NEIHART: THE TOWN WITH A SILVER PAST AND A GOLDEN FUTURE
Neihart is the town with a silver past and a golden future ... rich not in exploited minerals, but in a wealth of recreational opportunities. Established in the early 1880s, Neihart was one of several Little Belt Mountains mining camps that sprung up throughout the late nineteenth century securing the town a noteworthy place in Montana's mining history. The area was rich in natural resources and little by little, miners made their way from Windham, Lehigh, Utica, Hughsville, and Barker to Neihart. James Leroy Neihart, a silver prospector, headed up this expedition. Silver was to be had deep in the Little Belts, and Neihart, along with other prospectors including Richard Hartley and John C. O'Brien (for whom some local streams and roads are named) were there to make their riches. Few prospectors had ventured into the area before so it was rife with opportunities.
Exploration into the area developed rather slowly at first; the population of Neihart expanded and contracted for more than a decade. By 1885, there were less than 100 buildings erected at the mining camp. In 1886, a smelter was built in the town and the population began to soar. Coal was brought in from Belt and Sand Coulee to fuel the smelting process. In 1891, rail connections were made from Great Falls to Neihart drawing even more people to the once sleepy little valley. It was said to take nearly a whole day to travel the 60-mile route because the train made several stops along the way picking up and dropping off recreationalists. One popular stop for these adventure-seeking trekkers was a fishing hole at current-day Sluice Boxes State Park along Belt Creek on Highway 89 - this area was and still is a hot fishing spot.
Already, the Little Belts had become a popular area for outdoor enthusiasts. The town's treasure at that time though was silver, and Neihart began to flourish with people hot on the pursuit of making their own fortunes. Neihart was booming and at one point, was more densely populated than Great Falls. Some people estimate that more than forty mines once operated in the area, and thousand of campsites and primitive structures littered the valley and mountainsides. Some skeletons of these mines (including Silverdike, Big Seven, Broadwater, and Glory Hole) and ruins of a makeshift town called Jericho (which was built on the side of Neihart's Baldy mountain within the town's city limits) can still be found today. Men who weren't fortunate enough to build some sort of makeshift structure or who were just passing through town, would burrow holes in the ground where they would sleep at night. When it grew too cold, they would head down to Neihart's saloons or rent a room in a hotel. Saloons, hotels, grocery stores, a post office, a laundry service, and even some brothels sprung up everywhere. The original Bob's Bar was erected during this time. It was made of wood and sturdy enough to withstand more than a century of weathering and good times.
The rail line to and from Neihart should have ensured continuous growth, but the silver market wasn't stable so when it finally crashed in 1983, so did Neihart. The thousands who had settled there looked onward to find a new start. While most left the valley, some stayed behind to log the vast forests and make their living off the land. Only a handful of businesses survived the crash ... most were abandoned along with the mines that had given rise to their existence. Some prospectors kept their claims open, gleaming to the hope that silver would be profitable again someday. Over the years, the population of Neihart continued to dwindle. Abandoned buildings began to whither and fall. The school house that once schooled hundreds of children a day finally closed in the 1970s, forcing children to commute 80-miles roundtrip to the nearest schools in Belt. Only a short hike in silver prices in the late 1970s brought life back to the town. But soon silver prices fell again and those prospectors left too.
Today, Neihart is a peaceful little community with about 35 permanent residents. Abandoned mines, a sagging, windswept livery stable, an old log schoolhouse, and a barren two-room cement jailhouse are the only remnants of Neihart's wilder days. Now, newer homes and businesses mark Neihart's streets and its future lies not in silver but in recreation. The vast Little Belt Mountains, spanning more than 1,500 square miles, are home to a wide array of outdoor activities and destination points, including Montana's oldest ski expanse, Showdown Ski Area. The Little Belts and Neihart are a popular destination for skiing, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling, hunting, camping, and cross-country skiing. Just minutes from Neihart, one can experience all of these activities and more.
Located just 60 miles south of Great Falls on Highway 89, Neihart is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of life in the city ... come breathe some fresh mountain air and indulge in your favorite outdoor activity. Let Neihart and the Little Belt Mountains be home to your next epic outdoor adventure!