This picturesque route in western Montana makes a wonderful alternative to the interstate.
By Gerald C. & Sharon L. Hammon, F275831
Montana’s Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Highway is a perfect example of why RVers should get off the interstates and see the “real” country. Officially designated State Route 1, this byway in western Montana, between Missoula and Butte, will lead you to impressive views; tranquil scenery; a mountain grade alongside a rushing, tumbling stream; a large lake with unusual inhabitants; a platted community dominated by a huge smokestack and a towering pile of jet-black slag; but, most of all, to an award-winning gem of a town. Philipsburg alone is sufficient reason to take the Pintler, either as a self-contained excursion or as an alternative to Interstate 90.
You can join State Route 1 from Interstate 90 in the small town of Drummond, or west of the smelter town of Anaconda, where Butte’s fabled copper ore was processed and prepared to become mile after mile of electrical wire. The road has good signage throughout. The scenic highway is 63 miles in length, but we believe it is easy to spend the better part of a day with the stops you’ll make along the way.
The primary attraction along the Pintler is the wonderful community of Philipsburg. Its main street, Broadway, is bordered by a rainbow of colorful Victorian-era buildings that still house a variety of businesses. In 1997 and again in 2000, the Rohm and Haas Paint Quality Institute of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, set out to find an array of beautiful American communities that “exhibit a range of architectural styles and painted exteriors.” Philipsburg was selected as a finalist in both of the company’s quests.
We’ve been in some communities with extraordinary Victorian architecture and colors, such as San Francisco and Ferndale, California. Philipsburg can easily hold its own with them.
We were drawn immediately to the Doe Brothers Soda Fountain and Restaurant, set in a colorful building that dates to 1887. Doe Brothers does an understandably booming business dishing out great ice cream and meals. Based on our experience, don’t be afraid to try some of the flavors that contain the word “moose” in their names. Their sandwiches were good as well. We also recommend the Philipsburg Café (formerly known as the Gallery Café). We have no doubt that other eateries in Philipsburg also would win your affection.
Philipsburg’s main commercial district is approximately three blocks long and is composed primarily of buildings that date back to the 1880s. While some have been modernized, most have been lovingly restored to their original Victorian brilliance. The absolutely stunning Sayrs Building, constructed in 1888, anchors the district at the corner of Broadway and Sansome. Next door, the J.K. Merrell & Sons building houses the Broadway Hotel, which was restored and reopened for guest lodging in 2003 after a 100-year hiatus.
In addition to restaurants, shops offering a wide assortment of gifts, antiques, and clothes line Broadway. The town seems made for window-shopping. At one end of town, the woman running the delightfully named Pickle Dish (located in a former post office building) told us she thought the name Pintler came from a person and was also the name of the mountains to the south. The Pickle Dish carries an array of interesting and eclectic gift items.
When we finally left downtown Philipsburg, it was with emptier wallets and happier hearts. We also were happy to be using a digital camera, because we could have exposed several rolls of film just walking up and down Broadway.
Away from the downtown are homes and churches that also reflect the flamboyant late 19th century. The old Presbyterian church, now a private residence, still sports an unusual domed bell tower. The M.E. Doe home reflects the architectural standards of the time when it was built. The Opera House Theatre, established in 1891 and now the oldest operating theater in Montana, is home to live stage shows in summer. Check out the performance schedule at www.operahousetheatre.com or call (406) 859-0013.
The town of Philipsburg began around a mining operation, and it was the first of several in this area. About a mile south of town you can see the Bi-Metallic Mill, which was built in 1888. At one point, the mine and mill employed 500 workers, and a town called Kirkville, later known as Clark, grew up around the mill. This is one of the more impressive mill ruins we have seen. In addition to its smokestacks, much of the original stone work remains, as does some rusting equipment.
The area surrounding Philipsburg was rich in minerals. Silver was the big attraction, although in 1892, sapphires began to be mined in quantity. (Sapphires are still being “dug” and otherwise found by the public today; check with the local chamber of commerce for details.) In addition to being valued as gemstones, sapphires were desired as watch jewels and bearings in fine instruments. When mining reached its peak in the 1890s, the mill was a principal location for separating the silver and other precious minerals from the raw ore.
Philip Deidesheimer, Philipburg’s namesake, was the mill’s first manager. He had gained considerable fame in Nevada’s Comstock mining region by inventing a method of square-set timbering inside the mines that allowed much greater amounts of ore to be removed without the danger of cave-ins. He refused to patent his invention, wanting it used in all the mines of the Comstock, which it was. Although he didn’t profit financially, Deidesheimer gained the profound gratitude of the men who had to labor in those mines.
The Northern Pacific Railroad built into Philipsburg in 1887 and extended its tracks to the mill. The tracks are still in place from Drummond south to the mill, although nothing has rolled along them for years. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and some time, you can explore a number of ghost towns in various stages of decay in the area east of Philipsburg.
Stop at the Granite County Museum and Cultural Center to get an overview of things before you explore the mill ruins. The museum is in the former Courtney Hotel on South Sansome Street in Philipsburg. Its mining exhibit includes a simulated shaft, as well as ore cars and other pieces of equipment. The museum also preserves historic photos, clothing, and other items that belonged to former residents of the county. It’s open daily in summer, and a small admission fee is charged.
Other Scenes To Enjoy. Philipsburg is reason enough to take the Anaconda-Pintler Scenic Highway, but other pleasures await along the route. From Drummond at the northwest end of the route past Philipsburg, the road is paralleled by tranquil Flint Creek, which meanders through lush meadows in huge loops that nearly touch each other. All of that changes a few miles south of Philipsburg, where the highway suddenly begins a stiff climb toward Georgetown Lake. Beside the highway, Flint Creek is suddenly a raging cascade, bounding over boulders and plunging downward to the point it is lost from view from the road. Several turn-outs offer the opportunity to stop, get out, and witness the power and beauty of the rushing stream. Near the top, Flint Creek gushes out of what appears to be a natural spring but is actually a man-made tunnel constructed as part of the dam that forms Georgetown Lake.
Georgetown Lake, surrounded by dense pine forest, with cabins and homes peeking out along the shoreline, will definitely make you wish you were towing a boat. However, it also attracts folks like us, who are almost never without our binoculars and birding guide. Georgetown Lake is a primary nesting area for the red-necked grebe, an infrequently spotted water bird with a very lovely reddish neck.
Around Georgetown Lake you can pull off, sit a spell, and perhaps even have a picnic. If you didn’t bring a picnic “” or eat back in Philipsburg “” there are some inviting restaurants along the way, too.
At the southeastern end of the scenic drive, you pass through the town of Anaconda, a sedate community that once vied to become the capital of Montana. Anaconda is inextricably bound to its neighbor, Butte, in the Butte-Anaconda National Historic Landmark. Ore dug in Butte was transported to Anaconda, where a giant smelter blackened the sky through an enormous smokestack that still stands. It is so large that the Washington Monument would fit inside it.
A few years ago when we were in Montana doing research for a book, we made note of the Pintler and even read good commentaries about it. We stayed at an RV park just outside Anaconda and never even took the drive. Now we know what we missed. The next time we come back to Montana, the Pintler will be part of our itinerary once again. It is a much more scenic alternative to Interstate 90, and can be driven easily with a recreation vehicle. The Flint Creek grade should not be intimidating in either direction. So, if Montana is on your list, don’t miss this scenic drive.
- If you are driving to Philipsburg from Anaconda in your motorhome, do not take the first exit to Philipsburg from State Route 1 unless you are sure the height of your coach is lower than 12 feet 6 inches. There is an old railroad overpass with that clearance, which you’ll have to drive under, and there is no warning when you turn off the state route. Take the second exit into town, which is Broadway.
- Philipsburg has designated RV parking just south of Broadway at California Street. For overnight stays, Philipsburg has a large inn complex with an RV park on its property, called the Inn at Philipsburg (915 W. Broadway; 406-859-3959; www.theinn-philipsburg.com).
- As you travel the Pintler, note that there are large pull-offs on the Flint Creek grade, but they are all on the Anaconda-bound side of the road. When we passed through, it was mid-May and off-season, and it would have been easy to cross over to the pull-offs from the other direction. However, we can’t vouch for what traffic might be like during peak season.
- To get to the Bi-Metallic Mill (at the former town of Kirkville) from Philipsburg, take Montgomery Street south. The road becomes dirt, but you can see the twin smokestacks ahead. Don’t take your motorhome on this road, as it gets rough near the mill and there’s not much opportunity to turn around.
- You cannot actually get up to the base of the Anaconda stack, and we were told we wouldn’t want to because of the condition of the ground around the stack. But you can visit Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park at the far eastern end of Anaconda, which commemorates the stack and shows its dimensions at its base. The park is located at the junction of Park Street (State Route 1) and Monroe Street, adjacent to Goodman Park.
For more info about Philipsburg, contact:
Philipsburg Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 661
Philipsburg, MT 59858
For more information about the scenic highway, contact:
Anaconda Chamber of Commerce
306 E. Park Ave.
Anaconda, MT 59711