Want to visit one of the most well-preserved desolate mining towns in America? Head to Bannack, Montana, a ghost town in the south-western part of the state, located in sprawling Beaverhead County. Discover the true story behind what happened to transform the lively town into a deserted and mysterious abode. Find out why it is rumored to have ghosts. Answers may be linked to the town’s fascinating history.
Bannack, located on Grasshopper Creek, was once a thriving city that rests on earth once bountiful in precious metal. The former mining town was founded in 1862, after John White’s discovery of gold. Unlike some other places, Grasshopper Creek’s gold was nearly completely pure. Upon hearing of the discovery, prospectors flocked the town from near and far in hopes of gaining riches. They arrived on the Montana Trail, a wagon road that served gold rush towns and was also utilized for freighting and shipping supplies and food goods to Montana from Utah.
Montana, especially in those days, was very isolated. The rough and tumble trail brought people into town by wagon, horseback, or by foot. The journey was dangerous due to threats of bandits, warring with Native Americans, harsh road conditions, difficult human circumstances, and severe weather. Still, gold seekers converged on Bannack to fulfill their dreams of reaching the deposits along the banks of Grasshopper Creek.
Word traveled fast. By 1863, the settlement boasted 3,000 residents, with another 2,000 more people living down the creek. An application was provided to the United States Government to gain the town’s official title of Bannock, aptly named for the local Bannock Indians. A misspelling led to the town’s current name, with the letter “a” in place of the “o.” Some joke that the government couldn’t get things right even back then.
Despite a growing reputation as a dangerous settlement, Bannack prospered under its incorrectly spelled name. The town was initially made up of mostly men seeking fortunes of the Gold Rush, and few had wives living in the camps. Saloon girls and painted ladies became part of the town’s history. One of the town’s founders, Dr. Erasmus Darwin Leavitt, was a physician who gave up medicine to become a gold miner. He eventually discovered that it was better to allow “…someone else to wield his pick and shovel…” Mining life was tough, and was not well suited to everyone. The doctor returned to his career in medicine.
Bannack served as the capital of Montana for a brief period of time in 1864. In addition to gold rushers, outlaws and businessmen arrived in search of fortunes. Deserters of the Civil War also arrived, some with just the shirts on their backs. The rough Montana environment, the town’s unruliness, and lack of supplies and money, often hindered abilities for success.
It was boom and bust for the town. Bannack and nearby settlements thrived until gold became harder to find. Shortly after, the population declined and the capital was next moved to Virginia City. By 1870, the number of residents in Bannack shrank to just a few hundred. The last of the residents left the town after non-essential mining was prohibited at the start of WWII. A few residents continued to live there until the late 1970’s when the state acquired the last private in-holdings.
Most of Bannack’s businesses were of log construction. At its height, there were three hotels, bakeries, and blacksmith shops, and two meat markets. Additional buildings included a grocery store, restaurant, brewery, billiard hall, and four saloons. While the town was thriving, Bannack earned a reputation as a rough and lawless town, with robberies, gunfights, and murders occurring regularly. Mayhem of the wild, wild, west took over Bannack. Despite the attempts of elected sheriff Henry Plummer, crime continued. Later, it is presumed that Plummer was involved in a gang who robbed prospectors of their gold as they departed town.
It is said that late in 1863, residents became fed up with the violence. The “Montana Vigilantes” wore bandanas to cover their faces and sought to bring justice to the town by rounding up and killing outlaws. When Plummer’s purported involvement was discovered, the Montana Vigilantes grabbed Plummer and his deputies and hung them from the gallows. Historians disagree. A growing number believe that the story of Plummer was created to simply cover up the lawlessness of the Vigilantes.
By May of that same year, a new deposit was found about 75 miles west of Bannack. Miners left the town to follow the trail of gold. They created a newer settlement called Virginia City. When Bannack’s mines dried up, gold rushers moved on to Virginia City, thus nearly deserting the town. For some time Bannack remained somewhat forgotten, until it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961. What now remains of the lonely town are sixty historic log, brick, and frame structures. The town currently serves as the site of Bannack State Park; the abandoned mining settlement with the buildings to be explored, and two campgrounds within ¼ mile of the town.
Bannack’s reputation as a ghostly jaunt lies in the loneliness echoed within the walls of the empty wooden structures which stand frozen in time. Today, some claim the spirit of Henry Plummer haunts the old settlement. One thing is certain. Feelings of eeriness are enhanced by its history of lawlessness and violence. Once a year, on the third weekend of July, the town is brought back to life with live performances of stagecoach shootouts and recreated stories of Bannack’s history. However, a quiet visit at non-peak times of year can heighten your spiritual experience to the abandoned town, where miners and settlers were once deeply drawn by hopes of prosperity.