There’s something about RV Travel that lends itself to visiting Ghost Towns. I can still recall visiting Kerwin while staying at an RV park in Meeteetse, Wyoming. My visit was in late September 2016 and I ran into a full-out snowstorm while in Kerwin!
Granite, a couple of thousand feet “above” Philipsburg, Montana was an experience! The road alone to get there is a throwback to earlier times. Another “near” ghost town, Goldfield, Nevada made a real impression. Goldfield, once the most populous city in the entire state of Nevada with 25000 residents is now just a remnant of 190 remain, yet much of the town as it was 100+ years ago remains as it was.
In my recent visit to Wisdom, Montana, my mind was not really upon ghost towns until I learned about Bannack.
Bannack, Montana – A VERY unique Ghost Town
Bannack is a VERY well preserved ghost town in southwestern Montana. Once the Regional Capital, it was a gold mining town, as many of these “boom-bust” towns were. Thanks to the Montana state legislature the town is incredibly well preserved. As early as the 1950’s the state began buying up property in Bannack. In the 1950’s the town was in its final stages of collapse. Their goal was preservation as they recognized the value in preserving our past. The state of Montana designated Bannack as a State Park. The state completed its final purchases of property after the last resident left Bannack in 1984.
What you’ll find when you visit Bannack
Over 50 buildings, preserved, not restored, most of which are fully accessible for the visitor to wander about. IF you do so, I encourage you to imagine what rural, mining town life was like over 100 years ago.
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Interestingly, as I wandered about town exploring various buildings, I noted some buildings had clearly been modernized with electricity. The electricity had subsequently been removed. I asked the park ranger about this. He explained that when the state authorities committed to preserving the town, they wanted to return the “modernized” homes to their original state.
Incidentally, on the day I visited and wandered about town for over 2 hours, it was frigid. Of course, this is by October standards as temperatures hovered in the high 10’s!
Modernization… or not –
Modernization included installation of electric receptacles, lights, indoor plumbing, toilets and bathtubs. When the state took over the town, all the modernizations were removed in an effort to make it look like a 19th century town. Personally, I would have preferred to see the homes as the residents left them, including their updates as new technologies (like electricity) were implemented.
Even so, I was fascinated as I wandered about Bannack. You see the one-room school house as it was at least 80 years ago.
The large, brick constructed Meade Hotel that reminded me of some scenes from “The Shining” (Jack Nicholson.) The town church, where you could almost hear the parishioners praying.
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Gold! John White and his band of “Pikes Peakers” from Colorado discovered gold in Willards Creek (named by Lewis and Clark) in July 1862. White didn’t know this and named it Grasshopper Creek (due to the abundance of grasshoppers along the creekside.) News spread quickly of “Grasshopper Diggins” and by Spring 1863, Bannock was home to 3000 residents and even one bowling alley!
By November 1863 a post office was established. When the paperwork for the town name was submitted to Washington DC, the “o” in Bannock was misread as an “a”, so Bannock became Bannack!
Rapid Growth and Growing Pains
Rapid growth in the 19th century brought with it saloons, brewerys, brothels, “working women”, and more. More family oriented activities included free mason events, ice skating, sledding, and even baseball by the early 20th century. The first church was built in 1877, 15 years after the discovery of gold!
Bannack’s population grew and declined according to mining activity. Early mining in the 1860’s was focused on surface gold. As gold gathered by simple techniques available at that time, people moved on. Between the 1860’s and early 1940’s, the population would grow again when new and more modern mining techniques made gold available to be mined once again. At the onset of World War II, gold mining was abandoned in preference for copper and lead. After WWII some mining did resume and continued until the early 1960’s. By then, most residents had left Bannack.
There were also several public hangings in 1863- 1864, including the town sheriff, who turned out to be the leader of a criminal gang! Most frontier towns and mining camps were no strangers to violence and outlaws.
Boom Town to Ghost Town
As the price of gold fell, and WWII raged on with mining focused on other minerals, the population declined. Even before the war, the post office closed in 1938. By the early 1950’s, the school closed, along with the grocery store and doctor’s office. As early as 1940, local citizens took an interest in preserving the town site.
Bannack: Home to the Governors Mansion
Montana’s first Governor, Sidney Edgerton chose Bannock as his home base and Governor’s office. Edgarton was first appointed as Chief Justice of the territory in 1863 by a close political associate, President Lincoln! When Lincoln appointed Edgarton, it was interesting he chose Bannock as his home instead of Lewiston, Idaho, the then capitol of the Idaho Territory.
Travel to Bannack
Today, paved roads lead right to the park entrance. It is an easy drive from Butte, Anaconda or Dillon. “Back in the day” horses were to key to reaching Bannock. Arrivals by covered wagon opted to live in their wagon or paid high rates to rent a cabin. Some with the wherewithal built their own cabins. Winters in Bannock (then and now) are known to reach temperatures of -40F. Avoiding frostbite or worse became a full time occupation.
The stagecoach also served Bannock, but stagecoach was a difficult way to travel. The stagecoach was expensive and often uncomfortable. Roads were rough, muddy, and frozen. On steeper stretches, riders often had to disembark and push the coach up the hill!
RV Camping near or next to Bannack
Bannack State Park has two campgrounds virtually on site in the town. Both campgrounds are dry camping only. For dry camping, its not cheap, but you have the ghost town to yourself after hours!
Barretts Park Campground, a Bureau of Reclamation FREE camping area is close by. Again, no facilities.
Beaverhead Campground, another free campsite, about 15 miles outside of Dillon.
Dillon, Jackson, and Wisdom are the three nearest towns. Dillon offers 4 campgrounds – and full hookups are an option! Jackson at the Jackson Hot Springs has sites, and Big Hole Campground in Wisdom with full hookups is a great option (and you can get pizza at Antlers Saloon and/or have breakfast at Fettys. More about Wisdom HERE.
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