Hidden deep within a spring-fed valley, nearly impenetrable with deadfall, thorns and dense vegetation, survives the crumbling remnants of a very old cabin whose origin is lost to history. Its location on upper Russell Creek in the Clarks Fork region has been known for years, but what has never been known is who, when or why the cabin was built, especially in such a secluded location.
Crude cabins assembled by early trappers, prospectors and settlers have been scattered across the Park County landscape for many years, although the majority of them have deteriorated or been destroyed. What makes the cabin on Russell Creek so perplexing is its hidden setting. Whoever built the cabin undoubtedly felt the need to keep her or his existence a secret. Deep within a narrow and rugged cleft in the mountains, the cabin is in a most inconvenient location. No one looking to have easy access to the dwelling would have built the cabin at such a site.
The first person known to have encountered the Russell Creek cabin was Norman Dodd. He stumbled upon it accidentally while chasing a wounded deer up a wooded draw shortly after homesteading the valley in 1916. When Dodd first viewed the cabin, it was nearly intact. He was impressed by its construction; an assembly of ax-hewn logs. Small saplings had been fixed between the logs as chinking. The roof was composed of hand-split planks, while the remains of a ragged hide hung over the entrance as a crude door.
Curious as to its history, Dodd asked his neighbors in the region if anyone knew of the structure. None did, leading Dodd to conclude it must have been built prior to settlement of the area throughout the last quarter of the 19th century.
Dodd theorized the cabin was most likely constructed by a trapper or prospector in the days when Native Americans still posed a threat to trespassing pioneers. This fear of Indian attack was not unfounded, as Jack Crandall and his mining partner had been decapitated by a band of Crow in 1870 as a warning to other whites not to intrude upon their land.
Trappers and market hunters had frequented the Sunlight Basin and Clarks Fork Valley for many years, although they never left much of a lasting imprint on the landscape. John Colter was supposed to have spent the winter of 1806-07 in a cave near the mouth of the Clarks Fork Canyon after getting leave to disembark from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was alleged to have traveled into the region around Sunlight Basin when his trapping companions began to prove an irritation.
Pat O’Hara was another early trapper well known to the area. He apparently spent most of his time on the east side of Dead Indian Pass where he made his home on the creek that came to bear his name. He also ventured to other nearby localities in search of furs. Constructing a safe shelter in a secluded valley might have been prudent when O’Hara was out following his trap lines for days at a time.
Following the era of fur trapping, the Sunlight region was a hotbed of market hunters and prospectors. Miners headquartered in Cooke City frequented the area in their relentless search for mineral wealth. Market hunters regularly visited the vicinity to harvest the game that went to feed hungry miners and isolated homesteaders. The cabin might have been built by any number of these early day nomads.
The only documentation ever found on the Russell Creek cabin is a brief historical description written in 1988 that is available in the files of the Park County Archives. This document provides secondhand historical descriptions of the cabin and various theories as to its origin.
We will probably never know for certain who built the cabin or why they felt the need to remain hidden. This state of uncertainty was perhaps the intention of the unknown cabin builder. But it begs the question of how many other manmade structures remain hidden among the many geographically protected and untraveled sections of Park County.
The cabin has severely deteriorated over the years. Only scant remains have survived to the present day. The few logs stacked atop one another blend in with the abundant deadfall covering the forest floor. What marks the cabin’s ruins apart are the ax cut log ends – a clear sign of human construction. The cabin walls are only about a foot high in places. The humidity of the damp gully has caused serious decay of the logs, and multiple trees have fallen on the structure, nearly flattening it completely. The remains are exceedingly difficult to locate in the dense vegetation of the valley. A person could walk mere feet from the structure without realizing his or her proximity.
These few miserable remnants of the Russell Creek cabin will unfortunately be completely rotted away in another decade or so. The thick forest vegetation will finally succeed in taking back its quiet valley and totally erase the hard work of whoever built the Russell Creek cabin. And so it goes.