Even on this bright sunny day I can feel the dead watching as I walk down the street. The intuition isn’t sinister, although dead criminals from the past did harm others. No one wanted to guard those in jail. There was too much gold to find. Therefore, hangings were swift.

What gives me goosebumps today are emotions saturating the breeze. Regret. Fortunes found and then drained at the saloons or spent on Hurdy Gurdy Girls in the dance halls. Prostitution was rampant and in my mind I hear laughter and the blue haze of burning hand-rolled cigarettes.

Few women were respectable although shining stars graced the gritty environment. Mary Babcock Moore was the first women to practice medicine in Bannock, Montana. Sarah Bickford had been born a slave in 1852. After the civil war and against all odds Mrs. Bickford married a white man before the new state of Montana forbade such a thing. Even more unusual, she became a very successful business woman after her husband’s death.

It takes a short walk to the cemetery. There are so many dead children. Diphtheria. Measles. Flu. Whooping Cough and Scarlet Fever. Mourning and hardship left a smothering ghostly atmosphere in the early territorial towns of Virginia City, Bannack and Granite.

Virginia City –the second territorial capital of Montana

There’s the ghost of a six-year-old girl in the building that was once the Metropolitan Meat Market on Wallace Street. She can be heard laughing from the elaborate mirrored meat cooler where she played on hot summer days. I felt her when I descended the steep stairs into the basement. It wasn’t just the cool breeze rushing up at me but the air pressure changed. Closing my eyes, I felt her broken heart at the loss of her mother. Today, her spirit still resonates with women. Her grandfather tried raising her until disease snatched her away.

Technically, Virginia City isn’t a typical ghost town and it’s considered to be one of the best preserved sites with a blend of flourishing independent businesses. This was due to the preservation efforts of Charles and Sue Bovey from 1940 through the 1970’s. With over 200 preserved buildings, Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. It’s a special treat to experience the town and the unique artists and shopkeepers.

Bannack –Montana’s short-lived first territorial capital

Bannack began in 1862 when John White discovered gold in the creek. The town was named for the Bannock Indians, but when the name was summitted to Washington D.C., someone mistakenly dropped the “o” and put in an “a”.

By 1863, life in Bannack was down and dirty. Road agents stole and the sheriff was said to be the ring leader. The gallows trapdoor swung open when vigilantes executed over 20 members of the robber gang in one month. Montana highway police and the national guard sport a patch with the numbers 3-7-77. This warning was painted onto cabins or tents of the next vigilante murder victim. The numbers are the dimensions of a grave: 3 feet by seven feet by 77 inches. In the past, people were proud of those who took the matter to hand. But history casts doubt over some of their choices. Especially for a Chinese man who never received a trail.

Hotel Meade operated from 1891 until the 1940’s. This was a 5 star establishment with linen table cloths and crystal goblets in the dining room. There are well-appointed rooms (including suites) on the second floor. Standing at the bottom of the sweeping staircase, I could easily imagine men dressed in suits and women in long sweeping skirts. In the large kitchen the wood-fired oven doors remain open. It’s an invitation from the ghosts to get cooking.

The Masonic Lodge is another exceptional building. The school was downstairs. I loved the “rules for teachers” printed on the board. Especially “You will marry during the course of your contract.” Wonder if any ladies turned a blind eye to that one? The upstairs lodge was not open. My guess is the condition of the building might have dictated it’s closing.

At one time, over 10,000 people lived here. Examples of dwellings at Bannack range from bare-bones bachelor quarters to wealthy merchant, William Roe’s frame home. Many of the houses still have decorative linoleum on the floor and shredded wallpaper on the walls.

Climb the hill behind town to the hilltop cemetery and the gallows. There’s equality in death. The good, bad and the ugly all buried side-by-side. There’s a second cemetery with more intact grave markers when you exit the park towards the highway.

The silver-lining of visiting during Covid is we crossed paths with only 3 other people throughout our visit. Truly a remarkable experience.

Granite Ghost Town–the silver queen

Granite Ghost Town State Park is three miles (uphill) from Phillipsburg Montana. To visit, it takes courage to gain 1,280′ on the narrow dirt road. A high clearance vehicle is prudent. I’m glad we explored here during Covid because if two cars meet, it requires someone backing up around hairpin turns with steep drop-offs. Getting there was only half the fun.

This is the most rustic and remote of the ghost towns we visited on this trip. That means no services and no cell phone reception. Heed my warning to bring food, water, toilet paper and a good sense of direction.

Nature has reclaimed the site with towering trees and shrubs. At first, it doesn’t seem there’s much here. We decided to just walk down twisty old dirt tracks to see what we could find. 3,000 people used to live here. We were confident we’d find something.

First stop was the bank.

And then the roofless miner’s union hall and a small miners cabin before we came to a dead end. Down in a hollow below us, we could see collapsed buildings sticking out of the snow. I’ve since learned this was the Chinese part of town with the red light district behind.

We backtracked and walked uphill on a muddy narrow road. Bob said, “There’s a building to the right.” That’s how we found the mining superintendent’s house.

Down below was the hospital in ruins. Walking straight we ran into an old mill, remains of smelting and the Granite mine. Look left and uphill. The Ruby mine shaft is at the very top.

What a treasure to experience this by ourselves. Every corner or twist of road produced something else to see.

Further research showed two interesting details. There wasn’t any water here. It had to be brought in from the valley below. Something tells me that the 18 saloons sold liquid of another kind. Oddly, there’s no cemetery here either. Too much rock. People who died were brought down to Phillipsburg for internment.

When I go back, I’ll stop in Phillipsburg first. I just learned there’s a map of the town at the chamber of commerce.

One thought on “Ghost Towns of Montana

  1. Virginia City is one of my favorite places in Montana. I spent much time there as a young girl visiting my Father in the summer. Your pictures were a trip down memory lane. I was fortunate enough to meet the Boveys when I was a child. We always went to the Virginia City Players. It is something I’ve shared with my family multiple times. So glad you enjoyed it all. Bannack is another fav, just not as easy to get to!


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