Montana’s most intact ghost town wasn’t built to last. Enterprising miners were more interested in extracting the riches below ground than building above. As a result, buildings grew quickly, most lacking foundations. They were small and easy to heat. Yet, a century after Garnet emerged, remnants of the town stand, hidden high in the Garnet Mountain Range east of Missoula.
Garnet was named for the semi-precious ruby-colored stone found in the area and it was a good place to live. The surrounding mountains were rich in gold-bearing quartz. There was a school, the crime rate was low, and liquor flowed freely in the town’s many saloons. The bawdy houses did a brisk business and Missoula and Deer Lodge were close enough for necessary supplies.
In the 1800s miners migrated north from played-out placer mines in California and Colorado. Placer mining of gold or other minerals is done by washing the sand, gravel, etc. with running water, but by 1870 most area placer mining was no longer profitable. The Garnet Mountains attracted miners who collected the gold first by panning, then by using rockers and sluice boxes as the free-floating gold diminished. Although miners had located gold-bearing quartz veins, the lack of decent roads and refined extracting and smelting techniques, made further development unfeasible at that time. Silver mines elsewhere started to draw the miners out of the Garnet Mountains, but in 1893, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act set off a panic throughout the region. Silver mines closed, and within weeks thousands of unemployed miners were on to gold mining in the Garnets. Miners began to trickle back.
At the head of First Chance Gulch in 1895, Dr. Armistead Mitchell erected a stamp mill to crush local ore. Around it grew the town, which was originally named Mitchell, but in 1897 became known as Garnet. Soon after Mitchell erected his mill, Sam Ritchey hit a rich vein of ore in his Nancy Hanks mine just west of the town. The "boom" began. By January 1898 nearly 1,000 people resided in Garnet. There were four stores, four hotels, three livery stables, two barber shops, a union hall, a school with 41 students, a butcher shop, a candy shop, a doctor’s office, an assay office, and thirteen saloons comprised the town. Eager miners and entrepreneurs built quickly and without planning. A haphazard community resulted. Most of the buildings stood on existing or future mining claims, and about twenty mines operated.
After 1900 many mine owners leased their mines out, the gold having become scarcer and harder to mine. The Nancy Hanks yielded about $300,000 worth of gold, and an estimated $950,000 was extracted from all the mines in Garnet by 1917, but by 1905, many of the mines were abandoned and the town’s population had shrunk to about 150. A fire in the town’s business district in 1912 destroyed may commercial buildings, most remaining residents moved away to defense-related jobs. By the 1940’s, Garnet was a ghost town. Cabins were abandoned, furnishings included, as though residents were merely vacationing. F.A. Davey still ran the store however, and the hotel stood intact.
In 1934 when President Roosevelt raised gold prices from $16 to $32 an ounce, Garnet revived. A new wave of miners moved into abandoned cabins and began re-working the mines and dumps. Then, World War II drew the population away again. The use of dynamite for domestic purposes was curtailed, making mining difficult. Garnet again became a ghost town. Once again F. A. Davey and a few others remained.
Several new cabins were constructed following the war, and in 1948 an auction was held with items from the Davey store. Much remained however, and souvenir hunters soon stripped the town not only of loose items, but of doors, woodwork, wallpaper, and even the hotel stairway. The future of this historic town now depends on the work of volunteers and contributions from the public.
The old ghost town buildings in Montana are slowly falling apart, board by board and brick by brick. If you have visited any of the old ghost towns in the last few years you have witnessed the rapid decay of the structures and the loss of a valuable and unique chapter in Montana’s history. These old ghost towns give us a glimpse back in time to the gold miner’s dreams of striking it rich or the saloon girl’s hopes for better days. Each of these old towns holds a place in Montana history and each tells us a bit of its story through the remaining buildings and mines.
Some miners and saloon girls found what they were looking for, some used this time as a stepping stone to the next adventure, and many of these people left their stories to be told in these old towns. Preserving what is left of these old places gives all of us a chance to appreciate and respect bygone days and helps to us understand all the work and efforts of these pioneers.
The newly released “Explore Ghost Town” License plates funds will go to preserving these old buildings around the state. Although the majority of funding raised will benefit Garnet Ghost Town preservation and enhancement projects. A portion of the money, (25%) is being placed in a fund available to other ghost town groups in Montana for preservation, restoration or enhancement projects.