Great American Road Trip: Ghost towns of Montana: Bannack

Not far from Dillon, Montana is the turn off for Bannack. If you happen to be on I-15, take the trip up State Highway 278. We almost didn’t because of the feeling that we had to be at our destination sooner than later. Instead of paying attention to that feeling, we followed the notion that if we didn’t go to Bannack now, then when?

Bannack is one of Montana’s ghost towns with a rough and tumble past that is linked to Montana’s early mining history and statehood.

Back in 1862, a group of men led by a fellow named John White found gold along the banks of a creek where Lewis and Clark had passed by earlier. These fellows didn’t know a thing about Lewis and Clark’s visit, or that Lewis and Clark had named the creek Willow Creek. Because grasshoppers were everywhere, White and his fellow prospectors named the gold rich waters Grasshopper Creek.

While we were slapping away the relentless mosquitoes as we wandered in and out of the abandoned, weathered buildings, I thought Mosquito Creek would have been a good fit. But, back to the gold.


Not long after news got out that gold had been found, people rushed to the area. Four hundred had arrived by fall and by spring, 3,000 people were looking for their fortunes.

As the population of people eking out a living swelled, so did the types of ways people made money. The buildings still there show the range of lifestyles and wealth. A hotel, boarding house, stores, a school house, jail, a church, a bootlegger’s cabin and miners’ cabins are some of the buildings that still line the boardwalks on either side of the dirt main street and wind up the hills and down towards the creek.

One of the great aspects of this state park is that you can meander in and out of buildings on your own, and at your own pace. Structures vary as to how intact they are which adds to the sense of abandonment and mystery.

The gallows up the narrow grassy path in back of the hotel add to the aura of just how rough life in a mining town can be. To add to the shudder effect, whoever stayed in the jail had a view of the gallows as a reminder of what might be in store.

In 1863, for example, Bannack’s sheriff, a guy named Henry Plummer was the ring leader a group of criminal cronies called “The Innocents.” They had a habit of terrorizing people. In January 1864, sick of the nonsense, a vigilante group formed to capture the sheriff. He was hanged from the gallows. So were his crooked pals.

On a more upside note of the law, the first governor of Montana, Sidney Edgerton, along with his wife and children arrived from Ohio to set up a residence in Bannack.

While I was talking with the state park guide at the visitor’s center, he told me that Europeans are quite interested in the history of the American west. According to him, this is because so much occurred in the United States in such a short amount of time. In a place like Bannack, it’s possible to see the life and death of a town that occurred in not much more than 100 years. For Americans, a trip to Bannack is a way to find out what hard scrabble means and appreciate part of U.S. history that is being kept alive by people who continue to tell the story and keep the buildings from falling apart entirely.

Although we didn’t camp here–ours was a two-hour visit, there are lovely camp sites that are first come, first serve. It’s also possible to learn how to pan for gold. We bought some in the gift shop in the visitor’s center. It was easier and faster.

[Gallery photos by Jamie Rhein. Others from State Park Web site]