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Bannack full of history, stories, buildings

Sat., Jan. 26, 2008

Welcome to Bannack. Don’t mind the ghosts. They’re fairly quiet and don’t eat much.

And Bannack is a great ghost town – many of the buildings are still standing. There are no gift shops, and visitors can enter and explore most of the structures on their own. Here is one of the best-preserved old gold mining towns in the west.

Situated in remote southwest Montana, where there is little rain and fewer people, more than 50 buildings remain standing. The buildings include a drugstore, assay office, hotel, courthouse, church and a hodgepodge of old homes and shacks. The history of a gold town is laid out for visitors as they walk down the wooden sidewalks of the dusty, main street.

When you go to Bannack, watch for the hotel with the spiral staircase, the saloon with the bar still in place, and the church where you can almost hear the minister, Brother Van, warning about the evils of this rowdy town. On the old freight trail just outside of town, there is a gallows where several people were hanged, including Henry Plummer, the outlaw sheriff of Bannack. In the book “Ghost Towns of the West,” Plummer is described at first as an upstanding member of the community: “He soon became official sheriff, built the jail and had rings put in the floor so that prisoners could not escape merely by punching a hole in the sod roof. His home became a symbol of hospitality, the scene of receptions and dances for the ‘upper crust’ of Bannack. Even the governor of the Territory of Montana was entertained there.”

But in fact he had a dark side. In the eight months Plummer served as sheriff his gang called the “The Innocents” are said to have murdered in 1863 no less than 102 individuals and robbed countless others. Skinner’s salon, where they planned most of their escapades, still stands in Bannack. Historians say that eventually there were about 100 men in the gang. Plummer as sheriff knew when gold was being transported and passed the information on to his gang.

On a hill overlooking the town is a pioneer cemetery where young mothers and children are buried. The road between Bannack and the other nearby mining towns of Virginia City and Nevada City became too hazardous to travel. The citizens of the three towns secretly organized the Montana Vigilantes. Justice was fast and ruthless with about 24 men being hanged including the sheriff that was pointed out by one of the gang members who was about to be hanged.

In 1862 the land was still in the vast Idaho Territory. Prospectors from Colorado discovered gold in the waters of Grasshopper Creek. Within a year, the boom town of Bannack reached a population of 3,000. The first territorial legislature for Montana met in Bannack on Dec. 12, 1864. By 1865 there were only a few hundred people left. Mining continued in the area until the 1960s. However, almost as fast as the miners came, they left for the promise of richer finds in other parts of Montana.

The town exists today because the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks made it a state park in 1954. Their action protected the buildings from the elements and vandals. The department staff preserves rather than restores the buildings. Consequently, visitors get to see the real deal with buildings that are now what they were back in the 1860s.

There are stories screaming to be told in each building that’s entered and explored. In the warm months many of those stories are available by way of guided tours by the park staff. Although many of the buildings are restricted, visitors can take a tour, enter the buildings and listen to the many stories that make this a real ghost town. You may not see any ghosts, but you just might feel their presence.


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