Thompson Park had the best of both worlds when it was first developed in the early 20th century — a massive city park interspersed with forested hills south of Butte.
The 3,500 acres set in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest offered a place for Butte families to picnic, take a walk and just get away from town. Later, more amenities were added, including trails, a campground and a ski jump.
But years ago the park just south of Butte that straddles Blacktail Creek became worn from use and lack of upkeep.
“It just fell into disrepair,” said Jocelyn Dodge, recreational forester for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
But Dodge began working with Butte-Silver Bow leaders to restore and upgrade Thompson Park. And just this month the park
officially reopened with a host of new trails, picnic tables and toilets, and interpretive signs that tell about the area’s rich history and connections to Butte.
The improvements were badly needed, said Jon Sesso, Butte-Silver Bow planning director. Like any facility, Thompson Park needed basic maintenance, and yet the asset so close to Butte was overlooked for decades.
“It was literally 50 years since anybody, either the Forest Service or Butte-Silver Bow, had made any capital improvements to the park,” he said. “And here we have such a great asset so close to our citizens.”
The park’s origins date back to some of Butte’s earliest leaders. The land was originally mined and the placer claims there along Blacktail Creek were donated to the city of Butte by Col. William Boyce Thompson.
He wanted the park to honor his father, William Thompson, a former Butte mayor, according to the Forest Service. The younger Thompson had been raised in Butte and went on to found the Newmont Mining Co.
Butte city council members officially designated the park in 1915. Seven years later, an act of Congress combined the donated property with federal lands to form one of the first municipal recreation areas
within the national forest system.
Dodge said that, as the years went by, public programs were crucial to Thompson Park’s development.
In 1935, more than 250 Works Progress Administration workers were put on the job of clearing and building the infrastructure within the park. Roads, picnic areas and trails were built.
The effort drew in other civic organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America and local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.
“It’s always been built with partnerships,” Dodge said.
Dodge looked at that long history of multiple groups pitching in when she began focusing on restoring the park. She reached out to Butte-Silver Bow and asked to apply for a Natural Resource Damage Program grant — money meant to compensate communities for the effects of mining.
“We just felt that it was such a perfect fit for the NRD program under the category of the replacement of recreational opportunities due to the impacts of mining,” Sesso said.
The county applied in 2003, but was denied. Sesso said state officials were not interested in seeing the money go toward a park. But the county regrouped and applied again in 2007, and this time was awarded $988,000 to restore the park.
The Forest Service and Butte-Silver Bow have worked over the past four years to bring back the park. Dodge helped put together a plan to build new connector trails, install new parking areas and add other amenities.
They include a revamped disc golf course, new toilets and revamped trails. There are also new picnic tables and interpretive signs that explain the mining and subsequent recreational history of the park.
Dodge incorporated help from the Montana Conservation Corps, AmeriCorps, Boy Scouts and other groups in the process. She said getting that investment from volunteers has been in keeping with the park’s history, and she sees that as getting buy-in from the community and beyond for Thompson Park.
“Just having the MCC and AmeriCorps in here to me carries on that tradition of volunteerism,” she said.
Several of the new single-track trails lead from the parking areas and serve as important links to a larger trail system. The park offers 25 miles of non-motorized trails that connect to the Continental Divide Trail. Other trails reach the trail along the old Milwaukee Road line, now a Rails-to-Trails route.
The improvements also include a motorized trail in Herman Gulch that heads through part of the park.
The new trails are a boon for mountain bikers, said Mike Borduin, an avid rider. He said the trails create more intermediate routes for riders, replacing some of the older trails that were incredibly steep and difficult.
“I really like what’s happened in that area,” he said. “You can actually ride up the trails there as well as ride down them now.”
But beyond mountain biking, Borduin said Thompson Park is a great asset for families too. He and his wife bring their young children to the area for short hikes, picnics or just to relax.
“There are a few really nice family-type hikes that stay really low, and you can get on the old railroad tracks and go to the tunnels,” he said. “My family really loves it out there.”
Dodge said that’s exactly what she had in mind when she envisioned restoring the park. And seeing the new Thompson Park has been rewarding for Dodge, who said it’s been among her favorite projects in her career.
“We felt there was an important historical heritage for Butte and an urban park opportunity as well,” she said. “This one’s been my labor of love.”
To get there:
Take Highway 2 south of Butte, and proceed several miles eastward from the intersection with Continental Drive. Access to the park is on the south, or right side, of the roadway.