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USA, MT: Montana’s Forgotten Ghost Towns

As I found out, ghost towns and ghost camps in Montana are in out of the way places at high elevations in places such as Alder Gulch - Virginia City, Bannack, Granite and Garnet. To retrace history, I found most of these ghost towns off the beaten path.

AUTHOR AND PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2013

 

 

Like many wild west towns of the 1880s, gold, or silver was what brought prospectors, thieves, preachers, prostitutes, assayers, stagecoach drivers, blacksmiths, saloon keepers, dancing girls, road agents, gunslingers, lawmen, merchants, miners, vigilantes and a smattering of law-abiding citizens. Towns flourished, sometimes going from just a handful of miners to tens of thousands within a year.  But when those seams dried up so did the towns.

 

Ghost towns today contain structures that have been preserved, restored or in some cases left partially damaged. These towns are abandoned communities containing buildings which in some instances have been sealed off yet might still have their contents fully intact. One of the least known facts is that saloons far outnumbered churches, schools and businesses in many western ghost towns where water was more expensive than liquor.

 

The most common reason that these communities became ghost towns is that they were either bypassed by transportation routes, their sources of income or water were exhausted, disasters such as fire occurred or often their post offices were simply closed down.

 

As I walked the squeaky and dusty boardwalks in some of Montana’s famous ghost towns, the sound and sights of a bygone era were all around me. Creaking doors, open mine shafts, faded signs along with derelict gravestones beyond the rusted gates of graveyards and the strewn remains of heavy mining equipment, wagon wheels, buck boards and horse drawn wagons.

 

As I found out, ghost towns and ghost camps in Montana are in out of the way places at high elevations in places such as Alder Gulch - Virginia City, Bannack, Granite and Garnet. To retrace history, I found most of these ghost towns off the beaten path, but it was well worth the effort to step back into a time and place that is all but deserted, but certainly not forgotten. So here are four superb examples worth visiting out of nearly 20 ghostly locations in Montana.

 

Bannack Ghost Town, Montana

In a remote region of Montana, not too far from the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park, is a ghost town worth going out of your way to find. This region was first explored and journeyed by canoe in 1805 by Lewis and Clark. Later trappers followed until eventually a small band of miners from Colorado in 1862 made the first significant gold strike in what is now the state of Montana. A year or so later, in a town that was distinctly off the beaten track and hard to find, deposits of both placer gold and quartz gold proved so valuable that Bannack had soon acquired more than 3,000 residents. 

 

The road between Bannack and Virginia City was the scene of many holdups, robberies and murders than almost any other comparable stagecoach route out west. The local outlaw gang had for its mastermind the Sheriff of Bannack, one Henry Plummer. Plummer however had set himself up as a preserver of the peace, and the guardian of law and order. Once he was the official sheriff he built a rectangular log-hewn jail with cast iron rings in the floor so that prisoners could not escape merely by punching a hole in the sod-roof.

 

Today the town is preserved rather than restored; protected rather than exploited with square-hewn log cabins and buildings boasting a colourful history. The largest building in town is a two-storey brick building that was once the courthouse and county seat from 1875 until 1881. Other buildings include the schoolhouse built in 1871, the Masonic Hall built in 1874 and a beautiful little frame church dating back to 1870. Lastly don’t leave town without visiting the jail and the two graveyards and you will have experienced a classic western ghost town.

 

 

Alder Gulch, Virginia City:

In 1863 Bill Fairweather and his party discovered gold in southwestern Montana. They were on their way to Yellowstone Country from Bannack but were waylaid by a band of Crows. While hiding from the Indians in a gulch they found gold. They named the gulch after the alder trees lining the gulch. Alder was one of the great gold producers of all time. The site of the largest placer gold strike in world history as it produced US$10,000,000 during the first year alone.

 

A year later the region had a population of 10,000. People lived in makeshift tents and shacks and every third construction was a saloon. The site gave birth to two of Montana's most famous towns: Virginia City and nearby Nevada City. The new discoveries at Alder Gulch eventually drew people away from Bannack. Virginia City eventually became the territorial capital from 1865 to 1875.

 

 

Granite Ghost Town

Hector Horton first discovered silver in the general area in 1865. In the autumn of 1872 the Granite mine was discovered by a prospector named Holland. The mine was relocated in 1875. This is one of the best of all ghost camps. This was the richest silver mine on the earth, and it might never have been discovered if a telegram from the east hadn't been delayed. The miner's backers thought the venture was hopeless and ordered an end to its operation, but the last blast on the last shift uncovered a bonanza, which yielded $40,000,000.

 

In the silver panic of 1893, word came to shut the mine down. The mine was deserted for three years, never again would it reach the population it once had of 3,000 miners. Today there is no one living or working there. The shell of the Miners' Union Hall still stands. The roof supports have caved to the bottom floor, the third-floor dance hall, second-floor union offices, and ground-floor saloon/cafe are also about to collapse. Yet the company hospital still stands.

 

Garnet Ghost Town

Garnet is a historic mining ghost town located in west central Montana and sits at an elevation of about 6,000 feet at the head of First Chance Creek. It was named after the brown garnet rock that was used as an abrasive and a semi-precious stone found in the area. The town dates back to 1895 with more than 30 well-preserved buildings.

 

Garnet offers a wonderful ghost town experience without commercialization. The town never had a bonanza strike but still serves as one of Montana's most impressive ghost towns. It wasn't until an abundance of gold was discovered at the Nancy Hanks Mine in 1898 that Garnet became a boomtown. It then became a host to nearly 1,000 people. Many millions in gold were taken from the Garnet area from 1862 to 1916. There were three hotels, seven saloons, three hotels, stores, a school, a Chinese laundry and barbershops but by 1950 the town was deserted.

 

Some of the ghost towns are open year-round while others are open only seasonally. There is usually a nominal entrance fee required. Visitors to Bannack and Garnet will also find a visitor center, gift shop, interpretive signs and self-guided trails, as well as books, cards and other memorabilia.

 

 

Fact Box:

 

Flights, accommodation and travel arrangements were provided courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism. For further information go to: www.visitmt.com 

 

Air New Zealand  offer direct flights to San Francisco connecting with daily domestic United Airlines flights to a number of cities in Montana. www.airnewzealand.co.nz

If you would like to read this article in full or licence it for your own publication, please click here to contact Shane.