte cemetery because of water from a spring at the old site.

At the old site one very well marked


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