Garnet Ghost Town Montana

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Do ghosts exist in Montana? Then why is it called Garnet Ghost Town Montana? Of course, a ghost town is just a deserted town that typically is deteriorating. Nature reclaiming it’s own. Gold mining brought miners here from all over the country. Men moving from one gold strike to another. In the case of Garnet, unlike other gold mining towns, most of the men brought their families. Of course, that reduced (not eliminated) the lawlessness and drunken brawls that happened in other frontier towns. And since Garnet is close to Missoula, The Driveby Tourist had to visit!

Garnet Ghost Town Montana
Garnet Ghost Town Today

Garnet Ghost Town Montana – More

Consequently, the above picture shows part of Garnet as it exists today. The town is operated by the Garnet Preservation Association. The foundation raises operating funds by selling items of education and interpretive value in the gift shop, with donations and grants, and by co-sponsoring interpretive and historical events. The association refers to their work as “arrested decay”, meaning they are keeping the town at the same level as when they took over to preserve the remaining part of the town.

The town and surrounding area are owned by the Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Two cabins are for rent from the BLM from December 1st until April 30th. Rental of cabins in the winter is a “cool” thing to do. After all, who doesn’t want to spend a week or a weekend in a ghost town. In a cabin. With no indoor plumbing and no electricity! And no motorized vehicles! In the winter!

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Story of Garnet Ghost Town Montana

Gold Mining
Sign at entry to town (Sorry not really readable)

Garnet sits at 6,000 feet elevation near the head of the First Chance Creek. The town acquired it’s name from the brown garnet rock which was used as an abrasive and a semi-precious stone. The town dates back to 1895. The creation of the town happened over 30 years after gold was first discovered. Initially, gold was discovered in 1865 and the mother lode in 1867. As gold became more pervasive, the town developed. In 1898, an abundance of gold brought more miners and the town grew to nearly 1,000 people. The nearby Nancy Hanks mine led to the growth. Between 1862 and 1915, millions of dollars in gold were taken from the Garnet area.

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Garnet Ghost Town Montana
Sketch of building locations today

Housing in Garnet

Unlike many mining towns, men brought their families and built houses for them. Although the houses weren’t built to last, they did provide a good, clean place for the families to live. Above is a map of the buildings still in existence today. A fire destroyed much of the business district in 1912. By that time, the mines mostly “mined themselves out”. In fact, most of the mines were abandoned by 1905. Most remaining residents moved away, many to World War I defense jobs and to the military.

During the 1930’s, the price of gold doubled from $16 per ounce to $32 per ounce. A new wave of miners moved in and worked the remaining gold. Again during World War II, the town was nearly abandoned. During all this time, just a few residents remained and F. A. Davey ran the store in town (#3 on the map). One hotel (#4 on the map) also remained intact.

Sleeping quarters
On the top floor of the hotel, men could rent the space for their sleeping bag or blankets

This hotel’s top floor was designed for men who couldn’t afford a room but needed a place to sleep. The slats on the floor are dividers to show how much space each man had for the night. I couldn’t find anything regarding the price but given the times and the accommodations, it was likely to be around 10 cents!

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Shopping in Garnet Ghost Town Montana

Garnet Shopping

Since families lived here, more shopping required more stores. Above is a plaque about shopping and the remains of one of the stores. I’m sure nothing was bar coded for quick sale like today! In fact, the shop keeper had to refer to his handwritten price list or his memory when totaling sales. Although the stores mostly stocked staples and a few other items, Missoula and Deer Lodge where close enough for “major shopping”. Of course, what is now a 45 to 50 minute drive one way was an all day trip with horses.

Family life in Garnet

Family living quarters at Garnet Ghost town Montana
Example of family living

Most buildings in the day were not built to last. By then, miners were aware of mines being depleted and needing to move on. A few houses like this one were built so they withstood the test of time, animals, and human scavengers. At it’s peak in 1898, Garnet boasted four stores, four hotels, three livery stables, two barber shops, a union hall, a school with 41 students, a butcher shop, a candy store, a doctor’s office, an assay office and thirteen saloons.

Since it was a frontier mining town, it did have it’s touches of the “Wild West”! For those families who lived in the town, life was much like any other frontier town. There were a few friends, and the families would get together for meals and games, much like families did in other small frontier towns. Maybe like “Little House on the Prairie”? For those who don’t know, it was an American TV series in the 1970s and 1980s. It was set in the 1870’s in the mid-western United States.

Other Montana ghost towns

Montana Ghost towns

There are dozens of Montana ghost towns, especially in southwestern Montana. Many were very small and have very little signs that they actually existed. Virginia City, Nevada City, and Bannack, for example, are well preserved and are tourist destinations. Bannack and Granite are now part of State Parks. Here is a link to Montana’s better known ghost towns. Each of them have different stories. I did not visit any or these but want to present them as options.


Bannack became a boom town in 1862 as it was the first major gold strike in Montana. In 1954 the town became a state park.Today, over 50 buildings remain. Again, like Garnet, the buildings are preserved, not restored. The park stands at 5800 feet elevation and has 28 campsites available. Fishing, camping, picnicking, bicycling, wildlife viewing, interpretive programs and cultural events are available. The visitor center is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Nevada City

On the other hand, Nevada City is a restored mining ghost town. The Charles Bovey family took responsibility for the restoration. The entire town is a living historical museum. It is a famous tourist attraction with many of the original buildings and an outstanding collection of old-time music boxes and player pianos.

Nevada City has 108 buildings today. Overall, only fourteen of them are original to Nevada City. Other buildings were moved from other ghost towns that no longer exist. In order to maintain the town as an attraction, the state of Montana now owns the city. Operation of the city became the responsibility of the Montana Heritage Commission. Weekends in summer feature live interpretation of historical events and experiences of life in the late 1800s. Admission fees are charged.

Virginia City

Virginia City has the most colorful history of the mining towns in this post. Gold was discovered in 1863 and once the claim was registered, the area was flooded with other miners. Although today it’s Montana, the land was in Idaho Territory at the time. After less than a year when Bannack was the territory capital, Virginia City became the capital of Montana Territory from 1865 until 1875 when Helena claimed the capital. Helena became and remains the state capital upon Montana achieving statehood in 1889.

Due to the rapid growth of Virginia City, lawlessness prevailed. The lack of a justice system gave rise to serious criminal activity. “Road agents”, as the robbers and murderers became known, were identified as responsible for over 100 deaths in the area in 1863 and 1864. The Montana Vigilantes grew out of this lawlessness. In December 1863 and January 1864 about 15 road agents were hanged after being convicted by the vigilantes. One of them was the sheriff of Bannack, allegedly the leader of the road gang.

And, Virginia City is also a restored town. The Bovey family, who also restored Nevada City, restored Virginia City. The city is also owned by the state of Montana. Today, the town retains a population of about 150 people, approximately doubling in the summer. The economy, of course, is tourism as it has been for the last 60 years. And the city is still the county seat of Madison County. (No, not “that” Madison County [with the bridges], the county is in Iowa.)

Mining in Montana through today

The largest deposits of gold found today are around Butte Montana. Amazingly, the main mining operation in the Butte area is for copper. However, millions of dollars worth of gold is extracted as a by-product of the copper mining and processing. Montana gold mining still occurs today in other places as well.

Surprisingly, the city of Helena sits on a large deposit of gold. It’s likely there is gold under the buildings and streets! Metal detectors are finding gold nuggets in many areas in and around Helena. (Now don’t run out there and try to dig it up!) Many of the original mining areas from the 1800s still produce gold. Among the areas still producing gold are: Broadwater County, Confederate Gulch, Hauser Lake, Virginia City, and Alder Gulch. Here’s a link to an article about Montana gold mining today.

So, that does it for Garnet Ghost Town Montana and other Montana gold mining. Looking forward to read about Missoula next?

Here is a link to the cornerstone post for the entire Montana Idaho Road Trip.

Classic Rock Recollection

“Days of 49” by Bob Dylan

I’m old Tom Moore from the bummer’s shore in that good old golden days
They call me a bummer and a gin shot too, but what cares I for praise ?
I wander around from town to town just like a roving sign
And all the people say, “There goes Tom Moore, in the days of ’49”
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’ times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49

In the days of old, in the days of gold,
How oftentimes I repine
For the days of old
When we dug up the gold,
In the days of ’49

Written by: Alan Lomax, John Lomax, Frank Warner
(It’s about gold mining in general, adapted for the California Gold Rush in 1849)

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Beverly Blinde

    Very interesting! Makes me want to visit Montana again!

    1. Thanks, Bev, That was in 2019 but still appropriate! Hope you are well.

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