By M J Wallace
Not all ghost towns are alike some actually have documented sightings of the paranormal. Montana hosts one of those towns where ghosts still roam the buildings and every now and then when the atmosphere is just right, apparitions will reveal themselves in the still of the night.
The old West was built like Grandma’s patchwork quilt; handstitched, one story at a time, with back-breaking hard work, unyielding tenacity, and glorified with color. A piece of history handed down through the generations, sewn with the entertaining stories of infamous gunslingers, ghost towns, fabled lost mines, and haunted places.
It’s the colorful tales that seem to endure, conjuring phantomlike images which tickle our imaginations causing us a moment of uneasiness. One such piece of history was the den of iniquity known as the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona. This gunslinger’s paradise hosted 16 gunfights that left 26 people dead; 140 bullet holes riddle the walls of the gambling establishment and bloody stories continue to circulate through Tombstone today. Those are the dead facts.
Visitors report the sounds of a woman singing, strong odors of cigar smoke, and objects appearing and disappearing—including headless cowboys. Apparently, Tombstone’s slogan, "the town that wouldn’t die," brings a spooky new meaning to the billing. This is the color.
The glittering gold and silver town, Virginia City, Nevada, is said to have more ghosts than any other Nevada city, even more than Las Vegas, with its daily sightings Elvis Presley. Virginia City receives the dubious distinction because more people are buried in its dozen cemeteries than living in the town. Visitors say the voices of long-gone gold miners can be heard drifting down through the canyons which surround the still robust mining town.
With the longevity of Virginia City and Tombstone aside, many towns of yesteryear lay forgotten throughout the West. These ghost towns with their own unique stories speak in soft whispers connecting us to those who lived before us. The romance and mystery of these long since abandoned towns continue to intrigue young and old.
While Tombstone, and Virginia City are recognized as a"window" to the wild, wild west, there is another less well known, turn of the century gold camp that was built on the sensational fortunes of the gold rush. Unlike its more famous peers, today, it remains one of the best "untouched and non-commercialized" spots the old west has to offer. The common thread? This town’s history has color, too. In fact, in 1999, like Tombstone and Virginia City, this little ghost town made the Associated Press list for spookiest places in the West.
Photo by Sherb CC License 3.0
Welcome to Garnet, Montana. Hidden high in the pine-covered Garnet Mountain Range east of Missoula, it was named for the semiprecious ruby-colored stone found in the area . . . Garnet is truly a jewel of a find and a real ghost of a town.
We’ve all heard the old cliche: " There’s gold in them thar hills." Across the west, "ghosts" have replaced some of that gold as past mining "boom towns" have become preserved "ghost towns".
Whether you're looking for a supernatural adventure or just an interesting afternoon of poking around an old historic landmark without the garish souvenir vendors and trendy gift shops, Garnet is the place. This town boasts enough spooky shenanigans for the Bureau of Land Management to post a guard year around. In 1972, the BLM, who administers the landmark decided to have someone stay in the abandoned town because someone was burning down the old buildings. This is where the ghost story begins . . .
Though Main Street was covered with fresh fallen snow, no tracks led to the building. From the hill behind the’ saloon, he crept into the apartment above the bar and could hear music through the floor boards. When he got downstairs, much to his amazement, the music stopped and the bar was empty.
The mystery which surrounds that incident in Kelly’s bar is what gives any ghost town charm and ambiance; however, Garnet, with or without its ghosts, offers a day of delightful exploration in Montana’s best preserved gold mining town. Although the town presents an untouched photo of the past, Montana’s most intact ghost town wasn’t built to last. Enterprising miners were more interested in what was below the ground than building above. As a result, buildings grew quickly, most lacking foundations. The idea was to construct something small and easy to heat. Yet, more than a century after Garnet emerged, remnants of the town still stands today.
Photo by Sherb CC License 3.0
By all accounts, Garnet was a peaceful place to live. A well staffed school was a main focal point and parents enforced good attendance. The crime rate was low even though liquor flowed freely in the town’s many saloons. There was a robust and very profitable business in the red light district. Located in the valley below and a three day trip away, Missoula and Deer Lodge were close enough for necessary supplies. Relishing their secluded mountain hide-a-way, the population grew.
Society in Garnet was contrastingly different from that of most mining towns. While single men were predominant in early camps, Garnet was "home" to a large number of families. There was a sense of community with structure, and the social life provided a certain level of polished refinement which was not present in typical mining towns.
A variety of activities were available to the residents of Garnet. Family-oriented events, such as Saturday night dances, dinner parties, parlor card games and hay rides through the countryside were common place. During the mild days of summer, family picnics, fishing trips, and shopping trips filled a family social calendar. Just the single foresight of establishing a school placed Garnet above the rest, making it the mining town for others to emulate.
Although drinking, gambling, and houses of ill repute amused the town’s male population, married women were far more numerous in Garnet than most gold camps. Even though the town’s honky-tonk’s were tolerated, bibulousness was not; Garnet’s well-maintained jail kept the town streets free of those"befuddled with strong drink" so as not of offend the female gentry.
The jail was there mostly as a reminder and was never used much. During the early days there were the usual claim jumpers and a few shootings but normally people worked out their own messes without using the jail. The story goes that only one man was ever seen in the jail, Frank Kern, a miner who killed a dog when he was drunk.
In the 1860's miners, worn out and near broke, from played-out placer mines in California and Colorado, migrated north to Idaho and Montana, and south, into Arizona and New Mexico. The Garnet Mountains attracted miners whose gold collection technique was first by panning, then by using rockers and sluice boxes as the free-floating gold diminished.
The art of placer mining of gold or other minerals is done by washing the sand, soil, and gravel with running water, but by late 1870 most area placer mining was no longer profitable. Although miners discovered gold-bearing quartz veins, the lack of decent roads and refined extracting and smelting techniques made additional development unfeasible at that time. Rich silver mines in Virginia City, Nevada, Bisbee, Arizona, and elsewhere drew the miners out of the Garnets.
In 1893, silver mines closed due to the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. This began a panic throughout the region and within weeks, thousands of miners in search of work were on the move. This event, combined with improved extracting machineries, led to a revival in gold mining in the Garnets. Miners, some returning for a second chance, began a steady trickle back and once again the gold camp breathed life.
At the head of the First Chance Gulch in 1895, Dr. Armistead Mitchell erected a stamp mill to crush local ore. It was around this mill that Garnet grew. The town was originally known as Mitchell, but in 1897 became known as Garnet.
It wasn’t long after Dr. Mitchell built his mill, a miner named Sam Ritchey hit a rich vein of ore in his Nancy Hanks mine just west of town. The "boom" sounded loud and far. By January 1898, nearly 1,000 people moved into Garnet. The school enrolled 41 students. Four stores, four hotels, three livery stables, two barber shops, a union hall, a butcher shop, candy store, a doctor’s office, an assay office, and thirteen saloons comprised the town. Eager miners and entrepreneurs built quickly and with little planning. A haphazard community resulted. Most of the buildings stood on existing or future mining claims, as about twenty mines were in operation during the towns initial construction.
After 1900 the gold became scarcer and more difficult to mine. The Nancy Hanks yielded about $300,000 worth of gold. It’s estimated that $950,000 was extracted from the mines by 1917; at the late 1800's price of $25.00 an ounce, in today’s market that would equate to $10,754,000. While this may not topple the Brisbee, Arizona, title, known in the late 1800's as the richest mining site in the world, it remains an impressive amount for this tiny enclave.
By 1905, the end was near for Garnet. Most of the mines were abandoned and the town’s population had shrunk from 1200 to about 150. A fire broke out in the town’s business district in 1912 destroying many of the commercial buildings dealing a powerful blow to the remnants of Garnet. The onset of World War I beaconed remaining residents into defense-related jobs and the oil lamps of Garnet dimmed once again.
It was 1934 when President Roosevelt raised gold prices from a meager $16 to a respectable $32 an ounce. Garnet swelled with a tidal wave of miners moving into abandoned cabins and re-working the mines and tailings.
Good times did not last long, World War II siphoned the population. The use of dynamite for domestic purposes was restrained, making mining difficult. For the third, and final time, Garnet succumbed. By 1940, Garnet was a bonafide ghost town—houses were abandoned, furnishings included, the entire town "appeared" to be taking a vacation.
Throughout the years Garnet had always overcome adversity, however, in the end, it could not combat the invading souvenir hunters–those who prefer to take rather than preserve. The town was soon stripped of its loose items, doors, woodwork, and even a stairway from the fancy Wells Hotel. Today the hotel stands stripped of its ornate furnishings. The J. K. Wells Hotel was once the most impressive building in Garnet. With its carved woodwork, it was equal to the luxurious buildings in Helena.
There are 30 original buildings left in Garnet. In 1971, the ghost town lost its most recent building, Stringham the Grocer, when a suspicious fire burned the store to the ground. H. M. Stringham’s grocery store was constructed in 1897, and was originally owned and operated by Adams and Shipler. Stringham, an early entrepreneur, began offering additional services to the miners in the outback by way of a delivery service. He would rise early before store hours, loading his wagon with supplies and travel the rough mountain trails to miners who didn’t want to leave their claims unattended. It looks as though there were more places to find gold than in the mines which first brought this town together, it was also in the hearts of the people.
Looking back, there is a silver lining to the town’s sad demise, the souvenir hunters who selfishly stole Garnet’s history, left something important behind; the piano playing ghost in Kelly’s saloon. Garnet still has its color.
If You Go:
GARNET GHOST TOWN
GETTING THERE: Located in the Garnet Mountain Range between I-90 and MT 200, Garnet is best reached from the north off scenic route, MT 200, just past mile marker 22. A sign marks the entrance. Garnet Range Road is well-maintained, two land gravel road. The road is plagued with curves without guardrails so drive safely while taking in the scenery. Campers, cabovers, and Class C can access the ghost town directly; however, trailers, Fifth Wheels, and motor coaches should consider the ghost town as a "day trip" leaving the rigs in RV parks in the valley below. There is plenty of paved parking and a picnic area with facilities. Parking for the handicapped is provided near the ghost town. The I-90 entrance near Drummond is not advised due to tough, narrow, rocky, roads. Recreational vehicles of any size are not advised. The Garnet Range Road from Hwy 200 is closed to wheeled vehicles from January1 through March 31. Wheeled passenger vehicle access is normally good from late May through early November.
LODGING: Jim and Mary’s RV Park. From Jct 90 & US-93 (exit 96) 1 mile, north on US-93. Check the Missoula Chamber of Commerce for additional information and lodging. There are two cabins available for rent in the ghost town during the winter months; snowmobilers and skiers are welcome during this period.
WEATHER: Garnet is located at about 6,000 ft. While generally warm and mild in summer, dressing for all temps is advised.
DETAILS: Good walking shoes are essential. There are no concession
booths, although fresh water is available. Garnet is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Garnet Preservation Association, a non-profit organization. A Visitor’s Center is available for literature and questions. Mining and logging activities exist in the Garnet area. Please watch for truck traffic on some roads (outside the ghost town)and open mines, trenches, and other safety hazards where old mining and current mining activities occur. There is a $2 fee.
ADDITIONAL INFO: Contact: BLM Garnet Resource Area, 3255 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT, 59801. Phone: (406) 329-3914. For information regarding the Winter Cabin Rental Program, write or call: Cabin Rental Program, PO Box 8531, Missoula, MT, 59807. Phone: (406) 329-3914. Missoula Convention and Visitors
Bureau Box 7577-H Missoula, MT 59802, toll free in U.S. and Canada 800/526-3465 or 406/543-6623