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]

Historic Opera House: Philipsburg, Montana

Four years ago, when I went to an Opera House Theatre production for the first time, I was hooked. This past Sunday I did a double, taking in the afternoon performance with my daughter and son and then heading back solo in the evening. I may be able to get the third show in before we leave town.

Each season, this theater company in Philipsburg, Montana puts on three different melodrama plays, one full-length and two paired with old-time vaudeville variety shows, but updated with original skits. Throughout the summer the plays rotate so, in two days, you can see all three. I always look forward to the laugh fest. It’s not often you can find theatre that satisfies children’s to adults’ tastes. Sunday my son and daughter were guffawing at the same time and the grandparents in the audience were just as loud.

Over the years I’ve seen the company change art and music directors without losing what I found so charming the first time I sat in the audience. During the plays, like with theatre back during vaudeville days, actors are accompanied with piano music that captures the flavor of the action and dialogue. This isn’t over the top entertainment, but sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek fun that satisfies a 21st century crowd. This year’s cast has some of last year’s members and a couple new ones. Part of the fun is watching the same people perform various parts between the shows. That’s a lot of lines to remember.

The Opera House building is part of the show. Claudette and Tim Dringle who own the building and the company took on this labor of love about five years ago by repairing and refurbishing it. Even though it has been in operation since the 1800s when Philipsburg was a thriving mining town, it needed an overhaul. Still, the doors have never closed making this the oldest continuously operating theater in Montana. The backdrops used in the productions are the original, hand painted sets and several of the vaudeville acts are culled from the theater’s original collection. Selection depends on current tastes and what is considered politically correct–nothing offensive here.

I wish I could transport everyone I know here for a show since its survival depends on an audience and I certainly want to be able to continue getting my belly laugh fix every time I come to town.

The photo from the front is from the Opera House’s Web site. This is a past production, but you can see the back drops.