The State of Montana maintains a number of fine old western Ghost Towns. They provide a marvelous day of adventure and excitement for both the traveler and photographer. Johnfinleyphotographer.com has visited these sites and recommends them all.
Bannock Ghost Town is one of the finest Ghost Towns in the American West, located 24 miles southwest of Dillon, Montana. The town of Bannack was started in 1862 when, John White, a prospector, who found gold on the small but lovely Grasshopper Creek. The find brought more gold seekers, businessmen and families. The town grew rapidly and was named the Territorial Capital for a few years. When gold was discovered in nearby Virginia City in 1863, many left Bannack for new riches. Yet, Bannock held on, the mining continued and more folks moved in. Today, the town maintains sixty buildings, and most in remarkable condition. The visitor can explore the interior of many of the structures, looking through ghostly rooms of a time long past. You will be transported back to the old west. At its peak, the town had three hotels, a couple of livery stables, several food markets, a brewery, dance hall, four saloons, numerous brothels and a number of log homes and tents scattered around the hillside. The various buildings are well marked and the hotel will especially make you feel you have entered a John Wayne movie. Do not forget to visit the cemetery, it is old, spooky and interesting. For the photographer, the images are everywhere, great shots in and out of the buildings. Wait for the light. Stay away from the old mine, it is unsafe.
In the early days, Henry Plummer, was elected sheriff. He was good with a gun and well liked in town. It seems that his sheriff’s pay wasn’t sufficient to meet his needs and he secretly formed a gang of ruthless thieves and murders. They rode throughout southern Montana and into Utah robbing and murdering. There are claims of over one hundred murders by the gang. Over the years, the truth to the number of murders has been called into question and even if Henry Plummer was an outlaw at all. Nevertheless, the towns of Bannock, Virginia City, and Nevada City having had enough of the crime spree, formed the Montana Vigilantes and they were soon capturing and hanging the raiders right and left. At one such hanging, the road agent, Erastus Red Yeager told the vigilantes that Sheriff Henry Plummer was the gang’s leader. After dispatching Yeager, the vigilantes road hard to Bannock to locate Plummer. They surrounded his house, took him into custody, and directly to the gallows. Oddly, Plummer had built the gallows while he was sheriff. He tried to bargain and pronounced that he could lead them to millions of dollars in gold buried in the hills around Bannock. The vigilantes paid no attention and strung him up. There was no drop, they merely pulled him up off the ground until he was dead. For many years afterward, people looked for the Plummer gold. Bannack can be found by traveling south on I-59, then west on highway 278 for seven miles and left on Bannack Bench Road.
Comet Ghost Town, Montana was named for the Comet Mine founded in 1883. Ore had originally been found by a prospector, John Russell, in 1869. Russell sold to the Alta-Montana Mining Company in 1874. As mine operations grew, so did the population and soon homes and businesses were built. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad built a spur to Comet, to haul out the ore. By 1893, 300 people lived and worked in Comet and it could boast a host of businesses, along with 20 saloons. I suppose miners will be miners. As with most of these mines, it eventually came to an end, and the people move away. The town has 24 buildings but most have not been restored and are in decay. It is an interesting visit, providing considerable of exploration and photography. Comet is located about 37 miles southwest of Helena. Travel south from Helena on I-15 to Exit 160. Travel north on High Ore Road for about five miles.
Garnet Ghost Town, Montana is one of the best preserved ghost towns in the west. It can be found in the forested mountains of a distant valley, East of Missoula, Montana. The mine dates to 1860, when they mined the semi-precious garnets and before long, gold was found. At its peak, a thousand people lived there. The town had four hotels, four food stores, an assortment of other businesses including thirteen saloons and a few houses of ill repute. Despite the remoteness of the town, there was a daily stagecoach between Bearmouth and Coloma. The town of Missoula was a three day ride during the non-winter months. The town has many buildings and maintains an eerie ghostly appearance. There have been many reports of hauntings in Kelly’s Saloon and the Wells Hotel. The structures are in excellent condition and certainly provide for ghostly photography and a fun day. It may be recommended to leave garnet before sunset as the resident dead may not welcome you. Do not forget to visit the graveyard. Garnet can be found traveling 30 miles east, from Missoula on Route 200, turn South on Garnet Range Road and then 12 miles to the Garnet parking lot.
Nevada City Ghost Town, Montana was an old gold placer mining town a few miles from Virginia City, Montana. There was a large find, discovered by Bill Fairweather and Henry Edger in 1863. It became part of the larger area of towns that sprung up along Alder Gulch. There were so many camps that the populace called the area Fourteen-mile City. As with all of these small camps and towns, when the gold disappeared, they soon emptied out. By 1976, Nevada City had become a ghost town. New mining interest destroyed many of the buildings in the area but today about 90 buildings have been restored and are now part of an outdoor historical museum. Nevada City is a marvelous place to see, to live the early West and experience what life must have been like. Nevada City is 27 miles southeast of Twin Bridges, Montana on Highway 287.
Virginia City Ghost Town, Montana was part of the Dakota Territory in 1863, then the Idaho Territory later that year, and the next year moved to the Montana Territory. Gold was discovered in Adler Gulch when a group of prospectors retreating from Crow Indians, camped there for the night. Bill Fairweather decided to try his luck and found gold. The men were unable to keep quiet about their find, and the rest is history. Thousands of gold seekers showed up and the boomtowns became wild and dangerous. There was no law until the Montana Vigilantes were formed and their response was to hang all offenders, usually without trial. The town has been restored and is a National Historic Landmark. There are over 100 historic buildings and most are filled with historic artifacts of the day. Unlike the other Ghost Towns mentioned, Virginia City is a tourist destination. Calamity Jane lived here for some time. Virginia City is 27 miles southeast of Twin Bridges, Montana on Highway 287.
All of these Montana Ghost Towns provide a fun and adventurous day. Plan to spend at least half a day or more to thoroughly explore them. Some are out of the way, be sure you have enough gas, water and perhaps pack a lunch. For photographers, I certainly recommend late afternoon shooting. A flash will be needed for interior shots. Most importantly, try to capture the old west way of life in the late 1800’s.