When I say, “ghost town,” what images pop into your mind? If I’m truthful — and I think that I have to be — I will admit that I think of that episode of “The Brady Bunch” where the Bradys are on their way to the Grand Canyon and they stop off in a ghost town. The guy who played Thurston Howell III from “Gilligan’s Island” is there as an old prospector. He steals their station wagon and leaves them stranded in the ghost town’s jail. I know what you’re thinking. And, yes, I will readily admit that I have watched far too much television in my life. But I’m still intrigued by ghost towns. Recently, I happened across a doozy of a ghost town . . . Bannack, Montana. Bannack is a town that is filled with enough ghosts to satisfy the most ardent lover of Old West History.
To prove that I do possess a bit of culture that doesn’t involve 70’s television, I feel the need to include a John Steinbeck quote. In his travelogue about a 1960 road trip across the U.S. with his standard poodle, Charley, entitled: Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck wrote, “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” (See, I’m not a totally uncultured dolt!)
Thicker’n a Swarm of Grasshoppers
Steinbeck wasn’t alone in his love of Montana. Almost a century before Steinbeck and Charley visited Montana, a group of prospectors began making their way to the town that would become Bannack. (Prospectors. Shoot. Now, I’m thinking about that episode of “The Brady Bunch” again!) It was 1862 and the prospectors were panning for gold in a creek surrounded by grasshoppers. (Bonus points if you can guess what they named the creek!) It was there in Grasshopper Creek that they found part of the biggest gold strike in Montana—even though it was technically still in Idaho territory at the time!
By the winter of 1862, more than 500 people had descended on Bannack in swarms thicker than, well, grasshoppers. Tents, shanties and huts sprang up all around and Bannack became a booming mining town. Word spread that the gold in Bannack was over 99% pure—a level of purity that was not to be exceeded until Ivory soap hit the market seventeen years later. Winter ended, but the influx of people seeking their fortunes didn’t.
Businessmen, outlaws and Civil War deserters joined the miners who thought that Bannack seemed like a pretty good place to stake a claim. By 1863 and the town had some 3,000 residents, made up mostly of men and “career women,” when they applied to the U.S. Government for the name of Bannock. Someone in Washington hadn’t brushed up on his “Hooked on Phonics” and the name was misspelled as Bannack. Well, whatcha gonna do? The name stuck—sort of like when Oprah’s mom misspelled Orpah.
Law and Order, Bannack style
As surprising as it may be, crime was a real problem in Bannack. Oh, sure, they had a surplus of gypsies, tramps and thieves, but what they needed was a lawman. (Note: I have no idea if there were gypsies or not. But far be it from me to miss the opportunity to reference one of Cher’s greatest hits.) The seventy-mile stretch of road to Virginia City had become perilous, with road agents waiting to rob the stagecoaches of their gold. In fact, the halfway point between Bannack and Virginia City had come to be known as Robber’s Roost.
In 1863, the people of Bannack hired a man named Henry Plummer to serve as sheriff. Unfortunately, in the days before LinkedIn, it was virtually impossible to do a thorough background check on someone! And it didn’t take long before people began questioning Plummer’s sincerity. Many believed him to be the Grand Pooh-bah of the thieving road agents! Well, they would have believed that, if the term Pooh-bah had been around before Gilbert and Sullivan used it in The Mikado in 1885.
Some people believed that Plummer was appointing members of his band of thieves as deputies. Together, they were said to have robbed and killed more than 100 men. And, if the bad guys carried badges, where were the people of Bannack supposed to turn? The gang is said to have become even more brazen as time went on. They were rumored to have spies working for local businesses. They knew exactly when and where to strike. Skinner’s Saloon was their suspected headquarters. Saloon owner, Cyrus Skinner, was said to be in cahoots with the gang. If you own a metal detector, you might want to head to Bannack because legends say that Skinner buried a fortune in gold before he was hanged for being a thief.
Skinner wasn’t the only one to meet the wrong end of a rope. Eventually, the honest men of Bannack got tired of looking over their shoulders and they formed a group of vigilantes. Surely, some of them must have been responsible for naming Grasshopper Creek because they had an obvious flair for naming things (or a flair for giving obvious names)! They called themselves, yes, you guessed it. . . The Vigilantes, and set out to take back their town—one swinging noose at a time. They hanged around 30 men suspected of being road agents, and they buzzed through it all in record time because they didn’t wait for those pesky trials.
One of the men caught by The Vigilantes turned informant and ratted out Sheriff Plummer. On January 10, 1864, The Vigilantes captured Plummer and two of his companions in the middle of the night. The following day, Plummer was hanged from the gallows . . . the same gallows that he had built himself as sheriff of Bannack.
The Last Best Place
From that point on, life in Bannack became almost serene. Murdering stopped. Robbing stopped. It’s too bad the gold strikes stopped because that would have been a prime time to get rich. Those swarms of miners began heading for Virginia City, looking for new gold strikes. By 1870, the population of Bannack had dwindled to fewer than 300 people. I find it interesting that a Masonic Hall, constructed in 1874, still stands. I suppose the people of Bannack thought, “If you build it, they will come.” But, it didn’t work. The final residents left in the 1940s.
Bannack is now a state park. Each year, thousands of visitors load up their cars and visit Bannack, just like the Brady family visited the ghost town. Bannack is one of the nation’s best-preserved ghost towns. One of Montana’s unofficial mottos is, “Montana: The Last Best Place”. I think that’s a pretty fitting motto for Bannack. Filled with finely preserved buildings and enough “ghosts” to make your hair stand on edge, Bannack really is a last best place.
Watch a little video, and see what Bannack looks like today!
Happy Trails, y’all!