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Mount Sentinel will never be mistaken for the World’s Richest Hill. But someone, probably about the time copper mining was elevating Butte to world-class status, apparently thought it was worth looking for precious metals up there.

Many Missoulians may not know about the resulting mine shaft, blasted through hard rock for some 60-75 feet, maybe one-third of a mile of gradual climbing from the M. It has survived, relatively intact, over the last 100-plus years.

“It was kind of a secret,” John Spierling said last Friday. “It’s unbelievable the number of people who grew up here, hiked to the M, hiked to the top of Mount Sentinel and had no idea this mine was here.”

Spierling and 15-year-old Nicholai Khomenko were putting the finishing touches on a different kind of cleanup project. A couple of weeks earlier they’d spent a summer evening that had lasted well past midnight grinding and brushing graffiti off the rocks outside and deep into the shaft.

Now they took turns drilling holes in the rock to plant two old mining drill bits, to which they bolted a couple of boards of thick, century-old oak.

“1890 Copper mine. Enjoy This Feature,” the two had routed into the top board.

On the bottom: “Please Respect Our History. Leave It As You Found It.”

The finished product blended tastefully into the rocky hillside and spoke of the unearthed history of the manmade hole in the mountain.

“It’s actually totally what I was envisioning,” said Khomenko, who’s entering his junior year at Missoula Sentinel. “You almost have to put more effort in to make it look old.”

Spierling, a Missoula dentist, grew up at the base of the mountain. He found the mine more than half a century ago, when he was 10 years old. While he’s still trying to trace its origins, Spierling probably has as intimate a connection with it as anyone who still climbs this hill.

As his own children and grandchildren grew up, it was the end zone for an elaborate treasure hunt, replete with a treasure map made of old sheets soaked in lemon juice and baked to look like aging parchment.

“Ostensibly we’re hiking up to the M to watch the sunset,” Spierling said. “There’s a hollow tree at the bottom where we’d find a plastic skull with the map in it.”

The map pointed the way to the M and beyond. At the bottom of the mine, down a steady decline and a six-foot “slide,” in a rock-lined shaft that only short people can stand in, Spierling stashed a treasure chest. The box was made of wood from a dock in the San Juan Islands, with barnacles and seashells stuck on the side and chains draped across.

Inside, he said, were gold coins of chocolate, nail polish and jewelry trinkets, eye patches and pirate hats for the boys, and Pokemon or “whatever was cool at the time for the age.”

At other times the mine served as a winter dining room of sorts for the Spierling family.

“I’d bring my kids up here and we’d cook dinner with a little Coleman stove and eat it down in the mine and then go on to Lady Griz games,” he recalled.

Khomenko knows a different mountain. He’s a regular on the Mo Z Trail, the only one on the face of Mount Sentinel that’s designated for mountain bikes.

That trail itself is a Missoula treasure, the teenager said.

“I’m pretty impressed with the whole mountain biking community here. They are very respectful. I’ve never ever seen a piece of trash on any of the trails and I’ve ridden them hundreds of times, if not thousands,” he said.

***

So it’s easy to picture Khomenko’s chagrin the first time Spierling, a family friend, took him on a hike to see his pet mine.

It’s about 620 feet above the Mount Sentinel Fire Road, just past the first switchback of a recently constructed trail that passes between the adit and mine tailings that fan out below. The new trail has spawned new visitors, and with them, problems. The chiseled initials on the walls of the mine from days of yore were overwhelmed by spray painted tags, poems, and other forms of graffiti.

“I was very disappointed with what I saw,” said Khomenko. “Vandalism is not Missoula, not something Missoula would do.”

A science and math whiz who has aspirations to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Khomenko insisted something should be done.

“Nicholai said, 'Why don’t we fix this? Let’s figure it out.' He’s been the motivation on this,” said Spierling, who agreed to pay the tab on cleanup efforts.

They considered using muriatic acid to scour the graffiti away but discarded that idea for a number of reasons. Sandblasting seemed more reasonable but would entail more than 600 feet of air hose strung from a large generator from the fire road, the closest point of vehicle access.

The west face of Mount Sentinel is University of Montana property. With the blessings of Marilyn Marler, UM’s natural areas specialist, and Kevin Krebsbach, facilities director at the university, Spierling and Khomenko settled on option No. 3 – grinders and sand paper.

“We tried that with a couple of smaller generators and it worked very well,” Khomenko said.

The bulk of the cleaning took place on a Thursday after Spierling got off work. He said a rental company gave them a consideration on the generators if they picked them up after shop hours and returned them the next morning.

With a ladder and other equipment already at the mine, and the combination to the gate to the fire road above the UM Golf Course in hand, they hauled the generators and grinders up the bumpy track in Spierling’s pickup. He’d fitted a green garden wagon with an extra rubber tire, and they pushed and pulled the laden wagon up the last quarter mile to the mine.

Night-time Missoula spread out at their feet as dusk turned to dark. Spierling and Khomenko ground off the remnants of vandalism deep into the mine.

“We have quite a few hours of work down inside there,” Spierling said later. “Real dusty. You had to work awhile and let the dust settle and come out to get a little fresh air.”

They had one visitor – a mouse. They were careful to leave untouched the green copper oxide that stained the rocks.

“It was real cool,” said Khomenko. “The dust and air made it this mysterical sort of fantasy-looking place.”

They ground and brushed until 1 a.m. and figure they got 95 percent of the unwanted mine “art” scrubbed out.

***

Marler, who also chairs the Missoula City Council, called it “a pretty neat project.”

She was appalled at the graffiti in and on the mine but had no viable solution for it.

“My primary focus is weed management and restoration of native plant communities, so the other things are kind of secondary,” she said. “I’m always looking for help from the Montana Conservation Corps or student interns, so it’s helpful when people take the initiative to do something like this on their own.”

The grinders worked so well, in fact, that Spierling and Khomenko have agreed to attack another growing graffiti problem on the mountain – the rocks and benches on the M trail.

***

Spierling hopes someone will come up with information about the copper mine’s origins. There are other abandoned shafts around Missoula – on the South Hills, in the Crazy Canyon area of Pattee Canyon, and several up the Rattlesnake.

He’s had discussions with the Montana Bureau of Mines at Montana Tech in Butte and put in queries to historians and geologists around town with few results.

According to notes compiled by the late Missoula researcher Audra Browman, the last working mine in the Rattlesnake was the Jumbo Mining Company’s “Paying Teller,” three miles up the east side of Rattlesnake Creek. In 1890 it had a 100-foot shaft on Mount Jumbo that produced a mix of silver, gold and copper.

“I would be surprised if the Sentinel mine wasn’t of the same vintage,” said Ted Antonioli, a Missoula consulting geologist, who is better acquainted with a barite mine on Mount Sentinel to the east.

None of the mining explorations in the Rattlesnake ever paid much, so it’s probable the Mount Sentinel mine was a bust.

But the mystery only adds a layer of intrigue to those who explored the mine as youngsters – in the early 20th century, in the 1960s like Spierling, or last month.

“We took the ladder up (in mid-June) and there was a lady with a Cub Scout troop running around and they were having a ball,” Spierling said. “When I told her what we were going to do she was thrilled.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian