A mining town polishes up its past to become a gem of a destination.
You might come here Sunday on a whim." So begins "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," Richard Hugo’s poem about this Montana town that lies southeast of Missoula on State Route 1. But the struggling settlement Hugo depicted in the 1970s was much different from the Philipsburg my children and I drive into. "P-burg," as the locals call it, looks prosperous, with new streetlights and wrought-iron benches, and freshly painted Victorians built back when silver and gold mining was spurring the town to grow by a house a day. Philipsburg is thriving, thanks to entrepreneurs mining the area’s new vein: tourists.
For my children, Philipsburg means the Sweet Palace. They don’t notice the wide-plank floors and pink crystal chandeliers. Their eyes fix on the 870 different kinds of candy from 18 countries: homemade chocolate-and-caramel turtle "hatchlings," black Australian Kookaburra licorice, and rich English toffees.
Crackling paper sacks in hand, we stroll next door to the Sapphire Gallery. Perched on tall stools, we try "table mining" our own sapphires, picking out small, uncut stones from the gravel and finding enough to fashion into a pair of earrings. We dip into the Daily Grind for my afternoon latte, stop by the Doe Brothers Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain for homemade ice cream, and browse Flint Creek Outdoors for hand-tied woolly buggers and caddis flies. Antique cruising is a great sport here at stores including Schnibbles, and Stuff and Such Antiques.
Though Philipsburg’s mining days are over, their vestiges can be seen at the Granite County Museum. The basement, with its miner’s cabin and re-created mine shaft, is the best part: My children even get to ring the earsplitting mine bells. The 1891 Opera House Theatre, across the street, features backdrops painted by Western artist Edgar S. Paxson.
After inch-thick steaks at Montana John’s Silver Mill Saloon, we settle into the restored 1890 Broadway Hotel and admire its tall windows, fir floors, and pump organ. A game of Sorry around an oak table in the library captivates us until our eyelids sag. We saunter to our room, and as we drift off to sleep, the clock at the Masonic Lodge rings out the hour and the cars depart, one by one, until only the dogs wander the dark streets.
Photography by Melissa Barnes
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Idaho & Montana map and Idaho, Montana & Wyoming TourBook. Contact the Philipsburg Chamber of Commerce at (406) 859-3388, www.philipsburgmt.com . The Philipsburg Territory newspaper publishes a walking tour rich with history. Area code is 406.
The Daily Grind 106 W. Broadway, 859-5002. Montana John’s Silver Mill Saloon 128 E. Broadway, 859-7000.