July 31, 1996
At the crest of the hill, visitors can still see the posts and cross-piece that were part of the gallows. In the mid-1860s, gold brought all types to the town of Bannack in southwestern Montana, some of whom found their way to the top of hill with a hangman’s noose around their necks. It was a lawless time with more than 100 murders recorded. Such disrespect for the law led to the construction of the Montana Territory’s first jail in Bannack. Crooks looking for easy pickin’s were everywhere. Even the sheriff, Henry Plummer, was up to no good. He was the among first to meet his end on the very gallows he had ordered built.
Bannack, once home to a few thousand rowdy residents, is now a ghost town. Along with the old mining towns of Nevada City, Virginia City, Garnet and Coolidge, it is a reminder of Montana’s wild past. All these towns were once bustling with gold and silver seekers, who filled the saloons, hotels and shops when not digging in the ground. Some also brought their families. Their homes stand alongside other time-worn buildings. Now these ghost towns are tourist attractions, even in winter when the icy cold gives them an added eeriness.
Stand at the center of any of these forgotten cities and listen closely to the howling wind. You may hear the sounds of honky-tonk pianos, or catch a fleeting glimpse of a miner clutching a cache of gold.
Some of the ghost towns, like Garnet and Coolidge, are accessible only by snowmobile during the snowy Montana winters. During the warmer months, visitors may drive to them. Bannack, in an open valley along Grasshopper Creek, is a state park with a campground, and it’s open year-round. Virginia and Nevada City are about a mile apart along a main road once stalked by highwaymen.
Bannack was Montana’s first territorial capital, and by 1863, its population grew to more than 3,000. Grasshopper Creek was yielding millions in gold, and many buildings sprang up, some of which still stand. The cemetery here is a short distance from the gallows where Plummer was hung by the famed vigilantes of Montana.
The Meade Hotel with its huge spiral staircase still sports some of its original wallpaper. Modern-day guests and locals swear they’ve seen ghostly ladies in their fineries walking the hallways. Restoration is ongoing, and visitors can watch as original glass windows are re-set and re-used.
In July, Bannack Days celebrates the area’s history with crafts, music and exhibitions. Ghost stories are told on Halloween night — pretty scary considering there’s no electricity in town. In winter, the stout-hearted can ice skate on an old dredge pond by moonlight. The less adventurous can come by day.
Henry Plummer also lurked around both Nevada and Virginia City. As in Bannack, he was involved in outlaw activities under the guise of the law. Gold was discovered in nearby Alder Creek in 1863. Within a year, some 10,000 people moved in, and by 1866 the creek had produced $30 million in gold. Plummer and his road agents made sure they got their share until the rope in Bannack found his neck. Boot Hill overlooks Virginia City marking the graves of the outlaws who were brought to justice by the local vigilantes.
Nevada and Virginia City have western-style wooden boardwalks along their shops and businesses, which include Montana’s first newspaper. A comfortably restored sod-roof cabin offers modern visitors a place to spend the night.
Unlike the other isolated ghost towns, Nevada and Virginia City have commercial outlets like shops and eateries. The Nevada City Star Bakery is still at its original gold rush location, and the Virginia City Players regularly perform at the Opera House. Special events include the “Buffalo Runners Shooting Match” in June, and an art festival features a quick-draw contest in August. “Gun fights” also are a daily scene in Nevada City.
The towns surrounding the Elkhorn Silver Mine in Coolidge and the Garnet Gold Mine near Missoula also were home to thousands. These two broken-down cities are accessible by snowmobile in winter and most trails are open to mountain bikes in summer. But no matter when you visit, the spirits of these old buildings seem to relish the company.
The Elkhorn/Coolidge mines are in Montana’s Pioneer Mountains, about 30 miles from Bannack. During warmer months, visitors can drive to a parking area and walk the mile or so to the ghost town. Watch out for moose grazing by the roadside.
The Elkhorn Mine thrived in the early 1900s. Old wooden buildings such as bunk houses and an old schoolhouse still stand near the mine.
A trail through the forest lets visitors travel by foot, mountain bike or snowmobile down to the town of Coolidge, which was named after Calvin. The giant mill, which converted raw ore into marketable silver, stands between the mine and the town. Although decaying now, the structure is impressive and cost almost $1 million to build in 1922.
It’s fun to bring lunch and eat in what once was the center of town — home to some 500 people. You can sense Coolidge was a busy place with its many buildings, including a railway station. Now the tall lodgepole pines and fir trees hide its past. Nothing’s left but the wind to whistle through the broken windows.
Near the ghost town is the Elkhorn Hot Springs, a perfect place to take a dip to soothe tired muscles. The springs averages 100 degrees and hotter, and channels water to two outdoor pools, keeping guests warm even in the dead of winter. See the manager at the adjoining Trail Creek Lodge for swimming fees and towels.
To the north near Missoula is the Garnet Range with its miles of access roads. On a clear day, it’s possible to see 10 wildlife areas, dozens of mountain peaks, open valleys and several towns from these lofty heights of almost 7,000 feet. In winter, these roads are closed except to snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. The roadways eventually lead to Garnet.
On the way, you’ll pass the Sand Park Cemetery, resting place of long-ago residents. The cemetery, some four miles from Garnet, was the only spot the locals found soil sandy enough to dig their 6-foot-deep graves. All other terrain was too rocky.
Garnet (below) originally was named for the red gems found in the area but became a boom town for its rich gold-bearing quartz in the 1860s. Garnet was home to nearly 1,500 people. Some 20 buildings still stand, including a jail, post office, blacksmith shop, school, cabins and a hotel. Garnet also had a dozen saloons to wet a parched throat after a tough day of mining. Davey’s Store, a dry goods shop, operated into the 1940s.
Garnet wasn’t as wild as its contemporaries. Although drinking, gambling and prostitution were part of the activities, family functions played a dominant role. Married women outnumbered the “sporting girls” and community dances were held most Saturday nights.
If you dare, spend some time with the ghosts. Two cabins can be rented overnight in winter. The Wills Cabin and Ole Dahl’s place (home to a saloon keeper and a speakeasy during Prohibition) are two of the newer structures, built in the 1930s. The homes offer wood-burning stoves and rustic furniture.
Montana’s gold rush era, although many years removed, has left behind plenty of evidence of its exciting past. This corner of Montana provides visitors with many relics of a time long past, but easily imagined.
Story and photos by Jill Barnes