Sad News from Confederate Gulch
Updated: Mar 8
Of all the unusual places I've ever been -- everything from a tin mine in Siberia to a spent nuclear fuel pool in Maine -- none is more haunting than Diamond City, Montana. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Diamond City was the third largest city in the Montana Territory; today it is just piles of mine tailings the remains of a shack or two, and a cemetery. What was once a bustling community on the banks of Confederate Gulch, teeming with gold prospectors and those who helped, fed off of, or stole from the prospectors, was literally mined out from beneath itself.
For the opportunity to visit Diamond City and to learn about its remarkable history I am indebted to my friend Kelly Flynn. I'm thinking about Diamond City now because, four days ago, Kelly passed away at the far-too-young age of 66. That prompted me to pull out my copy of Kelly's 2006 book about Diamond City, called Goldpans, Guns, & Grit.
Greater metropolitan Diamond City includes Kelly's cattle and guest ranch, the vast and glorious Hidden Hollow Hideaway. I blundered into the place in 2010, having resolved to use some vacation time to visit my grandmother's home town of Butte for the first time. My daughter Rose, then just nine, was to be my companion. The idea was that I'd get to experience Butte and Rose would get to do some horseback riding since that was, and is, her passion. I googled around for a guest ranch within a reasonable driving distance of Butte -- and that's how I found myself on the phone with Kelly, arranging to spend a week at his family's ranch in the foothills of the Big Belt Range.
One of Kelly's favorite things about having guests was acquainting them with Diamond City. The connection was deeply personal; his mother Rose grew up there, although the gold rush was long over by then and her family had sensibly converted to sheep farming. I've been back four times since in various combinations of spouses, kids, and step-kids; Diamond City has played a role every time. Panning for gold -- placer mining at its simplest -- is an essential part of the experience; above is a photo of my kids Rose and Felix seeking their fortune via this craft in 2018. Clear Creek, the next major stream south of Confederate Gulch, runs right by the guest quarters of the HHH, and so we have several vials of Clear Creek water on a windowsill that also contain the flecks of gold we successfully panned.
Kelly took obvious pleasure in his work over the years to restore the Diamond City cemetery. When he first took me there in 2010, it was overgrown, disheveled and full of tombstones that were slowly succumbing to entropy. Eight years later, the site had been cleared of brush, the place had been fenced in, and this last resting place of these gold-seeking pioneers had been restored to a modicum of dignity as befits a site of historic significance.
Goldpans, Guns, and Grit reflects a similar attitude of respect for the raw historical record and a commitment to maintaining it in as undisturbed and unadulterated fashion as possible. For example, a opened the book to a random page today and found myself reading an account Kelly had reproduced of the first laundry in Diamond City, supposedly opened in 1866 by a Chinese immigrant by the name of Charlie Lee.
"Charlie seemed to bubble over with joy at the sight of dirty clothes," this account reported. "He had a friend with the rather un-Chinese name of Michael Murphy and truly Irish. This friendship was very peculiar indeed . . . Mike Murphy was a continuous loser at poker and it was Charlie, the non-gambler, who offered sympathy. After sessions of losing at poker, Charlie often grub-staked Mike, and Mike referred to Charlie as a 'yellow heathen,' but always with a twinkle in his eye. . . .
"[A]n angry mob protesting the presence of Chinamen in Diamond City set out to get rid of Charlie. . . . Mike tried to explain to Charlie that he must flee the city, but Charlie would not hear of it. As explained it, 'Charlie like Mike friend and washee business. Charlie stay. No China boy anymore, but Illish [sic] like Mike.' With Mike's help, Charlie began an all-night job of redecorating his laundry. Next morning Charlie's business was painted green and the sign of 'Elite,' the name of Charlie's laundry, announced to all that the shop was now the 'Shamrock,' operated by one 'Pat' Murphy. When the committee arrived to put Charlie alias 'Pat' Murphy out, they found him waiting with prepared Chinese delicacies. As Charlie was now 'Irish,' Charlie stayed."
Here's what's glorious about Kelly's book. He quotes the above account verbatim (and certainly without any effort to make the account palatable in light of contemporary concerns about diversity and inclusion), citing a document he unearthed from the "Confederate Gulch Vertical File" in the special collections room of the Montana State University Library in Bozeman. Then Kelly adds, forthrightly: "The article about Charlie and Mike Murphy stretches the imagination." He noted that the Diamond City census of 1870 did not include a "Mike Murphy."
[Kelly Flynn, and his horse Silk, at the Hidden Hollow Hideaway in 2010]
One of the things that most interested me about Kelly Flynn when I first googled him was the fact that he was, when we first visited in 2010, seeking election to the Montana House of Representatives. He had defeated a Tea Party-esque opponent to gain the Republican nomination. Thus I correctly guessed that he was more like Bob Dole than Sarah Palin -- and that, as someone in the hospitality business, he'd be gracious and friendly to those whose politics diverged from his own.
Kelly ended up serving four terms as a state representative; I was a proud donor to his campaigns even though, had we been fellow legislators, I am guessing our voting records would have contrasted starkly. I don't think Kelly especially relished talking politics with his non-GOP guests, especially at the brass-tacks level, but he was perfectly willing to articulate the values he brought to public service. We quickly established that at the meta-level, people of goodwill who are active in public life are striving for the same things -- democracy, freedom, thriving communities, respect for the natural world around us.
Keeping clear about those values, as I have heard Kelly relate them, has been invaluable to me as a public official in a distant state who, though most assuredly not a Republican, takes great pleasure in cultivating constructive relationships across the political spectrum. Already living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2017, Kelly gave a farewell peroration to his House colleagues that moved people of all political persuasions, myself certainly included.
Thus, although I am sure Kelly's family was proud to read the kind words in his obituary from Montana's Governor, Greg Gianforte, it's this statement from a state legislator, Rep. Sue Vinton, on Kelly's Facebook page that caught my eye:
"While serving as a Freshman legislator in 2017, I took a hard vote on a bill and was immediately informed by a fellow GOP member whom I had greatly admired: 'I'm sorry you won't be back next Session.' I was inconsolable. I was so distraught that I couldn't attend my [Fish, Wildlife and Parks] Committee meeting that afternoon. Chairman Flynn took it upon himself to call me just to make sure that I was okay. No mention of the vote, just concern about my well being. I will never forget his leadership, his kindness and his example to all of us serving that we are human beings deserving of care and compassion. I will never forget his example and am so grateful to have crossed his path."
That's the Kelly Flynn I was proud to call my friend. In so doing, I don't reckon myself anyone particularly special. Just as I am sure many Montana politicians have stories that resonate with Representative Vinton's, I am guessing that anyone who had the good sense to be a repeat guest at the Hidden Hollow Hideaway has a similar respect and affection for the man. That he touched so many people in the way he touched me and my family makes it especially great to have known him. Diamond City may have passed into oblivion but Kelly Flynn will not be forgotten.
[You can plainly see that Kelly had a great sense of humor and allowed neither political differences nor contrasting baseball loyalties to interfere with his hospitality. One of my last communications with Kelly involved my suggesting that when Rose and I visit the HHH this summer we'd be clamoring to change the name of Confederate Gulch to "Amanda Gorman Gulch." He advised against it, warning: "They just got done hanging the last three that tried to change the name."]