Garnet Ghost Town

Montana’s Best Preserved Ghost Town

published by the Montana Bureau of Land Management and is used with their permission
Garnet Ghost Town
Garnet Ghost Town | University of Montana

“Gold!” In the early 1860s a strike on Bear Creek at its confluence with the Clark Fork River brought many prospectors to the area. Another strike occurred in 1865, this time up Bear Gulch, which became Bear Town. Prospectors worked their way up creeks and gulches into the more remote areas of the Garnet Range, named for the semi-precious stone found in the area.

Placer mining was the initial method. It required only the investment of a gold pan, rocker or sluice box, items that could be easily hauled into remote areas or built on site. In placer mining water is used to wash the sand and gravel away leaving the heavier gold or other precious metal behind. Small dams, diversions and ditches were used to transport water for placer mining to the various mining districts spread throughout the Garnet Range. The discovery of a 32-ounce nugget on Bilk Creek brought waves of additional prospectors into the mountains.

A winter with heavy snow meant a robust spring runoff and sufficient water for placer mining, but the dry years took a toll on mining activity. By the 1870s, placer mining had become less profitable, yet some miners, such as Samuel Ritchey, persevered having recognized that the area was rich with gold-bearing quartz. Still, the lack of adequate roads to bring in heavy equipment necessary for hard rock or “lode” mining and the inefficient refining and smelting methods limited hard rock ore processing for another two decades. Silver mines elsewhere also drew miners away from the Garnets.

The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1895 caused silver mining camps to empty and miners to turn their focus from silver to gold. This event, combined with improved mining technology, led to a renewed interest in gold mining in the Garnet Range. Between 1890 and 1895, 40 lode claims were filed in the First Chance Mining District. Several claims were held by Drs. Armistead Mitchell and Charles Mussigbrod. In 1895, they built a ten-stamp mill in First Chance Gulch. The town of Mitchell was founded but was later renamed Garnet (pronounced like Darn-it). Road construction started that same year, eventually connecting Garnet with Bearmouth and the Northern Pacific Railroad (present day Interstate 90).

Miners of Garnet
Miners of Garnet | Montana BLM

Soon after the stamp mill was completed a rich vein of ore was discovered in Samuel Ritchey’s Nancy Hanks mine. The “boom” began, and miners poured into the high mountain town. Four stores, seven hotels, three livery stables, two barber shops, a union hall, a butcher shop, a candy shop, a drugstore, a doctor’s office, an assay office, numerous miner’s cabins, 13 saloons and a school with 41 students comprised the town. Eager miners and entrepreneurs built quickly and without planning, resulting in a haphazard community where most of the buildings stood on existing or future mining claims. Miners’ cabins and many of the commercial buildings lacked foundations, an indication of the haste with which they were constructed and perhaps, the belief that the town’s future would be short-lived like most mining camps. Still, about twenty mines operated in a hectic atmosphere of hope and dreams.

The “boom” was short-lived. By 1900, many of the veins had disappeared and deeper mine shafts made gold recovery extremely difficult and expensive. Many of the mine owners, including Ritchey, who had extracted an estimated $300,000 worth of gold, now leased their mines to others. It is estimated that between $950,000 and $1,400,000 in gold was extracted from all the mines in Garnet by 1917.

By 1905 many of the mines were abandoned and the town’s population had shrunk to about 150 residents. In 1912, a devastating fire in the business district destroyed many commercial buildings and dealt a crushing blow to Garnet. When the United States entered World War I, many of the remaining residents were drawn away from Garnet to defense-related jobs. Cabins were abandoned — furnishings included — as though residents were merely vacationing. Frank A. Davey still ran a store and the hotel stood intact.

Garnet was revitalized in 1934 when President Roosevelt raised gold prices from $16 to $35 an ounce. With the higher price base and new extraction and refining technology, a new wave of miners moved into abandoned cabins and began re-working the mines and dumps. By 1936, Garnet had grown to some 250 residents. During this era, miners also constructed several new log cabins. Life was good in Garnet.

Garnet Downtown
Garnet Downtown | Montana BLM

It was not to last, however, and the onset of World War II in 1939 drew the population away again. Wartime restrictions on the use of dynamite made mining almost impossible. The post office closed for the last time in 1942. Only a few hardy residents remained, including Frank Davey. After his death in 1947, his general store’s contents were auctioned off. Still, much of the historic fabric of Garnet remained. However, souvenir hunters soon began stripping the town, not only of loose items, but of doors, stained glass, artifacts, and woodwork, including the beautifully crafted oak banister and spindles in the Wells Hotel.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Garnet Preservation Association intervened to secure title to properties, with the goal of protecting, stabilizing and eventually interpreting this important physical reminder of our mining heritage. Garnet is now recognized as one of Montana’s most intact ghost towns, and thousands of visitors make the trek up the steep mountain roads each year to experience history first-hand.

Society in Garnet differed from that of earlier mining camps. While single males were predominant in the early mining camps, Garnet had many families. Social life, therefore, was quite different. Although drinking, gambling, and houses of prostitution were still enjoyed by men, married women were far more numerous in Garnet. They rarely visited the saloons and only went to the business district to shop for necessary food and clothing. Also, unlike earlier camps, a schoolhouse was established in Garnet soon after its founding.

A variety of social activities were available to the residents of Garnet. Family-orientated activities, such as dinner parties, card games, and hayrides were common. Family picnics, fishing trips, and shopping trips took place during the summer months. Sleigh rides, sledding parties and skiing were favorites in the wintertime.

Residents of Garnet, Montana
Residents of Garnet | Montana BLM

One of the largest community celebrations in Garnet was the annual Miners Union Day gathering held at the Miners Union Hall. Many of the social functions were held at the Hall which was completed in June of 1898. Community dances were held there every Saturday night, and in the early years of Garnet’s history, there were often three or four social functions a week. The Hall with its one large room and small stage often “was scarcely large enough for the crowd.”

Mining and logging activities exist on both private and public land in the Garnet area. Be careful and watch for heavy truck traffic on some roads. Open mine shafts, trenches, and other safety hazards exist in areas where old mining as well as current mining activities occur.

Cooperators contribute to the use and management of Garnet. The Garnet Preservation Association, a non-profit group, helps with interpretation and preservation. Granite County and Missoula County actively participate to enhance the use, safety, and management of roads in the Garnet area.

Most of Garnet is publicly owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. One building is privately owned and private land is common in the Garnet area. Please respect landowners’ rights by not trespassing.

Please observe the following rules when visiting Garnet:

NO smoking – open campfires or camping – firearms or fireworks – metal detectors or digging – removal of artifacts – unleashed pets – littering.

This article and historical images were published by the Montana Bureau of Land management and is used with their permission