Friday, June 7, 2013

Bannack ghost town

Out in the middle of sagebrush and surrounded by mountains lies the ghost town of Bannack, Montana's first territorial capital.

You gotta love a town named for food. "Bannack" comes from the Scottish word, bannock, which according to the self-tour guide book is a "cake cooked over an open fire." Natives living in the area enjoyed camas root cakes made this way and thus were called Bannock Indians by early white settlers.

In the 1860s the town was populated with about 400 men hunting down gold and about 30 "respectable" woman (a fluctuating number of other women were Hurdy Gurdy Girls [dancers] or ladies of the evening). One sheriff, who had avoided a murder charge elsewhere, organized his deputies into a gang to harass local ranchers and citizens, and he was eventually hanged for his efforts. You can imagine it was pretty lively in those days.

Bannack is now a ghost town preserved as a state park in southern Montana. It's basically a half-mile-long street, with original buildings lined up to give you the idea of how things were back when it was a wild and crazy place.

Gold miners who first arrived lived in tiny shacks with roofs made from saplings and covered with dirt. When it rained or snowed, the dirt turned to mud and dribbled into the interior. Wood stoves provide a lot of heat, but these cabins were so poorly constructed, they barely got above freezing inside.

The photo below shows the jail, which reportedly wasn't used much because everyone preferred to be out panning for gold and not watching prisoners. If you look very closely, you'll see grass growing on the roof as was typical in the early days of the town.

Living conditions hadn't improved much by the time the territorial governor and his family arrived in 1863. The governor's wife sent a lot of letters to friends and family in Ohio describing the primitive conditions.

Still, one doctor managed to create a nice home for his family. You can peek in the window and see a bit of the kitchen.

And down the street is what looks like a comfortable neighborhood.

Eventually a school was built, which at times so overflowed with students that some grades had to study in other buildings. It closed in the 1950s.

While food was expensive because of the difficulties of getting it to the town, there usually was plenty of it. At the Hotel Meade, there was even fine dining available, with white linens and nice china and silverware.

As profits from gold mining declined, so did the town. The post office was closed in 1938, and most folks had moved away by the 1940s. In 1947, the work of preservation began, and, as you can see today, it became an educational state park well worth visiting.

Speaking of profits, in the ranger station at the entrance, among the post cards and t-shirts, you can purchase jerky made in Columbus, Mont., especially to support Montana state parks and the National Park Service. The grass-fed beef comes from the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, another place I highly recommend visiting.

To experience all that Bannack has to offer, the best time to be there is during Bannack Days, when re-enacters roam the streets. Check the Bannack State Park website for details.

But if you like ghost towns, any time, summer or winter, is the best time to wander the streets and explore the interiors of buildings and wonder . . . what was life like 150 years ago?


  1. I love Bannack Ghost Town! Have you ever been during Bannack Days??? So much fun! Really excited to find another Montana food blogger :)

  2. Nice to meet you, Haley! I have not been to Bannack Days, but it is on my to-do list for sure!