Basin is a census-designated place (CDP) in Jefferson County, Montana, United States. It lies about southeast of the Continental Divide in a high narrow canyon along Interstate 15 about halfway between Butte and Helena. Basin Creek flows roughly north to south through Basin and enters the Boulder River on the settlement's south side. The population was 255 at the 2000 census.
Archaeologists have discovered evidence of human habitation from 10,000 years ago at a site near Clancy, from Basin. From about 2000 BCE through the mid-19th century, nomadic tribes hunted bison in the grassy valleys that trend east, away from the Rocky Mountains and into the plains. By the time miners found gold in the streams in and near Basin, most of the these tribes of Indians had been forced onto reservations by the U.S. government.
Basin rests above the Boulder Batholith, the host rock for many valuable mineral ores found in this part of Montana. After the town became a hub of gold and silver mining, Basin's population peaked at about 1,500 in first decade of the 20th century but gradually declined as the mines were depleted. Abandoned mining equipment, closed or barricaded mine portals, and the ruins of a smelter and ore concentrator remain in Basin in the 21st century.
Historic buildings from Basin's heyday form much of the core of the CDP's small business district, which includes a fire station, a post office, two restaurants, a bar, a commercial gallery, small specialty shops, and the nonprofit Montana Artists Refuge. Basin has a small elementary school, its own water system, and a low-power radio station. Local volunteers and elected trustees provide limited services to the settlement, but it relies on the government of Jefferson County, Montana, for law enforcement and other services.
In the late Cretaceous (roughly 81 to 74 million years ago), molten rock (magma) rose to the Earth's surface in and near what later became Jefferson County and eventually formed an intrusive body of granitic rock up to thick and in diameter. This body, known as the Boulder Batholith, extends from Helena to Butte, and is the host rock for the many valuable ores mined in the region. As the granite cooled, it cracked, and hot solutions infiltrated the cracks to form mineral veins bearing gold and other metals. Millions of years later, weathering allowed gold in the veins to wash down to the gravels in Basin Creek, Cataract Creek, and the other creeks near Basin, as well as the Boulder River.
The Basin area is underlain by the quartz monzonite of the Boulder Batholith. The batholith is overlain by dacite from the Tertiary Period (roughly 65 million to 1.8 million years ago) and andesite from the late Cretaceous Period. The andesite and monzonite are cut by dikes of dacite and rhyolite.
About 2,000 years ago, a new prehistoric people known as the Late Hunters appeared in Montana, thriving on a bison (buffalo) population living in open grassy areas on the plains and in river valleys. The earliest tribes are thought to have been the Kootenai, who stayed west of the Continental Divide, and the Flathead (Salish), and Pend d'Oreilles, who ventured east of the mountains into and east of the Three Forks country, southeast of Basin. In the 1600s, the Crow entered Montana from the east and the Shoshone from the south. Pressed by other tribes retreating west from white European settlers, the Blackfeet moved into Montana around 1730. Acquiring horses and firearms, and numbering about 15,000, they formed alliances with other incoming tribes, the Assiniboine and the Gros Ventres, and by the mid-1700s dominated the state. When the white explorers Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River to Three Forks, they found only Blackfeet and Blackfeet allies. Heavily dependent on bison, the nomadic life of the Blackfeet "came to an abrupt end in the early 1880s when the buffalo became almost extinct."
During the 1870s, a few years after the first white miners began looking for gold near Basin, the last large-scale battles between the U.S. government and the Indians took place in Montana. The Marias Massacre (also known as the Baker Massacre), occurred in 1870 about northeast of Basin. Others, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Battle of the Rosebud, were fought in 1876 about from Basin in the southeastern part of the state. By then, most first peoples had been moved to reservations, which were far from Basin.
Searches for the lode veins on both creeks succeeded by the 1870s and eventually led to significant lode mining at the Eva May, Uncle Sam, Grey Eagle, Hattie Ferguson, and Comet mines in the Cataract Creek district and the Bullion, Hope, and Katy mines in the Basin Creek district. By 1880, the settlement at Basin became the local source of supplies for mines and miners.
An unpublished manuscript on file with the Montana State Historical Society describes life in Basin between 1906 and 1910 in great detail. Two railroads, the Northern Pacific on the north side of the Boulder River, and the Great Northern on the south side, served the city; both had depots and warehouses in Basin and carried passengers as well as freight. The Glass brothers' smelter had been set up on the north side to process concentrated ore delivered by rail from out of town or from the mills on the south side. Infrastructure included a weight scale for ore cars and an overhead tram to carry ore across the river from the reduction mill to the smelter. Although the smelter was a "massive unit" equipped with furnaces, conveyors, and machinery ready for operation, it "never turned a wheel".
While the smelter sat idle, mining activity continued on the south side of the river in the Hope-Katy mine complex, at the Hope Mill, which crushed and separated ore, and at the Basin Reduction Works. Flumes carried water from upstream on Cataract Creek and Basin Creek to a storage reservoir in town and supplied water to the mills as well as the town's fire hydrants. A separate flume carried water to the mills from upstream on the Boulder River. At the Basin Reduction Works, Corliss steam engines, driven by the coal-fired boilers, provided power to run the mine hoists and the mill machinery, and an electric generator powered by a water wheel made electricity for factory lights and the arc lights at Basin's street intersections. Surplus tailings were discharged into the river and into a dam built for the purpose downstream of Basin.
In addition to homes, Basin structures between 1906 and 1910 included a dance pavilion, a grandstand, a baseball diamond, and a playground near the confluence of Basin Creek with the river. A footbridge connected the playground with a picnic area on the south side of the river. Meeting places included churches, a union hall, and a two-story building shared by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Masons, and Eastern Star. Among the town's businesses were a hardware store, a bakery, livery stables, several "units of harlotry", a blacksmith shop, a brewery specializing in Basin Beer, a sawmill, and a dairy barn from which "milk was delivered in five-pound buckets", sometimes with covers. In 1909, after Heinze abandoned his properties in Basin, the Butte and Superior Mining Company used buildings and machinery at the site of the Basin Reduction Works to treat zinc ore by a new process called froth flotation. Sued for patent infringement, the company shut down its Basin plant in 1912. Max Atwater, a mining engineer who had worked for Butte and Superior, obtained a license for the process and ran a smaller zinc-extraction plant in Basin from 1914 through 1918. His wife, Mary Meigs Atwater, described Basin as "a mining camp, subject to recurring periods of boom and bust... A tiny telephone office and a drugstore passed away with the end of our era of boom... Just above the town were the headframe of our mine, and the old mill, and the never-quite-finished skeleton of a projected smelter.
The most extensive and successful mining of the Hope-Katy vein began in 1919, when the Jib Consolidated Mining Company began work on the property. When this company acquired the mines, they comprised of workings. Over the next five years, Jib expanded these to more than , and in 1924 the company became the largest gold producer in Montana. In that year, the combined Jib mines produced about of gold, of silver, of copper, and of lead. In 1925, however, the Jib properties passed from the mining company to trustees for creditors, and production declined. This was the last of Basin's mining booms. Since then, small-scale mining, reworking of old mine dumps, and placer mining has continued in the region.
In 1975, the Basin community formed water and sewer districts and, using federal grants to cover about 60 percent of the costs, built a water delivery, sewage, and waste-handling system. By 1990, Interstate 15 had replaced the entire length of U.S. Route 91 in the state. The centerline of the Interstate followed the track of the former Great Northern Railway through town.
In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency added the Basin mining area to the Superfund National Priorities List because of mining-waste problems in and near town. The mining area comprised the watersheds of Basin and Cataract Creek and part of the Boulder River. Contaminants included arsenic, copper, cadmium, lead and other metals. Cleanup of the mining wastes at the Buckeye-Enterprise, Crystal and Bullion mines in the Basin Creek and Cataract watersheds was completed in 2002, and the removal of mine waste from Basin was completed in 2004.
There were 113 households out of which 29.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 51.3% were married couples living together, 5.3% had a female householder with no husband present, and 38.9% were non-families. 32.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 6.2% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.26 and the average family size was 2.93.
In the CDP the population was spread out with 26.7% under the age of 18, 4.7% from 18 to 24, 29.4% from 25 to 44, 31.0% from 45 to 64, and 8.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 94.7 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.8 males.
The median income for a household in the CDP was $22,500, and the median income for a family was $30,000. Males had a median income of $26,250 versus $15,714 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $11,878. About 23.4% of families and 32.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 56.0% of those under the age of 18 and 16.7% of those 65 or over.
The town's small business district includes a bar, two restaurants, a traveler's inn, the artist's refuge, small specialty shops, and a pottery gallery. A low-power radio station, KBAS, 98.3 FM, owned by Jefferson County Disaster and Emergency Services, broadcasts from Basin.