Listen carefully to the silence, broken only by sagging doors creaking on rusty hinges, and the ghosts that whistle like a mournful wind through the gaping cracks in the weather-beaten walls. These are the sounds of Montana’s ghost towns, and they still echo the spirit of the Gold Rush era.
When the cry of “Eureka!” chronicled another strike, the echo reverberated through the streets of every American city, town and village. It was hard to resist Terre Haute, Indiana, Express newspaper writer John Soule’s advice when he wrote in 1851, “Go West, young man.” Adopted later by New York newspaperman Horace Greeley, “Go West” became the mantra for the great American westward migration in the middle of the 19th century.
Going West today can bring an RVer to what are now Montana’s ghost towns, the remains of the state’s golden years. This destination is a unique mix of scenic drives and historic displays. And camping in the area is easy with several RV parks lining the way from Bannack to Virginia City, a route that once was riddled with robberies, holdups and murders.
Eureka! Montana’s Golden Years
Gold was first discovered at Gold Creek, which flowed north into the Clark Fork River, when French/Canadian/Indian trapper Francois Finlay (better known as Benetsee), dipped his pan into the creek in 1852. Though the creek did not become a great producer of the shiny metal, by 1862 some 30 miners had extracted enough gold out of the Creek, which attracted three wily entrepreneurs named Arnett, Jernigan and Spillman, who upon analyzing the business climate, opened a gambling house. Pickings were easy, and over four days’ time they managed to pick the miners clean of their hard-earned gold dust. But unfortunately for the three soon-to-be-rich gamblers, a couple of bounty hunters showed up to arrest them for horse theft. Arnett, while in the middle of a card game and holding his cards in one hand and a gun he had just drawn in the other, was shot to death and buried with his cards. Jernigan and Spillman quickly surrendered. Jernigan was banished while Spillman was promptly hanged. This act of frontier law chronicled Montana’s first – but not its last – vigilante justice.
Then in July of 1862 a group of “Pikes Peakers” (those leaving Colorado’s Pikes Peak gold rush) led by John White discovered gold while camped along Grasshopper Creek, named by White because of the great abundance of the annoying insects. Despite the fact that Lewis and Clark had passed through here in 1805 and had already named it Willard’s Creek, the Grasshopper name stuck. This new gold discovery attracted most of the miners away from Gold Creek, as was typical of the times when a new discovery became known, and the town of Bannack sprang up a few miles upstream.
Bannack was named for the Bannock Indians. The “o” in the name inadvertently became an “a” when the name was misread after being submitted to Washington, D.C., to establish a post office.
Though quite isolated (supplies had to be brought in from Salt Lake City, Utah, by ox train, the ruts of which can still be seen), by early autumn nearly 400 eager souls had swarmed into town, exploding to more than 3,000 by spring of 1863. Community leaders petitioned the federal government to be separated from Idaho Territory and in May of 1864, Montana Territory became official and Bannack became the first territorial capital.
The Stuart Brothers, miners from Gold Creek, drove in a herd of cattle and opened a butchershop, and were soon followed by saloons, gambling parlors and sporting houses designed to extract gold from the rowdy miners. Among the new arrivals during the winter of 1862/63 was a handsome, well-mannered, gentleman named Henry Plummer. Since anything resembling law and order was hundreds of miles away, and Plummer not only fit the miners’ image of a law man but had also managed to gain their trust (though, unknown by the miners at the time, he had been released from San Quentin prison a couple years earlier), the townspeople promptly elected him sheriff.
Legend claims Plummer wasted no time in organizing his followers into a secret group called the Innocents, a band of about 25 that proceeded to plunder the gold camps. In the following eight months, they robbed and murdered at will.
But the citizens of the area had enough of it, and on December 23, 1863, they formed the Vigilante Committee to pursue the Innocents. During the next 42 days, they executed 24 suspected members of the gang, including their infamous leader, Sheriff Henry Plummer.
The Bannack mines that had produced about $3 million in gold, at $18 per ounce, between 1862 and 1876 continued to produce through the end of the century, though most miners were by then employed by mine owners or investors to earn wages. Many also hid what they could in their lunch buckets – a practice called “high grading” that’s still used in Montana today to mean appropriating someone else’s property. Some gold production continues today, but by 1953 only a few residents remained in town. In 1962, on its 100th birthday, Bannack was named a National Historic Landmark.
Now a Montana State Park, Bannack’s buildings remain in place, “preserved rather than restored, protected rather than exploited.” You can freely wander the now-deserted streets and through the 50-plus preserved buildings, from the stately two-story Hotel Meade to the humble one-room shack of a bachelor miner.
Bannack is open year-round, but the visitor center is open only May through September. Historical displays and interpretive materials help bring back the glory days of Bannack’s golden years. A self-guided tour book is available year-round that explains the town’s history. There are also ghost walks performed nightly at the end of October, featuring spooky reenactments of some of Bannack’s historical events.
A 28-site primitive campground accommodating up to 50-foot RVs offers overnight stays (water available but no hookups). Please call to check availability of space for large RVs. And about 26 miles northeast of Bannack on Highway 278 is Dillon, where more campsites and amenities are available.
Less than 60 miles from Dillon is Virginia City. As I entered the city, it was immediately apparent that this was yet another type of ghost town, maybe a half-living ghost town. The streets were busy with modern-day automobiles and shops dispensed souvenirs and snacks. Interspersed between shops were mercantile stores preserved from the Gold Rush era, with their original displays of medicines and dry goods, and the Fairweather Inn, which still offers frontier-style lodging. A woman twirled her lariat, performing rope tricks, and scruffy bearded miners leaned lazily against the weathered slats of the dilapidated structures.
See, back in the day, Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar were expanding their search for gold when they discovered it in Alder Gulch. When they returned to Bannack for supplies, around 600 miners followed them back to their claim and within a year the population of the Alder Gulch towns Virginia City, Nevada City, Adobetown and others – collectively known as the 14-Mile City – had exploded to more than 10,000. For five years placer gold flowed, producing an estimated $30 to $40 million.
Virginia City wrestled the territorial capital away from Bannack in 1865 but lost it to Helena 10 years later. When the last dredge working Alder Creek shut down during World War II there was still enough remaining activity that the newer parts of the city retained some residents, though parts of Virginia City were abandoned, frozen in time. Following World War II, Charles and Sue Ford Bovey began buying up the older properties and began restoring them in what is now part of the historic district (the Montana Historical Society has certified 150 buildings as authentic). Their preservation efforts even included the cans, bottles and other dry goods that still remained on the shelves of the abandoned stores. The state obtained the old Western end of town from Bovey’s son in the 1990s, managing it as one of Montana’s outstanding historic sites, which remains much as it was in the 1800s.
On the east end of the town today you’ll find the Virginia City RV Park. It offers pull-throughs with full hook-ups for up to 44-foot RVs. And just 2 miles from the campground is the famous Nevada City.
Nevada City never reached the population of nearby Virginia City. By 1868 its residents had begun wandering off to more promising diggings. By 1876 it was nearly a ghost town. Today Nevada City is a re-created ghost town.
A few of its buildings are originals built on site, but many more – though authentic Montana frontier structures with documented histories – were moved here from other locations. The 100 buildings dating from 1863 to 1900 represent one of the largest collections of frontier artifacts outside the Smithsonian. The Music Hall alone houses the largest publicly exhibited playable collection of automated music machines in North America. A major attraction of Nevada City today is its living-history weekends, with about 40 period-correct costumed interpreters wandering the streets and engaged in typical activities of the day. You might run into a miner with his trusty burro working a sluice box, a washerwoman hanging out clothes or one of the Innocents with twin Colt six-shooters strapped to his waist.
Dan Thyer – the living history curator – dressed as James Williams, captain of the 1863 Vigilantes, met me at the entrance and took me on a tour of this old-West mining town, introducing me to George Ives (before he was hanged), Sheriff Henry Plummer (ditto) and other townsfolk. Some looked rather menacing, with droopy mustaches and eyes hidden in the shadows of black hats, guns worn at the waist. A beautiful young woman rode up side-saddle and Dan introduced her as one of the saloon hostesses on her way to work. Naturally I wished to visit the saloon next.
As I entered, the barkeep urged me to try my hand at a game of chance. At a table nearby a man with a long-tailed mustache smiled (as a spider would to a fly) and invited me to sit down. After explaining the rules of the game he proceeded to win all the clay poker chips that lay in front of me (Luckily, it was only play money). It was time to mosey on. Unfortunately, I never did find the beautiful young woman. However, I did find an area rich in history and quite accommodating to us RVers.
Bannack State Park, (406) 834-3413, www.bannack.org.
Montana Heritage Commission, (800) 829-2969, www.virginiacitymt.com.
Montana Tourism, (800) 879-1159, www.goldwest.visitmt.com.
Virginia City RV Park, (888) 833-5493, www.virginiacityrvpark.com.