There are so many corners of our planet that invite us to pause, close our eyes, and imagine what life might have been like for the people who lived there centuries ago. Some of those spots continue to be vibrant beacons even today. Machu Picchu is still powered by the wonder of tourists who explore from around the world. Historic cities like London and Tokyo reverberate with the noise of people commuting, working, and having fun just like they have for hundreds of years. It’s hard to walk through Jerusalem or Luxor without feeling the presence of history all around you. The common thread, though, is how life still flows through these kinds of places. When life disappears from them, when people move on and all that’s left is stillness, the history remains—but it’s enshrouded in a little more eeriness.
Despite the fact it was a bright, sunny day when our trusty rental car rolled into Bannack, Montana, it was hard to imagine lightness ever filling the silence that engulfed the old buildings stretched out before us. Founded in 1862, Bannack was a beacon of hope and promised prosperity to those who believed it was well-positioned as a gold rush town. That promise was somewhat short-lived, and less than a century later only memories filled the buildings, their inhabitants having long since moved on.
If your travels will take you to Montana, visiting Bannack State Park will give you the chance to experience an actual ghost town. From exploring the way life used to be to learning about why time left Bannack behind, our visit was educational and interesting—and just the slightest bit creepy.
Bannack State Park: a Tribute to Times Gone By
To understand why Bannack State Park is such a great destination, it helps to understand its history. In 1862, as people began to push westward and the call of unmined gold beckoned, Bannack found itself in the middle of the excitement when gold was discovered and people began to flock toward city limits by the thousands. It wasn’t long before 10,000 people had settled there, and the city began to take shape and definition from the businesses that began to pop up. There were houses, and there were also blacksmith shops, hotels, a grocery store, a restaurant, a brewery, and four saloons. As people established mining camps at Grasshopper Creek and permanent structures appeared along the main street, Bannack dug in its heels as a symbol of hope and prosperity.
As with so many towns in the USA’s west in the 1860s, Bannack was not without its darkness. It was the kind of place that promised the kinds of treasures that could change your life but often delivered something more aligned with nightmares. One of the sources of Bannack’s dangerous reputation was its sheriff. Elected in 1863, just a year after the town’s first gold discovery, William Henry Plummer brought a reputation and a crime record to town with him. Known as Henry, he had killed several people—all in the name of self-defense, of course—before arriving in Fort Benton, Montana. There, he was recruited to help ward of Native American attacks on the land. He ended up finding another reason to stay in Montana: he fell in love and married a woman named Electra Bryan. Unfortunately, Henry was not the only man who sought Electra’s heart; Henry’s friend Jack Cleveland had also fallen for her, and his jealousy gradually turned to rage. In January 1863, in a crowded saloon, he provoked Henry to fight him and lost his life. Onlookers declared that Henry acted in self-defense, and he became popular enough that he was elected as sheriff.
Sherriff Plummer might have been elected to serve and protect the people of Bannack, but crime and murder rates only increased under his watch. Locals began to question whether it was Plummer himself at the heart of the crime wave, as people began to report robberies and deaths linked to the people with whom Plummer associated. In December 1863, citizens of Bannack and nearby Virginia City formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch, and in two months’ time they arrested and executed 20 people—including Sherriff Plummer himself. Plummer was captured after one of his associates confessed to their crimes, and Plummer was hanged on January 10, 1864. Although Plummer did not stand trial for his alleged crimes, he did receive a posthumous trial in 1993 at which time the jury was split on the verdict. If it had happened during Plummer’s lifetime, he would have walked away a free man, a curious ending to a mysterious existence.
Crime rates in Bannack dropped after Plummer’s death, although not immediately, but in some ways the town was already on the decline. The gold rush didn’t pan out in Bannack, and by 1866 Virginia City was the larger of the towns, followed by Helena becoming the capital of the territory in 1877. Where 10,000 people had lived, only a few hundred remained. Native American attacks threatened them, and a fire that broke out in 1895 claimed many of the town’s buildings. By the 1930s, few people remained. By 1960, vibrant Bannack was no more than a whisper of itself. It had become a ghost town.
Experience the Bannack Ghost Town
It has been more than 50 years since the last of Bannack, Montana’s residents moved on, and these days a visit to Bannack might feel a little more crowded than it did for the last people who called it home. Since it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, curious visitors have arrived to explore what remains of the town. Of the 60 buildings that remain, most are preserved as if time itself stopped around them, which means it is possible to explore them during your visit.
► Bannack Jail
Just off the main road, the local jail boasts just three cells spacious enough to imprison a few people if necessary. Bannack’s jail was the very first in Montana and was built while Sherriff Plummer was in office, and once financed it was housed in two buildings. Once cell takes up the entirety of a building, offering just 12 square feet of space. Next door, two slightly larger cells stand side-by-side. Even though Plummer was responsible for their arrival in town, he never spent the night there himself; vigilante justice ended his life without imprisonment at all. Like most of Bannack, the cells are preserved, not restored, and standing inside of them will take you to the 1860s, the ruthless lifestyle, and the first attempts to bring law to a lawless land. The clear view of the gallows from the cell windows are another stark reminder of how severe pioneer punishment could be.
► Hotel Meade
Initially the seat of government in Beaverhead County, what was once the Bannack Courthouse became the Hotel Meade in 1890. Dr. John Christian Meade purchased the building with the intention of converting it into a hotel, and it remained a hotel until the town shuttered decades later. More often than not it was central to social life in Bannack, and today its doors are still open to curious travelers who want to peak into the past.
► Assay Office
One of the oldest buildings in Bannack had one of the most important roles: the Assay House served as the location where miners would have their gold assessed. Bannack’s gold was among the purest gold found during the rush; it was approximately 99% pure, whereas most gold was closer to 95% pure. When the gold rush passed and mining was no longer lucrative, the building became a drug store.
Bannack was 11 years old before it got its first school, and it welcomed students every year thereafter until 1951, when it closed due to low enrollment. The schoolhouse doubled as a Masonic lodge, and on top of the worn, chipped paint the Masonic square and compass emblem is clearly visible. The building, of course, shows its age, but records from students and parents during the years it was open confirmed that snow would blow through cracks in the walls during the cold winter months.
► Methodist Church
For more than a decade after Bannack was founded, there was no church, which meant there was no place dedicated to religion or worship in the town. The Methodist church was built in response to a failed Native American attack. Rumor had it that Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians were headed to Bannack after a victory at the Battle of the Big Hole. Although they never arrived and there was no immediate threat, the town constructed a church in response as a symbol of protection as well as to fulfill the longstanding need of securing a dedicated house of prayer. The church is well preserved, although decaying seats and creaky floorboards will remind you that you are in an abandoned space at every turn.
Check out our video below to take a virtual walk through the streets of Bannack.
Is Bannack Ghost Town Haunted?
We spent almost two hours exploring Bannack, joined by very few other travelers whose plans coincided with our own. At first, we found ourselves traversing the main street almost completely on our own, armed with only a $2 guidebook purchased at the visitor center to help us make sense of what we were seeing. As Adam departed from the main street to take pictures, I peered through smudged, dusty glass into buildings that looked every minute of their age. I wandered behind some of the properties, spooked by the sounds of bugs whose wings sounded like rattlesnakes as they buzzed by.
Inside the buildings, it’s hard not to feel the presence of those who once walked through the rooms. We don’t know if Bannack is a real ghost town—if there are real ghosts, they didn’t make themselves known to us, anyway—but that doesn’t change the way we experienced our time there. It’s so easy to picture people living there, walking from their homes to church or school, meeting at a saloon or stopping at the store for supplies. Standing alone in one of the saloons, I could imagine what it might have sounded like when it was full of drunk locals, with glasses clinking and a piano playing, the sounds of joy and life and hope that tomorrow might be the day you strike it rich. Bannack didn’t feel scary or haunted, but it certainly didn’t feel empty or lonely. Perhaps, if ghosts call it home, they are the friendly kind—or at least the kind who welcome you as you learn more about their time in history.
Places to Stay Near Bannack, Montana
Bannack isn’t especially close to a major city; it’s within a reasonable drive from cities like Bozeman, Helena, and Missoula. The town closest to Bannack is Dillon (about a 30 minute drive) and there are a few campgrounds close to the park if you are visiting with an RV or plan to camp outside, which is popular in the area. We found visiting Bannack to make the most sense as we navigated between cities, using it as a stopping point as opposed to a place to base our stay. We used Booking.com to find nearby hotels that provided the kinds of amenities we needed (free parking! Wifi!), and you may find Booking.com has some great properties for you to consider, too.
Enjoy the Bannack Ghost Town!
Stepping back into history can be done in just about any place you visit, but it’s seamless in a place like Bannack. The opportunity to experience a corner of the world that has been preserved as if someone hit a pause button that impacted the whole of it allowed us to experience it in a way that transported us back in time rather than simply educating us about its history. It’s beautiful, nostalgic, peaceful, and eerie all at the same time, and it’s a very worthwhile stop if you find yourself taking a Montana road trip!
More Information: Bannack.org
We always enjoy visiting interesting abandoned places. Here are a few more we’ve written about!