Enjoy a beautiful drive through mountain scenery visiting ghost towns that played central roles in Montana’s late 19th and early 20th century mining history. Learn about the first gold rush in 1862 and the town of Bannack. More boom towns followed, including Coolidge, settled in 1913. Neither plentiful ore nor superior mining technology could guarantee the survival of many of these early mining towns.
This road trip will introduces Montana ghost towns and frontier life. See the best preserved towns of Bannack and Garnet and the almost vanished town of Coloma. End your tour at the re-born towns of Virginia City and Nevada City.
No matter what type of ghost town experience you are looking for, find it in these Old West towns in Montana!
Table of Contents
Montana Ghost Towns Itinerary
Our road trip connecting these 7 ghost towns can easily be done in 3 days. The time in brackets below is an estimated visit time for each town.
- Bannack Ghost Town/State Park (2-3 hours)
- Coolidge Ghost Town (2 hours)
- Granite Ghost Town/State Park (1 hour)
- Garnet Ghost Town (2 hours)
- Coloma Ghost Town (1/2 hour)
- Elkhorn Ghost Town/State Park (1/2 hour)
- Virginia City and Nevada City (2 hours)
We present this loop route starting from Bannack State Park but you can start anywhere.
Montana Ghost Towns Map
Bannack Ghost Town
The streets of Bannack today are much different than when Bannack first sprang up.
The first major gold discovery, in the new territory of Montana, occurred here in the summer of 1862. By the spring of 1863, less than a year later, the town had grown from a tent city of 400 to a thriving gold town of over 3,000.
Today Bannack has over 50 buildings lining its main street. Most are log and frame construction, normal in the primitive towns that were built around the frontier gold discoveries. Bannack served temporarily as first capital of the new Montana Territory.
Unfortunately, the town’s story is typical of mining boom towns. When the mining slows, so does the town. The last mining in the area was in the late 1930’s.
As the town’s population decreased, concerned local residents worked to preserve Bannack. The Beaverhead County Museum Association began purchasing Bannack’s vacant buildings. In 1954 the county donated all of the acquired buildings to the state, with the stipulation that they be preserved as a ghost town. In 1961, Bannack was designated a National Historic Landmark and Bannack State Park was established. Bannack is considered one of Montana’s best preserved ghost towns.
Check out our article, Bannack – Gold Town to Ghost Town, for details of the history of the town and the gold mining around Grasshopper Creek.
Coolidge Ghost Town
Today Coolidge is a collection of building ruins on the east side of Elkhorn Creek. These buildings plus the Elkhorn Mine and the ruins of a huge silver processing mill make up the Elkhorn/Coolidge Historic District. To visit the district, park in a central parking area and walk about a mile south along the creek to Coolidge. A bridge across the creek allows access to the mill ruins. While the mine is not accessible, one of the entrances is visible by walking further south of the mill.
Development of Elkhorn Mine and Mill
Silver ore was discovered in the area in 1873. Over the next 30 years, a number of small mining operations were established. In the early 1900s, William R. Allen, local entrepreneur and politician, created the Boston-Montana Development Corporation. He began buying up local mining claims with the intention of developing a silver mine and mill. With the business contacts he made while in politics, he attracted investors both inside and outside of the US. Large scale investment was needed, since in addition to building the mill, a rail line was necessary to get the partially refined ore out of the mountain valley.
A rail line from the town of Divide to the mine was laid through the valleys of the Big Hole and Wise Rivers, then along the Elkhorn Creek ending in Coolidge. It was about 38 miles long and was constructed between 1917 and 1919. It carried predominantly freight and passengers to and from Coolidge.
Unfortunately, in the early 1920’s, just as the mine and mill operations were ready to go into production, silver prices plummeted. At the same time, tests of the first ore pulled from the mine determined that its silver content was too low. The ore was not worth processing in the mill designed solely for the refinement of silver. Further mining was necessary to reach higher grade ore.
Even though there was large scale investment in the most modern equipment and techniques, and a known ore deposit existed, the drop in silver price was too much for Boston-Montana to withstand. The company was forced into receivership in 1923. Allen lost his personal fortune and control of the company. A reorganized Boston-Montana Corporation was able to mine higher grade ore, refine it, and send it for processing. The mine never produced silver in the volumes it needed to survive.
When the mine floundered, so did the railroad, ending up in receivership twice. A flood in 1927 destroyed a large portion of track and the railroad never recovered. It operated for a short while in the early 1930’s. The track was removed completely in 1940.
The town’s first residents arrived in 1913. As work progressed on the mine, mill and railroad, families began arriving. The population rose enough for a school district to be organized in 1918. By 1922 the town had telephone, electrical and postal services.
With the mine never reaching its full potential, people began to move on to other places for more secure work. The town gradually faded away with the school closing in 1927 and the postal service discontinued in 1932. The population peaked at 350 people, but by 1933 the town was abandoned.
Be sure to check out Tyro House, the home of Frank Tyro who served as Coolidge’s postmaster for the ten years the post office was in operation (1922-1932).
Granite Ghost Town
Granite State Park consists of the ruins of the mine superintendent’s house and the Miners’ Union Hall. The 5-mile road from Philipsburg to Granite climbs about 1,280 feet and is narrow, steep and winding. It can be rough for cars so take it slow and don’t attempt the drive if the road is wet and muddy.
Silver was first found in the area in 1865. In 1875 a massive body of silver laden rock was discovered and the mine and town of Granite were born. The mine produced about $300,000 worth of silver per year at its peak which today is worth about $10 million.
The town was the largest silver mining camp in Montana with a population of about 3,000 people by the early 1890’s. The town was very “civilized”. It had a library, a hospital, a school and several churches along with the usual mining camp staples of saloons and brothels. The Miners’ Union Hall, which is visible today, was built in 1890. It hosted many of the town’s dances, plays, and large meetings.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 required the US government purchase millions of ounces of silver each year. It was repealed in 1893. This caused the demand for silver to drop and silver prices to decrease by almost 25% by year’s end. The mine was closed and most of the residents left. A year later there were only about 140 people left in Granite.
While the falling price of silver spelled the demise of Granite, it helped lead to the rise of Garnet.
Garnet Ghost Town
Garnet is one of the Montana’s best preserved and least visited ghost towns. It offers an excellent, non-commercial experience. There is a small visitor center, self-guided trails and interpretive signs throughout the town, explaining the history of the buildings. Several of these buildings are open to view. They have items on display, typical of those used in the building’s past.
While placer gold was discovered in Bear Creek in 1865, the lack of road access to the gold areas and little water outside spring runoff meant few miners attempted to work the deposits. Falling silver prices in 1893 brought miners and investment from other areas to the Garnet range to mine the rich veins of quartz and gold ore. This hard rock mining required investment in shafts, stamp mills and a road.
The road was built in 1895 linking the town of Garnet to Bearmouth, on the recently laid Northern Pacific Railroad, about 10 miles away. Rail was the best way to move the partially processed ore to larger centers for refining. A stamp mill was built shortly after completion of the road. The timing was perfect. In 1896, a rich vein of gold was found at the Nancy Hanks Mine, just west of town.
Skilled hard rock miners brought their families with them when they came to Garnet, making it more of a family town than earlier mining towns. Dances, hay rides and picnics were held providing more family-oriented entertainment. In January 1898 the population of Garnet was about 1,000. There were 4 stores, 4 hotels, 3 livery stables, 2 barbershops, union hall, school, butcher shop, candy shop, doctor’s office, assay office and 13 saloons.
The gold became harder to find after the seams were worked extensively in the 1890’s. By 1905 only about 150 people remained in Garnet. In 1912, a fire destroyed much of the commercial district as there was little water in town for fire fighting. Only Adams Store, Kelly’s Saloon, Davey’s Store and Wells Hotel were saved. When the US entered WWI in 1917, most of the miners and their families left Garnet and headed for defense related jobs. By 1920 Garnet was a ghost town.
The town’s remote location helped protect the buildings and even furniture which had often been left behind. These abandoned buildings welcomed miners again in 1934 as gold prices doubled and lured about 250 people back to the area. World War II drew people away from Garnet again. A moratorium on the use of dynamite, except to support the war effort, brought the end to mining at Garnet. The post office closed in 1942.
In 1972, a descendent of one of the original miners donated the Anderson mining claim to the Garnet Preservation Association and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The claim contained many of the commercial buildings, old town jail, school and numerous cabins. BLM stabilized many of the town’s buildings and oversees its preservation today.
After leaving Garnet, on the way to Coloma, watch for a building on the left. The remains of a second cabin are set back in the trees.
Stage Coach Rest Stop
The intact cabin is an emergency shelter for snowmobilers and cross country skiers using winter trails. It was built in the 1940’s for a fire warden, hired by locals to watch for wildfires.
The cabin behind it is all that remains of an 1890’s stage coach rest stop. The 15-mile trip between Coloma and Bearmouth, a journey of about 40 minutes now, took most of a day in the late 19th century. Travelers welcomed a break from the bumpy road.
Coloma Ghost Town
All that remains of the town of Coloma today are a few partial cabins.
Coloma was settled as early as 1865 with the first wave of gold fever in the Garnet Range but grew rapidly after lode deposits were discovered in 1897. The town reached its peak at the turn of the 20th century.
Two stamping mills were constructed in the area so that ore could be crushed locally and then hauled to Helena, Butte or Anaconda for treatment.
Mammoth Mine was the largest at Coloma, yielding about $200,000 of gold over the next 20 years. Mining in the area continued into the 1950’s, but the town of Coloma was essentially abandoned by 1918.
Sand Park Cemetery
This simple cemetery is the final resting place for the Coloma miners who did not have family elsewhere, or the money to be buried in larger towns. The grave markers provide about all of the information that is known now about these people buried between 1898 and 1914. Enjoy the quiet of this peaceful place.
Elkhorn Ghost Town
The town of Elkhorn has two picturesque buildings from its mining era: Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall. These 1890s building have been preserved and are a part of Elkhorn State Park, Montana’s smallest state park. They are open to the public. The rest of the buildings are private residences.
While silver was first discovered in the Elkhorn Mountains as far back as 1868, it was not until 1875 that ore was discovered at what became the Elkhorn Mine. By 1888, the mine was producing significant amounts and the local economy thrived. Just 12 years later, it had produced 8,902,000 ounces of silver and 8,500 ounces of gold and more than 4 million pounds of lead.
The volatile price of silver led to the mine being worked sporadically over the next 30 years. Elkhorn Mine closed for good in 1912. Its tailings were reworked several times in the next 3 decades. By 1951 all activity ended.
As the silver mine developed, the town of Elkhorn grew. It thrived in the 1880s with its population reaching 2,500 people. A post office opened in 1884 and the railroad arrived in 1886. But as the mine’s production declined, so did the town. By 1900, there were less than 1,000 residents but the town still had a fraternity hall, a post office, a church, a school and over a dozen saloons. The post office closed in 1924 and the Northern Pacific Railroad removed its tracks in 1931. The town was abandoned in the 1970s, except for a handful of residents.
Virginia City and Nevada City
Virginia City and Nevada City, while no longer ghost towns, are well-known tourist attractions. They are the perfect places to experience what Montana’s gold rush days were like.
Ride the train between the towns, pan for gold, attend a live theater show, shop in unique gift and specialty shops and enjoy fine dining. There are plenty of accommodations including homey historic lodging options.
In 1863 the richest placer gold deposit in the Rocky Mountain’s was discovered in Alder Gulch and created Montana’s biggest gold rush. By 1864 the area was home to 30,000 people trying to strike it rich. The total value of the gold recovered is estimated at over $100 million.
Virginia City was the 2nd territorial capital between 1865 and 1875. Like the other gold mining towns, as the gold became more difficult to find, the people dispersed to other places. They left behind commercial buildings, simple log cabins and larger Victorian styled residences. Charlie and Sue Bovey were among the first to acknowledge the significance of preserving Virginia City. In the 1940s, they purchased and stabilized some of the structures. Their family’s efforts helped ensure that the town was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In Nevada City, visit the Old Town Museum & Music Hall. It has one of the largest collections of old west items, not in a Smithsonian museum. There are over 100 buildings built between 1863 and 1900. This is a great place to experience the culture and times of early Montana. Weekends in the summer come alive here with re-enactors who bring the gold rush era to life. Walk among them and experience the 1860s.
For more great Montana destinations, check out our feature article, 5 Best Montana Road Trips – The Ultimate Guide.
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