Bannack is the gold rush boomtown & one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Montana

By Paul Pinkerton
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Bannack is a ghost town in Beaverhead County, Montana, United States, located on Grasshopper Creek, approximately 11 miles (18 km) upstream from where Grasshopper Creek joins with the Beaverhead River south of Dillon.

 

Founded in 1862 and named after the local Bannock Indians, it was the site of a major gold discovery in 1862, and served as the capital of Montana Territory briefly in 1864, until the capital was moved to Virginia City. Bannack continued as a mining town, though with a dwindling population. The last residents left in the 1970s.

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Bannack State Park near Dillon, MT. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson... Source
Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Bannack State Park near Dillon, MT. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson… Source

At its peak, Bannack had a population of about ten thousand. Extremely remote, it was connected to the rest of the world only by the Montana Trail. There were three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, two meat markets, a grocery store, a restaurant, a brewery, a billiard hall, and four saloons. Though all of the businesses were built of logs, some had decorative false fronts.

 
Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Bannack State Park near Dillon, MT. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson.. Source
Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Bannack State Park near Dillon, MT. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson.. Source

Among the town’s founders was Dr. Erasmus Darwin Leavitt, a physician born in Cornish, New Hampshire, who gave up medicine for a time to become a gold miner.Dr. Leavitt arrived in Bannack in 1862, and alternately practiced medicine and mined for gold with pick and shovel.

“Though some success crowned his labors,” according to a history of Montana by Joaquin Miller, “he soon found that he had more reputation as a physician than as a miner, and that there was greater profit in allowing someone else to wield his pick and shovel while he attended to his profession.”

Subsequently, Dr. Leavitt moved on to Butte, Montana, where he devoted the rest of his life to his medical practice

Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Bannack State Park near Dillon, MT. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson Source
Along the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Bannack State Park near Dillon, MT. US Forest Service photo, by Roger Peterson Source

 

An abandoned homestead Bannack, the first Territorial Capital of Montana. Source
An abandoned homestead Bannack, the first Territorial Capital of Montana. Source

 

Built in 1877, the Methodist Church was the first building in Bannack built exclusively for the purpose of worship. Source
Built in 1877, the Methodist Church was the first building in Bannack built exclusively for the purpose of worship. Source

 

In the ghost town of Bannack, Montana, USA. Source
In the ghost town of Bannack, Montana, USA. Source

 

In the ghost town of Bannack, Montana, USA.Source
In the ghost town of Bannack, Montana, USA.Source

Bannack’s sheriff, Henry Plummer, was accused by some of secretly leading a ruthless band of road agents, with early accounts claiming that this gang was responsible for over a hundred murders in the Virginia City and Bannack gold fields and trails to Salt Lake City.

However, because only eight deaths are historically documented, some modern historians have called into question the exact nature of Plummer’s gang, while others deny the existence of the gang altogether. In any case, Plummer and two compatriots, both deputies, were hanged, without trial, at Bannack on January 10, 1864. A number of Plummer’s associates were lynched and others banished on pain of death if they ever returned.

Twenty-two individuals were accused, informally tried, and hanged by the Vigilance Committee (the Montana Vigilantes) of Bannack and Virginia City. Nathaniel Pitt Langford, the first superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, was a member of that vigilance committee.

Sixty historic log, brick, and frame structures remain standing in Bannack, many quite well preserved; most can be explored. The site, now the Bannack Historic District, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.The town is presently the site of Bannack State Park. Though not particularly popular among tourists, this site remains a favorite for natives and historians alike.

Photo by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation montana.Source
Photo by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation montana.Source

Every year, during the third weekend of July, this abandoned town witnesses a historical reconstitution known as “Bannack Days”. For two days, Bannack State Park officials organize an event that attempts to revive the times when Bannack was a boom town, re-enacting the day by day of the miners who lived there during the gold rush.

An authentic, old-timey breakfast is served in the old Meade Hotel, a building of brick (well preserved) which was for many years the seat of Beaverhead County, before Dillon,Montana, became the seat of the county.

 
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