Mountain town transforms itself from dying mining community to the gem of SW Montana

Meet Philipsburg, Montana (Population: 810)

Tucked in the Flint Creek Valley next to the Pintler Mountains in Southwest Montana lies Philipsburg established in 1867 by silver miners. The town’s early history is a story of boom and bust as mines opened and closed and mineral markets spiked and crashed. At its peak during World War I, the town boasted 3,000 residents.

Cattle ranching and logging helped the town persist through down years, but when the ranches mechanized, logging slowed and the last mine closed in 1988, the community pulse faded. Its grand hotels, restaurants and other businesses boarded up and houses emptied. In 1991, 11 businesses closed and the population was descending quickly below 1,000.

Philipsburg, Southwest Montana

At that time one ranching wife watched traffic from the nearby sapphire mine and recreation areas pass Philipsburg by; she thought if those travelers turned off the highway into Philipsburg, the once beautiful town might have a chance — it just needed a catalyst to take pride in itself again.

In the middle of a summer night in 1991, she and her children planted flowers in the forgotten old planters in front of main street businesses, many of which were old 19th century Victorian buildings. The next morning people acted as if the flowers had always been there, watered them and planted more year after year. No one knew of the gift until years later.

That was the first of many small and grand homegrown initiatives to bring Philipsburg back to life. Jerry Sullivan, president of the local bank who helped finance and make possible many local endeavors, credits the town’s organic revitalization with the community embracing what had come before — looking to the past for how to embrace the future. And the townspeople did it all themselves — with hard work, without an elaborate main street project and the assistance of federal or state funds.

“Philipsburg is about 15 years of small victories,” said Jim Jenner, a local Rotarian, filmmaker and writer who lives in Philipsburg. “When one thing worked, we tried something else.”

Now when people drive down Highway 1 after a day of skiing or biking at Discovery, recreating on Georgetown Lake, driving the scenic Skalkaho Pass or the Pintler Scenic Loop, or sapphire mining at Gem Mountain, they turn into Philipsburg. And what they get is more than a bag full of candy from the awe-inspiring Sweet Palace. They get a friendly step back to a simpler time, where they can stroll and enjoy the sweet pleasures of life.

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