Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Colleen Kesterson

Unsolved Mysteries Linger in the Swan Valley


An article on Eugene Prange that ran in the Missoulian Sunday, Aug. 2, 1981.

SWAN VALLEY - Unsolved Mysteries in the Swan Valley was the topic March 11 at the Swan Valley Museum. Upper Swan Valley Historical Society (USVHS) president Steve Lamar told the stories with the aid of projected photos to a group of more than 60 people.

Mysteries in the Swan include persons that did not return home, some who avoided the law or the unknown location of gold mines.

Unknown Gold Mines

Hall Peak, seen behind the village of Swan Lake, is named for a prospector who in the early 1900s would come back to town after spending the summers in the Swan Range near the peak. Every fall Peak returned with a small poke of gold with him. He was secretive about where his mining claim was located.

Lamar said according to the late lifelong Swan Lake resident Joe Lawrence, Peak left for the winters and returned in the spring riding the logging boat down the length of Swan Lake to the small town to begin his prospecting. One fall in the early 1920s, he didn't return. Later on, a Native American had the old prospector's gold inlayed rifle. No one ever knew what happened to him but it was thought he met with foul play.

An early day trapper, prospector and hunter, Frenchy Taylor built a cabin near the creek that was later named for him. It was said that he had a gold mine in the area. In 1914, after telling people he found gold, he disappeared.

Some residents said that Taylor was found floating in Flathead Lake with his head smashed and his gold gone. Others said that he helped construct several Gordon Ranch buildings between 1915 and 1916 before he disappeared.

Lamar said late Swan Valley residents Evelyn Jette and Ken Wolff said Taylor was found one spring hung in one of his trapper cabins in the Crazy Horse drainage. Jette's parents knew Taylor and had once grubstaked him or furnished him provisions. His two partners had gone over the mountains into the Mission Valley around Polson where they drank and bragged about their gold mine. One day they took a boat out on Flathead Lake. When the boat returned only one partner remained. This man bragged he was the sole owner of the mine. He went on another drinking binge and had to be hospitalized. When he was released he ate a large meal, fell over and died.

Several people claimed to have found Taylor's mine and trapper cabins. Bud Cheff Sr., Mission Valley resident and outfitter, told of finding Taylor's cabins in the Crazy Horse drainage. Little remains of the crude cabins today. Wolff claimed that he had a shovel he found at the entrance to the mysterious gold mine.

Remote Swan Valley-Good Place to Hide Out

Dick Groom, which was an alias, was in the valley by 1907. He worked on the U.S. Forest Service (FS) survey crew surveying section lines. In 1910 to 1912 he was a ranger at the Lower Holland Ranger District located in the Simmons Meadow area. The creek on the southern edge of the village of Swan Lake bears his name.

In a book written by one of the survey crew John B. Taylor, entitled "A Job with Room and Board" said that Groom had been caught in eastern Montana with a running iron to rebrand livestock that he stole. "They [FS] didn't do background checks in those days," said Lamar with laughter from the audience. He escaped and moved to the remote Swan Valley. Lamar said Groom had a drinking problem that tragically led to him murdering his wife and committing suicide.

Lamar said that the late life-long resident Edna Kesterson and Lawrence told of "Soup Creek Harry" Johnson. Johnson built a cabin near present day Soup Creek Campground. He trapped and worked for the FS as a lookout on Mission Lookout.

Lawrence said that Johnson was arrested by a ranger for poaching and brought to the Swan Lake Ranger Station south of Swan Lake where he promptly escaped and traveled to Canada. There is speculation according to Lamar that "Soup Creek Harry" was also the famous "Mad Trapper of Rat River" about whom a few books and movies have been created.

Johnson changed his name to Albert Johnson and built a small cabin in the Northwest Territories along the Rat River. Several trappers complained to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that Johnson was tampering and stealing from their trap lines. Johnson refused to talk to the two RCMP so they returned with reinforcements in which an officer was wounded in the gun battle.

In January 1932, nine men and 42 dogs carrying 40 pounds of dynamite intended to blow Johnson out of his cabin. They had to warm the dynamite as it was 40 below zero. The cabin exploded but Johnson fired at the officers from a foxhole he had dug under the cabin. After a fifteen hours standoff, the posse retreated to a village about 30 miles away.

After regrouping, a large manhunt became a five-week chase in 50 below zero weather and two blizzards that, with the help of spotters from the air, ended in Johnson's death.

Two Swan Valley Men and University Student Go Missing

Two Swan Valley men stepped out of their houses and were never seen again. Salmon Prairie resident and 1913 homesteader Fred "Fritz" Kaser told his wife Minnie he was going to milk the cow. He never returned. Many searched for him and speculated that he fell in a bog hole, which were numerous in the area. Swan Valley resident Leita Anderson said her parents told her that his little dog sat by a bog hole for a long time after.

Swan Lake resident and Civil War Veteran Asahel W. Morley proved up on his homestead in 1918. He disappeared one winter when the ice on Swan Lake was thin.

Gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel hid out from the mob at a lakeshore cabin camp named the Elk Horn on Swan Lake in the mid 1940s. He was accompanied by his moll (female companion) Virginia Hill. He died in a hail of bullets in California when the mob tracked him down in 1947.

A massive search was held for University of Montana forestry student Eugene Prange who hiked up in the Goat Mountain area of the Mission Mountains to study mountain goats in 1958 and didn't return. Prange's dog was found above Crystal Lake and his car keys were found far from the dog above High Park Lake. In 1990, a tribal forester found a rusted backpack frame and a pair of World War II issue binoculars in the North Fork of the Jocko River drainage. Later numerous scraps of camping gear including pieces of a blanket that was identified by Prange's mother were found there also.

Many theories exist as to how Prange met his end. The late Mission Mountain Ranger Cal Tassinari told Lamar that the cliffs up where the keys were found were tilted and if wet the hiker could slide into the deep cold lake that has no shoreline. "Cold water doesn't give up the dead," said Lamar.

Searchers speculated that Prange could have been caught in a windstorm or one of the many bears in the area killed him or that Prange saw an opportunity to disappear and start a new life.


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