Bannack ghost town

After leaving Big Hole National Battlefield, my brother and I were hungry and headed into the tiny town of Wisdom, Montana, to eat lunch. Throughout the tiny towns in the western U.S., I continue to be pleased that many of them uphold strict mask wearing expectations, and this is true in Wisdom. Wearing masks is wise.

Coming through the day before, however, I had stopped in one northern Idaho town to get gas, and I stopped for ibuprofen at a drugstore in a different Idaho town. No masks. On no one! Not even employees. When I finished pumping gas (while wearing gloves) and went into the mini-mart in my mask, the entire place stopped and stared at me. These were not aggressive stares, but gobsmacked curious rubbernecking. It felt like another world.

A cute place in Wisdom across the street from The Crossing.
Intrigued, I tried the ginger beer.

Anyway, we found a great place to eat in Wisdom, but first I ran across the street to take a snapshot of a cute place. After a delicious lunch at The Crossing Bar & Grill, we hit the road and headed south again.

Tanner started looking around and said something like, “There should be antelope…” And sure enough, there were. Lots of them. Usually at a distance and too hard for me to get a shot. There were so many of them that I did get a good one in the end.

As expected, there were antelope running across the sagebrush hills.
This male did me a kindness and held still so I could get a shot in focus.
We spotted a cemetery while driving through what appeared to be absolutely abandoned desert. Turns out, Tanner and I both like exploring cemeteries. We realized we must be getting close to Bannack, and that this must have been the town cemetery.
Cemeteries in western U.S. deserts look very similar to each other with the prickly pear and sagebrush and sand, but are distinctly different from cemeteries in other parts of the country.
This one caught our eye because it’s for a “Wilson.” That’s my brother’s name.
All of the gravestones showed dates in the 1800s and very early 1900s. Curiously, nearly all of the gravestones were in excellent condition, like this one. Tanner and I decided there must be a group that cares for the cemetery. Possibly it’s the Bannack State Park.
Even if the park is responsible for care, it was clear this cemetery is frequently visited. Here, toys and coins can be found on the gravestone of a child.

Finally we hopped into the truck and continued down the road and soon found the parking lot for Bannack State Park. The visitor’s center occupies one of the battered old buildings. Entrance was free for Montanans, and the informational booklet was sold for $2. We didn’t have any cash on us, and the woman explained that she would be closing soon, so she told us to just take the booklet. (When we were done, hours later, we dropped an appropriate donation into a payment slot we found at the parking lot.)

In July 1862, John White and other miners found gold on a creek and named it Grasshopper Creek, unaware that Lewis & Clark had already named it Willard’s Creek. I like the new name better. By that Fall, 300 miners had arrived, and by Spring 1863 there was a population of 3,000. The town is named for the Indian tribe who lived there, called Bannock by the miners. This name could have derived from bannock, a Scottish word for “cake cooked over open fire,” and the Indians cooked a lot of camas root cakes. When the new post office submitted its name, Washington, D.C. misspelled it, leaving us with Bannack today. Bannack was the capital city of the Montana Territory in 1864-1865, after Governor Edgerton was appointed by Abraham Lincoln.

Today the remarkably well-preserved remains of the city are open for tourists to wander around and through. Sixty buildings remain from the original city, including one impressive brick building. Tanner and I walked through them for hours, fascinated and intrigued over and over.

Looking down the street of Bannack from the Visitor’s Center.
The brick County Courthouse was built in 1875. In 1891 the building was purchased by Dr. John Singleton Meade, who remodeled it into the Hotel Meade, which operated off and on until the 1940s. Beside the Hotel Meade is the Skinner Saloon.
We were allowed to explore the first and second floors of Hotel Meade.
First floor ceilings are high, and second floor ceilings are even higher. Here, we found a wonderful old wood cooking stove. I had never seen one before with two ovens.
This is a view of Bannack from the second floor of Hotel Meade.
The Roe/Graves House, and the Methodist Church.
Here’s a better view of the Methodist Church, from the second floor of the Bessette House across the street.

Some of the best of Wild West stories can be found in Bannack’s history. For a long time, the town had no place of worship and relied on traveling ministers. One of these, William Wesley Van Orsdel (called affectionately Brother Van), arrived in town to find all the saloons and gambling houses open on a Sunday. He stepped into one an announced that he was a minister. The bartender whistled for silence and said he had one hour. Brother Van had a marvelous voice and not only shared the Word of God, but also sang. The crowd was hungry for entertainment, and begged him for more. They got a solid dose of religion that day.

In general, the town was famous for its lawlessness, and some great stories were found written and posted on the walls of the Saloon we walked into. At one point in Bannack’s history, Henry Plummer showed up in town and was promptly elected Sheriff by locals hoping for law and order. It didn’t take too long before many suspected that Plummer was actually the leader of a gang of road agents who called themselves The Innocents. Subtle. The ambitious, well-connected Sheriff may have been responsible for hundreds of deaths. Finally, townspeople here and in nearby Virginia City formed their own group called the Montana Vigilantes, and began going after known outlaws. They put up posters including the numbers: 3-7-77. There is wild speculation about what the numbers meant, and the information booklet suggests some thought they were measurements for a grave. The Vigilantes included many Freemasons, and 7 is an important number to Freemasons, so that could be related. Montana State Patrolmen wear the insignia 3-7-77 today.

The saloon today still holds what must have once been a beautiful bar.

Also inside the saloon we found an old barber’s chair with strict instructions not to touch it. Tanner reminded me of my COVID hair (six months sans haircut), and I realized I needed to sit in that chair, rules or no rules. Apparently lawlessness in Bannack continues to this day.

Next to the saloon was a store – the only building filled with items. Of course, this was also one of the only locked doors we came across. I shot this image through the glass.
We took our time walking all the way down one side of the street, and back up the other, marveling at the preserved old buildings.
Here’s the old school. And…what’s that insignia at the top? Uh-huh, Freemasons. This was also the local Masonic Lodge. Site of the founding of the Vigilantes, possibly?
Desks were in somewhat good shape inside the school, and the chalkboard was covered in lessons and rules and test questions that may have been spoken in the classroom in the early 1900s.
This display reminded us what the town was here for.
Some houses were built of logs or hand-hewn boards like these. In some places we saw lathe-and-plaster walls. Some were clearly more recently inhabited, and showed evidence of old linoleum and wallpaper.
I found myself contemplative about the stories held in these walls.
We turned back for one last look at the place and headed for the parking lot.

During World War II, non-essential mining was banned, and that was a decisive blow to an already-struggling town of Bannack. Though it continued to survive a few more years after the war, it never came to life again. Now it is a park and survives on state funding and groups like the Bannack Association to remain open and safe for visitors.

13 thoughts on “Bannack ghost town

    1. All is well here! The one saving grace of rural US towns not following CDC guidelines is that so far, there are fewer COVID-19 cases out there. So far, their obstinacy is rewarded. And the virus hasn’t got me or anyone I know yet. 🙂

  1. I’ve had this page open for days but the kid has other ideas than me leaving comments. I love old towns and old things. Told the last husband he was my first antique. Collected lots of them and loved visiting old towns and ghost towns. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of you as a big rule follower but definitely not lawless. Looks like you had a good time and I’m with you in the need of a haircut. Cut it myself last time. Sigh.

    1. That’s pretty funny that you married an antique! ha ha. First in your collection. I just love ghost towns, as I know a lot of people do. I love to stand on the spot where a town used to be…and think about why it started, what people did when they lived there, and why it’s not alive anymore. Unlike most living things, when a town dies, you can come back and look at the shell, over and over. Oy, my hair is such a heap right now. My last cut was February 20. I am very grateful that it was sorta long at that time. Within a month it was long enough to put into a ponytail, and I’ve worn a ponytail ever since. I should give my fave hairdresser a call and see how to get in there and give her some business. I’ll bet she’s open again.

      1. I cut my own and not very well. I have to find a new hairdresser. Mine broke her back and she is in pain the whole time she is cutting hair. Can’t watch it anymore. We are back home finally after a week. I am not a fan of motel rooms.

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