Bannack, 25 miles west of Dillon and 70 miles as the crow flies from Virginia City, is a true ghost town - haunted by the violence that beset Montana's gold camps during the mid- to late-19th century.
Strolling its dusty streets, peering into musty buildings, or standing beneath the gallows where Henry Plummer, the outlaw sheriff of Bannack, was hung by vigilantes, is indeed an eerie experience.If you can, visit Bannack the third weekend of July, during Bannack Days. At that time the old ghost town is briefly resurrected as Beaverhead County folk dress in period costume to leisurely tread its boardwalks.
The 3,000 or so visitors who descend on Bannack then can look forward to horse and buggy rides, a frontier church service, gold panning and black powder muzzle loader shoots.
Frontier crafts are also exhibited by local artisans. Plays are staged in the manner of the times. Pioneer food is served (Buffalo steaks and burgers are on the menu), while fiddlers regale celebrants with traditional music.
Nineteenth century Bannack never had it so good. In his magnificent study of the times, "The Rockies," historian David Lavender wrote the miners left their "mark of carelessness," on everything they did.
In the smaller camps tree stumps were never removed from the streets, and town roads "alternated between powdery dust and wheel-churned morass of mud."
A sleeping room in a hotel was often a cubicle partitioned off by muslin and miners who willingly sawed planks for their sluice boxes were content with dirt floors in the cabins.
Of Bannack, an early-day recent arrival wrote, "There are times when it is really unsafe to go through the main street on the other side of the Creek, the bullets wiz around so, and no one thinks of punishing a man for shooting another."
There were, however, moments of civility worth noting. In the winter of 1863 there were but two fiddle players in Bannack, 30 white women and 10 men to every woman. Dances were held 2-3 times a week, dancing classes nightly except Sunday and order and decorum were the rule.
Fraternal organizations also flourished in this mostly male society. In 1871 Bannack received its charter as a member of the Fraternal Order of Freemasons and three years later built a hall above the school. A double floor separated the lodge from the school and the only access was from an outside stairway.
Briefly, from 1864-65, Bannack attained respectability as the seat of Territorial government, losing that honor and half its population to Virginia City after the discovery of gold at Alder Gulch.
Although Bannack folded when the pickings became lean, its mill operated sporadically into the 1960s and mining has never ceased in the district.
In 1954, the town was preserved as the first national acquisition of a fledgling state park system and added to the national register of historic place.
Since then Bannack has held its own through the purchase of private holdings and the stabilization of existing structures. With a handful of others it survives as one of the best preserved of the western gold camps _ a valuable mirror into a not too distant past.
Although 18 buildings of historical significance remain, among them the school and Masonic Hall, Skinner's Saloon (its proprietor, Cyrus Skinner was hanged by vigilantes), the Goodrich Hotel, the Meade Hotel and Courthouse and the Bannack jail.
The governor's mansion is no longer extant, only the site remains. It was originally a crude log cabin purchased at a sheriff's auction by Sidney Edgerton, Montana's first territorial governor. It also was Bannack's first school, taught by Lucia Darling Edgerton in their front room.
Many of the surviving houses however are well preserved, appearing as if the owner had just stepped out and would return shortly.
The discovery of placer gold on Grasshopper Creek in 1862, by one John White and fellow "Pike Peakers," set off a rush that produced bonanzas not only at Bannack, but at Virginia City and Helena as well.
As news of the strike spread hopeful stampeders converged on Bannack by the thousands, from the Oregon Trail, along the Fisk Road and up the Salt Lake City road. Within a year, a camp of 3,000 had mushroomed alongside Grasshopper Creek, within the shadow of Bloody Dick Mountain.
David Lavender wrote that an estimated 75,000 people tramped through the district the summer of 1864 and in 1865 there were another 120,000 summertime people roaming from camp to camp.
Frontier justice was a sometime thing in this human maelstrom. In Bannack, a miner's court ran three perpetrators out of town for shooting into an Indian teepee killing four people, but in Nevada City a mob strung up one George Ives for killing a muleskinner.
Montana's notorious vigilance committee was organized late in 1863, as quicker, more efficient means of dealing with desperados and they soon turned their attention to Henry Plummer, the rouge sheriff of Bannack.
A grey-eyed man just under six feet, Plummer had appeared in Bannack a year earlier, a step ahead of Oregon vigilantes.
In New England, he had killed the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair, served time in prison, killed another woman in a bawdy house dispute and in Bannack, gunned down the rival for the woman he proposed to marry.
Fearing that his criminal past would be revealed, he picked a quarrel with then sheriff Crawford and though it was Plummer who was wounded, it was Crawford who resigned and left town, fearing reprisal from Plummer's friends.
In a bizarre turn of events, Plummer was named sheriff, not only for Bannack, but Virginia City as well, so unhinged were the miners' frames of mind.
In his brief tenure, Plummer's road agents robbed and murdered at least 102 people traveling the lonely road between Bannack and Virginia City. Plummer's time came on the evening of Jan. 10, when a posse of 50 vigilantes rode into Bannack. They caught Plummer at dinner and hung him and his two outlaw deputies from their own gallows, built to hang another criminal.
A replica of Plummer's original gallows stands in a desolate gulley behind the town. His unmarked grave has never been located but is believed to be close by.
Although state highway 324 west of Dillon is paved, Bannack lies 5 miles off the main road and its access road is graveled. The park is open year-round from day break to sunset and you can camp along nearby Grasshopper Creek.