Throughout history, wherever gold is discovered, towns boom. When the gold runs out, towns bust. The 17 ghost towns in Montana’s Gold West Country are no exception, but what is exceptional about these towns is that many are well-preserved, offer self-guided tours, and are not completely deserted. Gold West Country is the southwestern part of Montana, conveniently located between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. So when you’re out exploring the national treasures found in the Treasure State, you’ll find these notable ghost towns along your route.
Now a state park, Bannack was a city of many “firsts” in Montana’s history. It was the first territorial capital, and had the first hotel and first chartered Masonic Lodge. It also had the first hard rock gold mine and electric gold dredge. It had the first jail, too, but it was seldom used—no one wanted to guard prisoners when instead they could be working their gold claim. Its infamous sheriff, Henry Plummer, was secretly the leader of a gang of robbers and murderers—that is until citizen vigilantes hanged the sheriff and his followers on the gallows that are still in town.
Although the prospectors, families, and businesses are long gone, many mining relics and more than 50 buildings remain in Bannack. Visitors are free to go inside most of the homes, hotels, cabins, saloons, stores, school and church—a rare treat when it comes to ghost gowns. Pick up a self-guided walking tour brochure at the visitor center first, then stroll along the boardwalk. Numbers in front of each building correspond with entertaining stories inside the brochure. If you’re not afraid of ghosts, don’t miss the Bessette House on the southeast end of Bannack. The site is believed to be haunted by the children who died there during an epidemic of scarlet fever. It is nicknamed the Crying Baby House because of the sounds some people have reported hearing.
Bannack’s rich history began 150 years ago with John White’s discovery of placer gold along the banks of Grasshopper Creek. By the fall of 1862, “Grasshopper Diggins” was home to 400 prospectors. By the following spring, the population had swelled to 3,000—the Gold Rush was definitely on! Approximately $500,000 in gold (selling at $18 per ounce) was taken out of the area by the end of 1862. That’s none too shabby a return in any day and age!
A year later, the rough and tumble mining camp officially became the town of Bannack, named for the Bannock Indians who frequented the area (slightly different spelling thanks to a paperwork error made in Washington D.C.) With all the gold seekers moving into town, it didn’t take long for the streets of Bannack to be lined with saloons, hotels, tailors, carpenters, doctor’s and lawyer’s offices, and a variety of stores. It took 15 years, however, before the Methodist Church was built in 1877.
As with most gold rush towns, when the shiny stuff ran out, people moved away. With the start of World War II, all non-essential mining was prohibited, and by the late 1940s, the post office had closed, there was no doctor or grocery store left, and only a few stragglers remained.
If you want to see this ghost town really come alive, visit during the third weekend in July. The annual Bannack Days celebration raises both money and awareness for the state park. Hands-on demonstrations of pioneer crafts and gold panning, plus music and food make the town hustle and bustle for a few days each year.
In contrast to the lawlessness that plagued most boomtowns, Garnet was a pretty good place to raise a family. Partly because it was settled 30 years after most early mining camps, and partly because it had a strong miner’s union, Garnet tended to attract solid, hard-working family men. Social activities such as picnics, hayrides, dances, and quilting bees were more common than drunken card games, even though saloons and gambling existed. Respectable married women far outnumbered prostitutes. Even the gold mine owners were serious entrepreneurs—the remote location made lode (hard rock) mining an expensive challenge, so they had to be committed.
Although the first gold strike in the Garnet Range occurred in the early 1860s, it wasn’t until 1896 when a rich vein of ore was discovered in the Nancy Hanks mine that the town took off. Over the years, this mine alone produced about $300,000 and kept a lot of miners employed. During its heyday, about 1,000 people called Garnet home and all types of businesses flourished—from candy stores and butcher shops to saloons, hotels, and a union hall that was also used for social activities. The daily stage line made it easy to come and go. Garnet’s school had 41 students.
Named for the semi-precious ruby-colored stone found in the area, Garnet might not shine as brightly as she did in the early 1900s, but this ghost town is still considered a gem. The gravel road leading to Garnet is not suitable for trailers or motorhomes, but if you’re in a car, it’s worth the drive up to 6,000 feet to explore the 20 or so remaining false-front and log dwellings. Since 1972, the Bureau of Land Management has been responsible for stabilizing and preserving these historic structures. Wander inside the J.K. Wells Hotel and Frank Davey’s store and see a few original furnishings, albeit a bit shabby from the passing of time. The Garnet Visitor Center used to be the Dahl Saloon and still has the bar to prove it. Various miners’ cabins, a blacksmith shop, and even a home where newlyweds could live for free until they built their own cabin are open to the public.
Garnet’s boom was short. By 1900, many of the veins had disappeared and deeper mine shafts made gold recovery extremely difficult and expensive. By 1905, most of the mines had been abandoned and only 150 souls remained. A devastating fire in 1912 destroyed much of Garnet’s haphazardly built commercial district, and World War I called most of the remaining residents away to defense-related jobs. All told, an estimated $950,000 was extracted by 1917 from the 20 or so mines in the area. Most of the wealth came from gold, but copper and silver were mined as well.
Garnet saw a short revival in 1934 when President Roosevelt raised gold prices from $16 to $35 an ounce. With the higher price and the availability of new extraction and refining technology, another wave of miners and their families moved into town and began reworking the mines. The population was then about 250. With the onset of World War II, men were once again drawn away, especially since war restrictions on the use of dynamite made hard rock mining nearly impossible. By 1948, Garnet had slipped into true ghost town status.
Virginia City and Nevada City
One and a half miles apart, the twin towns of Virginia and Nevada cities are easy to reach along a main paved road, just 90 miles west of Yellowstone National Park. In fact, Virginia City was the outfitting point for trips to the Yellowstone area during the 1860s and 1870s. What’s unique about these two outdoor museum towns is that original buildings are interspersed within a living community. Next door to a modern-day restaurant, souvenir store, or candy shop, you’ll find saloons, stores, and hotels that haven’t served customers in many decades (but you can still peek in the windows). Although gold dust was the preferred medium of exchange in the early days (valued at $16 to $18 an ounce), you’re better off using cash or credit cards when you buy an ice cream cone or lunch today!
Virginia City’s boom began in the spring of 1863 when placer gold was discovered in Alder Gulch. A stone monument now marks the spot. A year later, 5,000 stampeding gold seekers made it the largest town in the inland Northwest (the town then stretched for about 14 miles). Virginia City rapidly became the territory’s first social center and transportation hub. As placer mining wore out, lode mining and dredging took over. Alder Gulch yielded an estimated $30 million in gold between 1863 and 1866, but not everyone got rich. The typical miner struggled to barely make a living back then, but with the price of gold today, some small-scale mining operations do pretty well. You’ll see evidence of this as you drive into town—tailings piles, waste-rock dumps, backhoes, and gold trommels on private claims along the road. Also watch for moose.
A self-guided walking tour is the best way to absorb 150 years of Virginia City’s history, and to see the old-west artifacts that make the town worth a stop. Although the Alder Gulch Short Line Railroad between Virginia City and Nevada City is no longer running (built in the mid 1960s), you can still hop aboard an old stagecoach and take a tour of the town.
Nevada City has just 14 buildings that are original to the site, but more than 100 other historic buildings were rescued and relocated here from all over Montana. The town is famous for its living history programs during the summer. You’ll also want to see the Nevada City Music Hall’s collection of historic music machines, Gavioli organs and player pianos—the largest music machine collection in the world that’s open to the public.
Nevada City is also the site of one of the most controversial trials and hangings that took place during the gold rush. George Ives was a notorious robber in the mid 1800s, and was caught and sentenced to a public hanging on December 21, 1863. Story has it that to this day people around town have seen the ghost of Mr. Ives and have photographic evidence of it as well.
In 1890, “Montana’s Silver Queen” was a bustling city. More than 3,000 miners, merchants, and families made their home on remote Granite Mountain, just a few miles southeast of Philipsburg. Like most of the silver ore, the stores, saloons, school, bank, restaurants and homes are long gone from Granite. The bones of the Miners Union Hall, a bank, and a few other buildings still stand, as do remnants of the mines and equipment. The road to Granite is unpaved, rutted, and steep and narrow in spots, so a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. To get a feel for what it would have been like to live and work here, bring your imagination and wander the quiet streets now surrounded by the thick Deerlodge National Forest.
Mining began in Granite around 1875, but it wasn’t until five years later when Charles McLure found a piece of dark-colored, high grade “Ruby” silver ore (pyrargyrite) in the tailings that the real activity began. Convinced he had found a source of unsurpassed riches (his silver ore sample was assayed at 2,000 ounces to the ton), McLure traveled to St. Louis in 1880 to find investors. He was successful in raising $130,000 to get mining operations under way, but not so successful when he first returned to Granite. For months, there were no results. It got to the point that the fed-up investors back in St. Louis, unwilling to continue to lose money, sent a cessation order to McLure and his miners. Luckily, that order “crossed in the mail” with McLure’s victorious message to the investors telling of a rich strike. For the next 10 years, the boom was on. More than $100,000 per month in dividends was paid to investors and total production ran to $33 million in silver from the Granite Mountain Mine, and between $11 and $12 million from the nearby Bi-Metallic Mine.
By 1889, the Superintendent’s House stood at the head of Magnolia Avenue, or “silk stocking row,” where the elite of Granite lived. Superintendent Thomas Weir lived here from 1889 to 1893, and in addition to being a good manager, he did much to improve the living and working conditions of the miners. He built a hospital, had bunkhouses sanitized, gave the men one day off each week, and paid good wages.
After all the success, Granite’s glory days came to a close. In 1904, the price of silver plummeted to 53 cents per ounce when the government reduced the ratio of silver to gold bullion in the treasury. The mines were forced to remained closed until World War I, when manganese, previously discarded in tailings, and government price supports made the ore bodies profitable to mine again. The last resident of Granite died in 1969 at the age of 75. Mae Werning’s house is literally falling down now, but serves as a reminder of what once was.
If you haven’t had your fill of ghost towns yet, Montana’s Gold West Country is home to many more that are worth exploring. Other noteworthy sites include the Charter Oak Lode Mine and Mill near Elliston, what remains of silver mining at Elkhorn State Park, Glendale’s charcoal kilns, an abandoned bank and stamp mill in Pony, and the Watseca gold mine in Rochester. Each town is a reminder of Montana’s mining booms and busts, and are truly historic treasures located in the Treasure State.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith helps businesses get found on the Internet in multiple ways. She can be reached at GoldRushWebMarketing.com.
IF YOU GO:
Bannack State Park is open daily except December 24 and 5. It has two primitive campgrounds with picnic tables, fire rings, vault toilets and water, but no hookups or dump station. Phone (406) 834-3413 or visit bannack.org.
Directions: Take Interstate 15 south from Dillon to exit 59 (Hwy 278 exit). Head west on Hwy 278 for about 20 miles. Turn south onto the paved Bannack road and drive four miles, then turn left onto the gravel park entrance road. Admission is free to Montana residents and $5 for out-of-state visitors. Be sure to pick up a brochure for a self-guided walking tour.