Economic Tsunami: NE Yellowstone Communities Say Flooding Has Created Ghost Towns

For communities at the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park which rely on tourism, the flooding in June has created an "economic tsunami." Businesses say the towns are totally empty.

Wendy Corr

July 04, 20227 min read

Collage Maker 04 Jul 2022 02 43 AM

The floods that took out roads and bridges in the northern part of Yellowstone have left a mark on Cooke City and Silver Gate, Montana, at the northeast entrance to Yellowstone.

The biggest change is the silence, according to Vanessa Shaw, who owns the Cooke City Sinclair Station with her husband.

“We sell ice cream,” Shaw told Cowboy State Daily. “So (in a normal year) there’ll be a line around our stuff here with people coming in and out, and just, nonstop traffic out the doors. And right now, Cooke City looks completely normal, just totally empty. It’s really weird, it’s eerie. A little sad.”

Cooke City and Silver Gate rely on the tourists passing through this remote region of northwest Wyoming and southern Montana on their way to Yellowstone National Park via the northeast gate. But because of the floods that destroyed portions of the highway in Yellowstone on June 13, that entrance is no longer accessible – which means that the tourists aren’t passing through.

“It’s a tsunami,” said Henry Finkbeiner, owner of Silver Gate Lodging. “It’s an economic and financial tsunami that will crush the two towns here.” 

Finkbeiner has been coming to Cooke City and Silver Gate since 1971, he told Cowboy State Daily, when his grandfather first brought him to this part of Montana from his native Georgia. He started his business in 2000, he said, with a mission to connect people to nature. 

“We do that through having lodging in the Range Rider (Lodge), Silver Gate cabins, Pine Edge cabins, Whispering Pines cabins, and then we have a guide service and a bar.”

But Chris Conway, Silver Gate Lodging manager, said after the flood, their bookings dropped 95%.

“We’ve been booked up for six months in advance,” he said. “We would have probably, approximately, just in our cabins, not the whole community, about 100 people staying in Silver Gate tonight. Tonight we probably have five, because of the closure of the roads into Yellowstone National Park.”

Businesses like Silver Gate Lodging rely on those tourists in the summer to pay the bills year-round. So when the flood occurred on June 13, the damage was done to more than just buildings and roads.

“Thankfully, only one of our cabins was damaged in any sort of way,” said Conway. “The rest of them are okay. But the flooding coming up to where we’re standing right now was pretty significant, and, you know, frightening, and a little stressful at the time.”

Conway came to Silver Gate five years ago, after discovering the area while working with at-risk youth, getting them into nature. He said he’s never experienced anything at all like the floods that threatened the town in mid-June – and neither has anyone else he’s talked to in Silver Gate.

“People I’ve talked to who have been up here, families that have been up here for generations are talking to their grandparents,” said Conway, “and their grandparents have never heard of anything like this happening before.”

So to mitigate the damage to the economy, business owners in Silver Gate and in Cooke City are coming up with creative and unique ways to attract people to come to their communities.

“We’re offering our cabins for pay-what-you-can for the next, maybe the whole season?” said Finkbeier. “We don’t know yet. But we’ve had a lot of abundance in our life here at Silver Gate lodging. And we want to share that with maybe some of the smaller businesses and the community at large.”

Finkbeier said that his company would be glad to work with school or community groups to give them a break on lodging.

“If there are groups that can come up here and they need financial assistance, call me,” he said. “We believe in the healing power of nature and we want to share it with everybody.”

Shaw said that the communities of Cooke City and Silver Gate are working together like never before to try to draw visitors.

“There’s some running races coming to town, so that’s pretty cool,” she said. “There are some exhibits in Silver Gate and Cooke City that we’re trying to advertise. The Beartooth pass is completely open to the top.”

One of the events that will bring a much-needed economic boost is the International Hemingway Society Conference, which will descend on the Range Rider Lodge in Silver Gate July 17.

“When Chris (Warren, the bartender and manager at the Range Rider) wrote his book about Hemingway and started his guide service about Hemingway, I was really intrigued by it,” said Finkbeier. “And now, since Yellowstone is not available to us, Chris is the biggest thing the town’s got going for us.”

“We do need a few crowds,” Conway admits, although he said he fell in love with the area, in part, because of its remoteness. “Historically, Silver Gate and Cooke City have mostly been about advertising Yellowstone, and not pushing the Beartooths and the surrounding mountains right around here. People from Colorado, from Salt Lake, from Cheyenne come up to me, like, ‘We never knew this place existed. Like, this is where we want to be.’ There’s no crowds, highs around 75 each day.”

Some more good news has been announced for those willing to venture to the remote region of northwest Wyoming and southern Montana, via the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, which links Cooke City with Cody.

“You are going to be able to walk into the park and fish in the park, but there will be no traffic access,” said Chris Warren. He explained that Yellowstone’s northeast entrance has opened to foot traffic only as of this weekend, although park officials say they are looking at opening the area for bicycle use, up to where the highway has washed out west of Silver Gate.

Additionally, Yellowstone announced the reopening of a 23-mile segment of the Beartooth Highway from Cooke City, providing visitors access to that world-class scenic roadway.  

Shaw added that the wildlife is also in full view.

“I got charged by a bear a week and a half ago, like literally a quarter mile outside of town,” she said. “So wildlife is still here. Hiking is still here. Fishing is still here. We’re basically the park, it’s just there’s a line, and we’re on the other side of it.”

“Just make a reservation, come as soon as you can, spend money in the businesses. If you can throw some our way, that’s great,” said Finkbeier. “If not, just come stay.”

“We’re open for business (in Silver Gate) and in Cooke City,” said Warren, “and we kind of need people to come see us.”

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Wendy Corr

Features Reporter