Bannack reopens after damaging flash flood

By Erin Madison

Great Falls Tribune

Published: Sunday, Sept. 15 2013 12:05 a.m. MDT

Crews continue to work on the Turner House and Assay Office at Bannack State Park on Sept. 9, 2013. Besides two buildings that remain closed while structural damaged is repaired, a visitor to Bannack State Park would never guess that a surge of floodwater carrying rocks, tree limbs and mud swept through Bannack less than two months ago. The flood damaged about 80 percent of the park's 60 historic buildings, all except two buildings were once again open to visitors. (AP Photo/The Great Falls Tribune, Erin Madison) NO SALES

Associated Press

DILLON, Mont. (AP) — Linda Mazejka, vice president of the Bannack Association, was amazed by the photos she saw of the damage done to Bannack State Park when a flash flood ripped through the ghost town July 17.

She was even more amazed when she toured the park as it officially reopened to the public seven weeks later.

"From what I saw of the flood pictures to this, I wouldn't have believed they could do it," Mazejka said.

Besides two buildings that remain closed while structural damaged is repaired, a visitor to Bannack State Park would never guess that a surge of floodwater carrying rocks, tree limbs and mud swept through Bannack less than two months ago.

"It's back," Mazejka said. "Bannack is back."

The flood damaged about 80 percent of the park's 60 historic buildings, but all except two buildings were once again open to visitors.

Crews continued to work on the Assay Office and Turner House even as Gov. Steve Bullock and area legislators toured the park Sept. 9.

"Bannack really has stood the test of time for over 150 years, and even the flash flood couldn't take that away," Bullock said after touring the park.

The cleanup effort that returned Bannack to its previous state is a testament of people coming together to make a difference, he said.

"In Montana, when there are challenges, we come together as friends and neighbors to get things done," Bullock said. "I'm really impressed with the cleanup efforts."

The price tag for the park's cleanup likely will come in between $2 million and $4 million, said Brett Dahl, administrator of the state's risk management and tort defense. Most of the costs will be covered by insurance.

Bannack State Park is a National Historic Landmark and Montana's first territorial capital. It is the site of Montana's first major gold discovery in 1862. Bannack became a state park in 1954. In 2012, more than 32,900 people visited this state park.

"This is our first territorial capital, and this place means so much to Montana's past and Montana's future," Bullock said.

Park manager Dale Carlson was in his office on one end of the townsite when it started raining July 17.

As the rain came down harder, he heard screams coming from the townsite. When he got there, there was a 3-foot-tall wall of water coming down Hangman Gulch, the main drainage that leads into the ghost town. The 20 or so visitors who were there at the time were all evacuated safely.

It's normal for Hangman Gulch to see some water during spring runoff, but it's diverted away from the Bannack townsite thanks to a historic ditch that was installed in 1863 for mining purposes.

However, the rainstorm in mid-July was more than the ditch could handle.

"We got probably anywhere from an inch to 2 inches of rain in 20 minutes," Carlson said.

The water washed part of the town's Assay Office across the street.

"When I first looked at the devastation, it was a little like a nightmare," Carlson said.

"They did an amazing job," he said of the cleanup work.

Work on the two buildings that remain closed should wrap up this spring.

"You have to be very accurate putting these historic buildings back together," Carlson said.

The annual Bannack Days event that would have been held the weekend following the flood was canceled and won't be rescheduled this year. However, Carlson expects next year's event, held the third weekend of July, to attract record crowds.

In fact, he expects Bannack to be extra busy this fall and into winter.

"We're ecstatic that the park is back open," he said.

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