The mystery of the Ringing Rocks

Geologists still puzzle on why a stack of rocks rings

For most of a century, geologists have tried to solve the riddle of why the Ringing Rocks ring and others like them don't. Perhaps it's a combination of the heavy metals inside and the air space beneath the rocks that produces a variety of vibrations when struck by a hammer. When removed from a pile, the rocks cease to ring (Photo by Kim Briggeman for the Daily Montanan).

PIPESTONE – Thanksgiving and Butte were in the rearview mirror.

There was no snow on the last Sunday of last November, but it was beginning to feel a bit like Christmas. After a bumpy 4½ -mile drive up from the Pipestone Exit of Interstate 90, it seemed only natural for a nimble girl and her less-so grandparents to start pounding out Jingle Bells on a pile of rocks.

It was a raw and jolly experiment in cacophony, and it was awful. But up there on Dry Mountain, in extraordinary mounds of rust-colored boulders, when you’ve got a hammer, you’ve gotta hammer.

Nowhere else in Montana, and few places in the world, offer the opportunity of Montana’s Ringing Rocks. Scientists have grappled for most of a century to explain why you can do-re-mi here, but if you move any of the rocks elsewhere (don’t, it’s illegal) all you get is a granite thunk.

“No one REALLY KNOWS why the rocks ring,” Joan Gabelman wrote in a recent email.

Gabelman is a geologist and certified mineral examiner for the Bureau of Land Management in the Butte Field Office. The Ringing Rocks are in an area of some 300,000 acres in eight counties in southwestern Montana administered by the Butte office.

Sure, there’s iron inside the boulders. But that’s not uncommon, and there’s not a lot – only about 7 percent, by one estimate.

“Some think it affects the ringing, others do not,” Gabelman wrote.

She helped edit a paper her late father wrote for the Montana Mining and Mineral Symposium at Montana Tech in 2017. A retired but still active geologist at age 96, John Gabelman said he believed Ringing Rocks were a diatreme, “a vertical explosion to the surface,” his daughter explained, and they’re fairly young in geologic years.

“Others think the rocks are simply juxtaposed due to jointing and gravitational evolution,” Joan Gabelman said.

Amateur pounders as they were, Gramma, Gramps and the girl quickly discovered that the ones that ring aren’t those that are stacked tightly together but piled like so many pickup-sticks. Even different parts of the same boulder often rang with different pitches.

“The isolation and point suspension of the blocks must be the critical cause of their melodiousness,” John Gabelman surmised in 2017. “Each block is effectively hanging and able to respond to impact by resonant standing waves, like a bell.”

It would be nice to say the ringing of the Ringing Rocks soared in joyous strains across the valley, to Whitehall eight miles distant and on across the Jefferson River, finally disappearing into the mysteries of the Tobacco Root Mountains.

Or that the notes tumbled up, up, and away to serenade Our Lady of the Rockies on Butte’s East Ridge 10 miles to the west.

It would be nice to say that, but it would be wrong.

The bell tones on the bright November day — low, medium and Baby-Bear high — fluttered down into the BLM’s upper parking lot and died. The sanctity of quiet in this part of Big Sky country was preserved.

Ding dong ding-ding-dingThump. It was impossible to resist.

Frosty the Snowman(?) … Joy to the World(?) … A Hard Day’s Night (huh?) …

With just a bit of imagination the discordant threesome could hear the ghost of Romeyne Tyee Ogle pounding and grinning along with them.

His tune of preference might have had more a feel of the 1930s, say Ethel Waters’ “Stormy Weather” or Dick Powell’s Gold Diggers song, “We’re In the Money.” They were among the biggest hits of 1933, the year Ogle stumbled onto this extraordinary volcanic flow.

Here’s how the Montana Standard of Butte described the moment:

“R.T. (Kid) Ogle, prospector and trapper widely known by Butte people, struck a thin metallic note from the pile with his boot. He tapped with his miner’s pick on the other rocks and heard other tones. Through the crater, 150 feet long and 60 feet wide, Ogle tested his way.”

Then, as now: “There are hundreds of rocks with reddish coats tumbled in grotesque shapes in the crater and over the side to a fall of several hundred feet into the valley below.”

Ogle was 58, but they still called him “Kid.” He had blue eyes, brown hair, a medium build and was of average height, according to his 1918 draft registration card. It’s hard to imagine anyone from Butte with twinkling blue eyes and a nickname of “Kid” wouldn’t be a lot of fun.

By those Great Depression years R.T. was a hard-luck miner, which is to say a prospector. He’d lived in Butte and thereabouts since age 9, when his family moved from Iowa. He had a wife named Carrie and at least four kids. His résumé as a young man included a career as a “stationary engineer” operating mining machinery and as a stagecoach driver in Yellowstone Park. In the latter vocation he followed in the footsteps of an uncle, Sam Ogle, who was shot by road agents between Bannack and Dillon in the 1860s, or so R.T. told a newspaperman.

Kid Ogle brought attention of the Ringing Rocks to the outside world, but it’s a good bet he wasn’t the first human to “discover” them.

“The oldest prehistoric site I know of in the Pipestone area is between 8,000 and 9,000 years old,” said Carrie Kiely, archeologist for the BLM’s Butte office. “Tribal people do not share sacred information with us, so we don’t know what they thought about Ringing Rocks, but it is logical to conclude that they did know about the formation.”

In the years following Ogle’s personal discovery of rocks that sang, he led tour groups out to them. Crude road signs tacked to fence posts pointed the way to “Ogle’s Volcano.” Geologists called the hard rock “black gabbro,” and while its musical qualities were intriguing, there was more interest in its marketability.

In 1935 the Montana Standard reported that already there were samples of the hard rock in Los Angeles City Hall to demonstrate its use as a building stone. The mineralogy institution of Chicago had some on exhibit. And the gabbro was being considered by army engineers for rip-rap work on the Fort Peck dam.

“Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” didn’t ring so well either. The 2020 COVID world whirled around the hardy party of three. The 11-year-old and her grandma and grandpa clambered and expanded their exploration to smaller piles of rock uphill from the main one – three, four, maybe more also contained musical boulders. A giant snag stuck its head above the forest of junipers and scrub pine. Its exposed side, too tempting for the graffitists among us, heralded the news that Dan hearts Coreen, or he did whenever he scratched it into the ancient wood.

Earlier on that November Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Sunday morning news shows the U.S. could see “a surge upon a surge” of the coronavirus in coming holiday weeks. Wisconsin finished a recount of its presidential results, confirming Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump in the key battleground state.

And 1,900 miles to the east parents and grandkids, lovers and teenagers presumably scrambled and hammered on rocks that ring in Pennsylvania. Three public boulder fields on a 45-mile axis northwest and north of Philadelphia are among more than a dozen in the region. Ringing Rocks County Park, Stony Garden and Ringing Hill Park were discovered, identified and, in some respects, commercialized long before Montana’s was.

We heard of them out West less than a year after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. A blurb in the Bozeman Avant Courier in April 1877 informed: “At Pottstown, Pennsylvania, there is one of the greatest natural curiosities in the country, called ‘the ringing rocks’ — a mass of boulders covering about an acre of ground and heaped in wild confusion, which when struck with a hammer give forth a great variety of musical notes.”

Seven years later came word via the Butte Miner that a trolley line had been opened between Pottstown and Ringing Rocks Park. An amusement park soon arose. Today Pottstown is home of Ringing Rocks Elementary School, nickname (sigh) the Falcons.

The Montana sun was sinking on general hunting season. Teenage boys, one on a dirt bike, the other on a four-wheeler, buzzed up from a side road then on down the main one at a respectful distance.

They were oblivious beneficiaries of a project completed the previous month by BLM crews, who scraped and leveled troublesome stretches of the rough and rocky access road from I-90. That followed another closure and repair job in the fall of 2016. The work has rendered the route reasonably passable for all but the lowest clearance vehicles, if it’s not too muddy or snowy and if you go slow on select stretches.

Grandma, Grandpa and granddaughter could not have been up there gleefully hammering away had not someone at the BLM sought to save these rocks from a mining fate in the 1960s. The successful quest didn’t end well with Norman Rogers, who owned the mining claim. Rogers was a contractor whose holdings included the historic but deteriorated Broadwater Hotel in Helena, property he guarded with unpopular zeal from trespassers. He had built a seven-mile road into Ringing Rocks and was mining the black gabbro to sell to American Chemet Corp. of Helena, which ground it up for use in oil refining and precision sand blasting.

At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in Butte in June 1965, Rogers complained to senators Lee Metcalf of Montana and Ernest Gruening of Alaska the BLM had “spooked” him off the place, invalidating his claim by classifying the gabbro as common stone. It didn’t set well when he read that the BLM was planning to convert the rocks into a tourist attraction.

The Ringing Rocks became a novel recreation destination, but mainly for locals. The rocks were sometimes added to lists of area attractions that included the nearby Lewis and Clark Caverns, Delmoe Lake, Whitetail Meadow, Spire Rock and a 400-year-old lodgepole pine. In recent decades the site has gained wider attention thanks to Montana Magazine and a variety of newspapers and news shows. “Backroads of Montana” first featured the Ringing Rocks on Montana PBS television in 2008.

A letter in the Montana Standard from a Butte man in 2015 solicited support to convince the Montana Department of Transportation to help rescue the rocks from anonymity.

“The Ringing Rocks in Pennsylvania attract visits from thousands of tourists each year,” he wrote. “Montana does not even have a ‘RINGING ROCKS EXIT HERE’ sign on the interstate.”

Six years later that remains the case. You have to leave I-90 and turn north to find the first directional sign. For the first couple of miles at least, eastward on the frontage road then crossing railroad tracks and into the hills, you see nothing resembling the rock pile you seek. Only after emerging from a canyon and starting the last, steeper climb does it all start to make sense.

Maybe that’s part of the lure of this mountain of ahhs, which wraps itself in a curtain of mystery only to gradually reveal itself and offer its wares freely to those who dare approach.

Isn’t that Montana in a nutshell?