Like the other western states, Montana has its share of ghost towns scattered among its mountains. They are a testament to a time gone by, a time of gold fever and busted dreams.
Most of these now lie silent and are slowly returning to Nature. However, Montana has two very well preserved and protected ghost towns in Bannack and Garnet, and they couldn’t be more different.
Bannack was the site of one of the earliest gold strikes in Montana in 1862 and located along Grasshopper Creek in the open, arid, southwest part of the state. Bannack has the reputation of an early, freewheeling, rowdy town, and the lore is dominated by an outlaw sheriff, hung by a vigilante group formed during a time of widespread lawlessness. By contrast, Garnet was one of the later gold strikes in the 1890s and is nestled in a small, green mountain valley east of Missoula. Garnet has the reputation as having been a calm, family-friendly town, founded by a Dr. Armistead Mitchell. Instead of a hung sheriff, Garnet has the story of “Shorty’s Arm”. Mitchell was the area’s doctor and is known for having sawn off the arm of a miner known as “Shorty”, after he stumbled into his own fireplace in a drunken stupor, badly burning his arm. The two then spent the night together in a whiskey-infused poker party. Mitchell had intended to keep the arm, but he lost it somewhere during his inebriated travels after the poker game.
I am always looking for opportunities to explore nighttime photography. One topic that I thought might be particularly interesting is photographing ghost towns at night. Here is where another, important difference between Bannack and Garnet comes in.
Bannack is a state park, and it is closed and gated between sunset and sunrise, so there is no nighttime access allowed. On the other hand, Garnet is not a park, but is run by the BLM. They maintain an office in “downtown” Garnet. Although it closes at 4:30, there are no gates and the town remains open 24/7. With this in mind, I set my sights on a moonlit photoshoot in Garnet.
I arrived at the parking lot above the town after dusk. It was a fairly clear night with only a few clouds and a quarter moon was about to rise.
After I got my camera equipment together, I headed down the short trail. With the town being in a small, tight valley, you actually come to an overlook from which you can see pretty much most of the town below.
I think the allure of ghost towns is in trying to imagine life back then. These aren’t movie sets, they were real towns with real people. These towns were slapped together without thought to longevity and a fire in 1912 claimed a chunk of Garnet. Still, much remains. Looking down into town, I tried to imagine the four stores, four hotels, three livery stables, two barbershops, a union hall, a school with 41 students, a butcher shop, a candy shop, a doctor’s office, an assay office, and thirteen saloons/dance halls that used to be there. I think it is easier for one’s imagination to conjure these up in the dark.
As the moon rose, I began setting up my camera on a tripod at the overlook, and working on compositions, keenly aware that I was completely alone there. As I did, an eerie feeling came over me. It was actually a little unnerving. Was it my imagination or was I actually hearing faint, but perceptible noises? What was that, I thought – the whinnying of horses, the sound of shoveling rock into ore carts? At times, I swore I could see faint traces of activity below. I tried to shrug it off and keep shooting.
After that, I went down to town level and started exploring the buildings. Here is one of the remaining stores, over there, one of the bars and dance halls. Again, I could hear something, but not quite loud enough to make out exactly what I was hearing. Was it a ragtime bar piano, the clinking of glasses, or the high pitch laughter of women?
I thought I felt a light tap on my shoulder – I immediately wheeled around, but there was no one there.
However, my mind was filled with the image of a broke miner asking in a low tone, “Hey buddy, can you buy an old miner a drink?” By now, my heart was beating rather quickly, and I tried to focus on what I was there to do, but it was getting harder.
I climbed up the hill on the other side of Main street. Here is where most of the houses and cabins were located. I looked in the windows of the old livery where they had a preserved wagon and some saddles. The next building over served as the old post office. Stopping at another cabin for more photos, I again sensed I was not alone.
I spoke up, “anyone there?”, I nervously blurted out - not sure which would scare me the most – silence or a response. Of course, I got silence. I quickly finished up those photos and decided I had had enough - time to leave.
I headed back down the hill and across Main street, pausing briefly to take a few more photos looking up towards the two-story Wells Hotel. This time I knew I was hearing something – the cheers and laughing of children. I could also hear another voice – an older male voice, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. “That’s it, I thought – I’m out of here!”. I raced up the trail back to my truck and headed home.
Now, I know the camera can “see” things that the human eye can’t, especially under low light conditions.
However, I was really startled when I opened up those photos on my computer. Looking at the last one, I now knew what the older timer was saying. He was laughingly shouting out, “Happy Hallowe’en!”
Stay safe out there!
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