Introduction to Ft Union Formation

        Sitting in front of the Palisades are many low mounds and long gently sloping ramps, which lead up from the lowlands toward the mountain front. The Paleocene Ft. Union Formation underlies many of these features. This formation resulted from uplift of the Beartooth Mountains during the general mountain-building episode that produced the Rocky Mountains. Weathering, erosion, and redistribution of the eroded gravels, sands, silts, and clays occurred by gravity and by streams flowing off the mountains.

Uplift of Mountains

        The Beartooth Mountains were uplifted during what is called the Laramide Orogeny. This orogeny, or mountain-building event, occurred during late Cretaceous into early Paleocene time and produced the sediments described under the Ft Union Formation. Weathering and erosion wore down these mountains but they were again lifted up during subsequent tectonic events. Weathering and erosion of these later uplifts again shed large amounts of material off the mountains, into the adjacent valleys and intermontane basins.
        Debris aprons were formed at the edges of the mountains. These aprons, or ramps, provided access into the mountainous region to early settlers in this area. Many of the first occupants moved their wagons and supplies up these sediment-laden slopes toward the higher country.

Coarse Facies, River Deposits, Lake Deposits, Swamps

        As the material was eroded from the mountains and deposited by gravity and streams, the coarsest gravels and boulders were dropped closest to the mountain source area. Sands were carried somewhat farther and finer silts and clays were carried the greatest distance. Thus the Ft Union Formation consists of coarse deposits (conglomerates), river deposits (fluviatile beds), mud or clay deposits, lake deposits (lacustrine), and even swamp deposits (which result in coals). Each of these different rocks aspects (called facies) can be seen within a short distance of the mountain front, especially along the hillsides toward the east between Red Lodge to Bearcreek and on to Belfry.

Coal Deposits of Red Lodge and Bearcreek

        The swamping conditions that occurred over fairly wide areas during deposition of the Ft Union Formation resulted in extensive coal beds in the Red Lodge/Bearcreek area. Small amounts of coal were mined in the early 1880s. A Northern Pacific branch line was completed into Red Lodge in 1889. A large group of settlers and mine workers soon moved into the area. A subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the Northwestern Improvement Company began mining in 1898. By 1910 the population of Red Lodge rose to nearly 5000. Coal produced from this area supplied the Northern Pacific locomotives with boiler fuel, smelters at Butte and Anaconda with similar fuel, as well as fuel for homes in the Red Lodge-Billings area. It is reported that the higher quality coals that were easily mined here were sold from Bismarck, North Dakota to the Idaho-Washington state line.
        Though mining started in Red Lodge, by 1900 it expanded to Bearcreek where the same coal beds cropped out. That coal had to be hauled 4 or 5 miles over the Bearcreek-Red Lodge Bench, increasing the cost considerably. In 1906 the Yellowstone Park Railroad completed a line up the Clark’s Fork valley from Bridger to the Bearcreek mines. This rail line greatly reduced the transportation coast for the Bearcreek mines.
        Peak production in the Red Lodge-Bearcreek coal fields occurred in the early 1920s, when it is reported that as many as 8000 to 10,000 people lived in this combined region. It is also reported that this was a typical frontier mining camp, with “gambling halls, saloons, knee-deep mud, and rough characters”. Large numbers of foreign-born workers were attracted to this mining region, including Austrians, Finns, Hungarians, Italians, Norwegians, Russians, Swedes, and Welsh. Though differences occasionally flared, this mixture of nationalities eventually spawned the annual weeklong celebration in Red Lodge, known as the Festival of Nations. This event, which occurs every August, celebrates the ethnic and national diversity, and highlights each group’s contributions to the cuisine, cultural, and linguistic characteristics of this region.
        Production of coal declined from the mid-1920s, when much less expensive surface mining began in southeastern Montana. Throughout the 1930s oil and gas production increasingly replaced coal for many purposes. A brief rebirth of the coal industry in the Red Lodge-Bearcreek fields during World War II was brought to a halt by the worst coal mine disaster in Montana history. The No. 3 Smith Mine of the Montana Coal and Iron Company at Washoe was the site of a tremendous explosion about 9:30 A.M. on Saturday, February 27, 1943. The resulting fires and gases claimed the lives of all but three of the workers in the mine at the time of the explosion. A sign on the Red Lodge-Bearcreek road near the town of Washoe poignantly tells the story. The coal mining industry never fully recovered from this tragedy, though coal continued to be removed from a few mines. In 1970 the Brophy Mine, the last underground operation shut down.

         “Smoke pouring from the mine entrance about 10 o’clock in the morning of February 27, 1943 was the first indication of trouble. ‘There’s something wrong down here! I’m getting out!’ the hoist operator called up. He and two nearby miners were the last men to leave the mine alive. Rescue teams from as far away as Butte and Cascade County worked around the clock in six-hour shifts to clear debris and search for possible survivors. There were none.
          The night of March 4 the workers reached the first bodies. More followed until the toll mounted to 74. Some died as a result of a violent explosion in Number 3 vein, the remainder fell victim to the deadly methane gases released by the blast. The tragedy at Smith Mine became Montana’s worst coal mine disaster, sparking investigations at the state and national level. Montana Governor Sam C. Ford visited the scene, offered state assistance, and pushed through an inquiry into the incident. Today’s marker of the Smith Mine disaster follows a simpler one left by two of the miners trapped by poisonous gas they knew would come, ‘Walter and Johnny. Goodbye, wives, and daughters, we died an easy death, love from us both, be good’ “.