Bannack: Boom Town to Ghost Town to State Park

IMG_3078My first trip to Beaverhead County in 1981 had two primary goals–and the first was to explore Bannack, the roots of Montana Territory, and one of its best connections to Civil War America. As this simple wooden sign below remarks, here in 1862 the first gold strike in what became Montana Territory occurred.

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The road into Bannack passes through sparsely populated country, and you wonder what the miners, and then the families, who passed this way thought as they approached the town by foot or by horse, if they were lucky.  The “road” then of course was not more than

Bannack Roada path because the glistening bits of metal loose in the sands of the creek had never interested the Native Americans but news of the find was enough to drive easterners, many of them southerners, away from the landscape of war and into a wholly different place, crested by beautiful mountains.IMG_3138Grasshopper Creek was not much of place then, and even now, but this stream of water became the source of a boom that eventually reshaped the boundaries of the northern Rockies and nearby its banks grew the town of Bannack, a name taken in part from the Bannock Indians who had used this landscape in far different ways for many years.

Bannack streetscapeThe story of the preservation of Bannock begins with local land owners, who protected the site, and kept most of the buildings from being scattered across the region.  There was little official interest in the place at first.  The state Daughters of American Revolution

IMG_3023marked it in 1925, otherwise the buildings remained, some in use as residences or for public purposes, others melting away in the demanding climate. The Boveys moved the Goodrich Hotel to their preservation project at Virginia City and transformed it into the Fairweather Inn, which is still in use as lodging.

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Fairweather Inn in Virginia City.

The old Goodrich Hotel is not the only thing that Virginia City got from Bannack.  Bannack was the first territorial capital of Montana, but then in early 1865 the territorial offices moved to Virginia City.  Bannack’s boom had already started to decline, and the boom seemed never ending to the east in Madison County.

IMG_3071In 1954, the Beaverhead County Historical Society transferred about 1/3 of the present property to the state for protection and development as a state park.  Not until 1961 did the National Park Service recognize the town as a National Historic Landmark.

Ever since the state has repaired buildings and structures as necessary but decided long ago to preserve the town as a ghost town–last residents outside of park rangers left in the 1970s–and not to “restore” it like a Colonial Williamsburg treatment.  Thus, it is very

much a rough, open experience for visitors at the town.  Doors are open, nooks and crannies can be explored.  Public interpretation, outside of the small visitor center, is scant, although more than what I found in 1984, as this back room of old interpretive markers reminded me.

IMG_3110Gritty, dusty, forlorn:  yes, Bannack is the real deal for anyone wanting to explore ground zero of the gold rush era in Montana, and to think about how in the midst of the great Civil War, federal officials found time to support adventurous citizens to launch a new territory in forgotten expanses of the northern Rockies.

Bannack NHL school, masons 10I thought that 30 years ago I “got” Bannack–there wasn’t much that I missed here.  I was wrong.  Probably like thousands of other visitors who fly into the town, and leave just as quickly, I missed what is still called the “new” town cemetery.  Almost hidden in the sagebrush along Bannack Road, the “new” cemetery is not Boot Hill–where is Plummer

IMG_3082buried people still want to know–but it is a remarkable place of hand-carved tombstones, others rich with Victorian imagery, and a few that are poignant reminders of the Civil War veterans who came here and stayed.

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Bannack is one of the great rural cemeteries in Montana.  Don’t make my mistake from 1984–stop here and explore.

 

 

Beaverhead’s Argenta and Farlin Mines

The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest contains two additional important Montana ghost towns from its mining era at Argenta and Farlin.  Argenta is a few miles off of Montana Highway 278 and represents one of Montana’s earliest mining properties. As I discussed in A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986), Argenta was a key early mining operation.

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At the height of the Civil War, Argenta began as a placer camp but after a major silver strike in 1864, more intensive development took off.  Famous Montana pioneer and writer Granville Stuart said:  “The wealth of the Rothchilds is as nothing compared to the riches which lie concealed in the bowels of the Rattlesnake hills, awaiting the coming of the enchanters with their wands (in the shape of greenbacks), to bring forth these treasures.”

Today at Argenta there is little to remind us of what the “enchanters” wrought during the 1860s and 1870s.  The Argenta smelter–the first in the territory–came in 1866, courtesy of the St. Louis and Montana Mining Company.  Samuel T. Hauser, a later territorial governor, and Granville’s brother James Stuart directed its construction.  A second smelter came in 1867 and the next year another group of St. Louis investors added a third.  But now only mine shafts, slag dumps, foundations, and a few buildings remain.

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Farlin developed as a mining operation later than Argenta, even though first strikes came in 1864.  This place was largely a silver and copper operation.  The arrival of the Utah and Northern Railroad at Dillon in 1881 spurred some growth but full-scale development did not start until after the Depression of 1893, with most of what you see today dating from the late 1890s to the early 1900s. Unfortunately in the 1984 state historic preservation plan survey I only gave this property scant attention.  Returning almost 30 years later, I see that omission as another missed opportunity.  Ruins of the Farlin concentrator and many other mining operations help to mark the size of the operations.

Log buildings help to tell the story of the hundreds who once worked here in the early 20th century during the mines’ heyday.  A turn of the 20th century log school building is another of the remarkable one-room schools you can find throughout Beaverhead County And it is a beautiful setting, surrounded by snow capped mountains.

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IMG_3581At Farlin, the scars of mining are everywhere, surrounded by sage grass, brush, and scattered trees, trying to recover in what was once a denuded landscape.  Operations had ended by the time of the Great Depression. While never a huge place–population estimates top out at 500–Farlin is representative of the smaller mining operations that reshaped the rural western Montana landscape.  Not every place became a Butte, or a Virginia City.  Properties like Farlin help to tell us of the often lonely and exceedingly difficult search for opportunity in the Treasure State over 100 years ago.

Mining in Beaverhead County

Hecla Smelter, Glendale, Breaverhead Co (p84 54-19)

Hecla Smelter at Glendale, 1984

Beaverhead County is so huge; it comes as no surprise that its landscape encompasses so many significant Montana themes.  But I found out in 1984, and then again during historic preservation workshops in 2012, that Montanans do not think as Beaverhead as mining company. In the book A Traveler’s Companion to Montana History (1986) I emphasized the Glendale site (above).  The smelter was enlarged and improved once the Utah and Northern tracks reached Melrose, in Silver Bow County, in 1881.  The town once had 3,000 residents.  Between 1881 and 1900 the Hecla Mining Company produced some $22 million in ore, but by 1904 the ore had been mined out and Hecla ceased operations.

IMG_3522  When I returned to Glendale in 2012, I made sure to take a replica shot of the place I had photographed almost 30 years earlier.  But I also went father and did my best to document a mining landscape in danger of disappearing in the 21st century. Below is an image when the Hecla smelter was in full production.

Glendale smelter photo at Canyon Creek Kilns 4There are some intact buildings at Glendale, but also numerous parts of buildings, facades and foundations that convey how busy the Glendale Road was some 100 years ago.

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One resource that needs more study is the Glendale cemetery, located on a low hill that overlooks the ghost town.  Access is through private land, and I have not gotten a close look but what can be seen from public right of ways tells me that the cemetery is a valuable historic site, a place of memory for those long gone from this land.

Glendale cemetery

Glendale cemetery 1Hecla Mining Company operated 28 kilns at a site a few miles away.  Within the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest, the Canyon Creek Kilns are a remarkable property, preserved and now interpreted through the efforts of the U.S. Forest Service.  The Forest Service should be commended for this effort. As the images below suggest, this property is one of the best places in Montana to stop and think of the mining landscape of the turn of the twentieth century and imagine what a moonscape it would have been 100 years ago when the kilns consumed all of the surrounding timber.

The public interpretation at the site is impressive.  It explains how a kiln was constructed, what a kiln did and how the wood was prepared.  It also ties the history of this site to the larger operations of the Hecla Mining Company at Glendale.

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The Hecla works, and the recent preservation and interpretation of these sites, are just the beginning of the mining history of Beaverhead County.  Next up? the ghost towns of Farlin and Argenta.

Ranching Landscapes in Beaverhead County

 

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OK Ranch outside of Wisdom

The Big Hole Valley of Beaverhead County is wide, expansive, challenging, and cattle country without par in Montana, and has been so for over 100 years. Livestock means hay and just outside of Wisdom is a beaverslide haystacker. These wooden pole and plank devises originated in the Big Hole Valley in the early 1900s and can be found in other

Beaverslide just NE of wisdom

prosperous valleys of western Montana.  Their purpose was simple–to stack huge piles of hay, sometimes reaching 30 feet in height, that would be left in place, in the open.  In the western Montana climate, there naturally would be some waste, but enough hay would remain usable to keep a ranch well supplied for 4-5 years.

Beaverslide, just N of Wisdom

big Hole Valley 1984The Big Hole Valley was a place of interest to me in 1984, noted by the image above, for how ranches used logs to build the physical infrastructure–the log snake fences, the gates, the log barns and other ranch structures–of their properties.

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IMG_2989What I didn’t give as much attention to, already commented on in this blog at numerous places, are the irrigation ditches, a more consistent supply of water that allowed ranchers to expand production.

Big Hole Valley local sign MT 278

Public interpretation of the ranching landscape was, not unexpectedly, meager back in the day.  This sign made by the local VFW post 3040 called the valley the “land of 10,000 haystacks.”  Wonderful ranching techniques had lessened the number of haystacks and haystackers found through the valley, but still some remain of the old tradition.

Beaverslides, MT 278 E of Jackson

State officials have worked with local ranchers to give travelers places to stop and consider the depth and wealth of the landscape before them.  Below are views of the Carroll Ranch, an early Big Hole Pass ranch that is now part of the larger Hamilton Ranch.

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There are several interpretive signs to tell the story of the Hamilton Ranch, which encompasses several historic buildings, and wonderful views of the valley.

hamilton ranch, Big Hole Pass

Then a separate marker explains the beaverslide haystacker, placed at the pull-off on Montana Highway 278, giving travelers one of their best opportunities to look at one up close (there is also one in the Deer Lodge Valley at the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site.)

The Big Hole Valley may no longer be the land of 10,000 hay stacks but it still is a working landscape of ranch families, building new traditions as they also conserve past ways and landscapes in Montana.

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Finding Wisdom in Beaverhead County

IMG_0288Beaverhead County, named for the prominent, ancient landmark on the Beaverhead River at the corner of Madison and Beaverhead county, was the first rural place I visited in Montana after my arrival in Helena in 1981.  Why?  No pressing reason, except that the place name of Wisdom called out to me.

The Crossing, Wisdom

Our first stop was at Fetty’s, a classic Montana bar that friends tell me burned a few years ago.  In its place now stands The Crossing at Fetty’s, also a good place but a bit more upscale than the old c. 1930s bar/cafe.  The new place wasn’t the only change in Wisdom.  There was a new public school building and a new post office.

These were just the first of the changes since 1982. Wisdom is still the tiny homesteading era town that I recalled.  Key community landmarks remain: witness the two-story Craftsman-style Masonic Hall and Gothic-styled church building.

Beaverhead Co, Wisdom masonic lodge

IMG_2945The town’s large community hall remains in constant use.  The separate Women’s Club

Beaverhead Co, Wisdom community Centerbuilding once welcomed ranch wives and daughters to town, giving them a place to rest and providing a small library of books.  It has been converted into a small lodge for skiers and hunters–a great small town example of adaptive reuse.

IMG_2944Of course the major landmark for travelers through Wisdom in the late 20th century was Conover’s Trading Post, a two-story false front building–clearly the most photographed place in town, and inside a classic western gun and recreation shop.

Beaverhead Co, Conovers store, WisdomBut the Conover’s facade, even the name, is no more.  Not long after my 2012 visit to Wisdom, new owners totally remade the building and business, opening a new store named Hook and Horn.

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Image from tripadvisor.com.

One significant property I sought out in 2012 was the town cemetery, a resource type that I had ignored almost totally across Montana in the initial state historic preservation plan work.  The cemetery marks the town’s height of population during the early twentieth century, and contains several interesting grave markers, including the headstone for Frederick Finsley, a veteran of the Civil War who served in a Union regiment from West Virginia, and the cast metal obelisk for  the Gallen family.

Wisdom Cemetery, MT 43 8

 

Wisdom was where I started my exploration into Montana over 30 years ago.  But, surprisingly, during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan work I sorta glossed over Beaverhead County, and didn’t spend the time there that I should have.  In my new work I was determined not to repeat that mistake and have spent four long days in the county, exploring well known historic places (Big Hole National Battlefield, Bannock State Park) and even more time at the not so well known.  In the next posts I want to consider the diverse types of landscapes that make up this county, from ranching to mining to railroad towns to river towns to special Native American landscapes.

 

Pony up in Madison County

Pony barPony, as a gateway into the Tobacco Root Mountains, may be categorized as a ghost town in much of today’s literature about Montana, but it certainly has a lot of real people hanging around to be a ghost town.  Established during the gold rush decade of the 1860s, mines here stayed in operation until World War II, and consequently, a wide range of historic buildings remain in the town today.

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Morris State Bank, Pony, MT

I explored Pony in 1984–and was captivated by what was there, especially its superb neoclassical styled state bank building.  Here is where historic preservation has helped make a difference.  In 1987 the state historic preservation office approved the Pony Historic District to the National Register–a reflection of the town’s significance, its extant historic architecture, but most importantly the determination of its residents and property owners that the town would survive into the 20th century.

The Pony School–another impressive neoclassical design–and the Craftsmanesque gymnasium/community center, which is from the New Deal era, overlook the town, and remain in good condition.  Other community institutions include extant frame and concrete block churches, both in Gothic style, and the Mt. Jefferson Masonic Lodge building.

Pony Mt Jefferson Masonic #56

Besides the all-important Pony bar and the bank, other historic business structures remain in different states of repair, such as the brick law office, and the frame two-story general store seen below.

The range of domestic architecture in Pony is also significant, from grand brick Queen Anne style homes to more vernacular and Gothic styled influenced gable-front and wing dwellings. Another noteworthy home is the frame, two-story dwelling of the Pony park keeper.

IMG_0033Yes, Pony has a park, another of positive developments since my work in 1984-1985.  The park is not only community space, but it also has various artifacts and machinery from the mining era, along with public interpretation of the district’s history and of the artifacts within the park.

Pony is one of those jewels of Montana, a place loved by residents, valued by those who discover it.  Let’s hope that the historic district keeps it for generations to come.

 

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The wonderful Twin Cowboys gate on Pony Road

 

Ennis, a Madison County Gateway

IMG_0336Nestled where Montana Highway 287 encounters U.S. Highway 287 in the southern end of Madison County, Ennis has changed in significant ways in the last 30 years. Its earlier dependence on automobile tourism to Yellowstone National Park has shifted into the favor of population growth and development in this portion of the county.

IMG_0328The iconic Ennis Cafe, always a favorite place back in the day of the statewide work, remains, with a new false front emphasizing the wildlife and open spaces of this area.   That place, along with several classic watering holes, served not only locals but the

motoring public headed to Yellowstone.  The Riverside Motel is a classic piece of roadside architecture from the 1950s, and the place where I stayed in 2012 during the Ennis work.

Another great bit of contemporary style design comes in the mid-20th century U.S. Forest Service headquarters building at Ennis–Rustic style with a Ranch-style House look.

Madison Ranger Station, Beaverhead and Deer Lodge Ntl Forests, Ennis

But now Ennis abounds with signs of more recent prosperity.  A town of 660 residents in 1980 now has 838 and counting in 2015.  New, more architecturally distinctive buildings potmark the town.  The First Madison Valley Bank is a blending of Prairie and Rustic styles, with exposed log walls, updated for the 21st century.

While the local city hall may have only a recent faux paneling update to its exterior, the Madison Valley Public Library is another 21st century interpretation of Rustic style.

Most interesting is the amount of public sculpture found throughout the town.  Designed to delight the visitor, and to convey a sense of the long standing traditions of recreation and ranching in the community, the sculptures comes from such talented artists as Jim Dolan, Dave Clarke, and E.C. Lyon, among others.

 

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New bars, restaurants, and medical center have been established, again more architecturally distinct for the Yellowstone visitor, and fly fishing devotee, of today.

 

South of Ennis Jeffers, once a cross roads town for traffic to the park.  It is now just off of the highway, and it retains several worthy historic buildings, centered around the turn of the 20th century Trinity Episcopal Church and the Jeffers Inn. But the crossroads village

also has captivating Queen Anne-style houses, false front stores, enough of a physical history left to suggest that it was bubbling with activity over 100 years ago.

U.S. Highway 287 is the modern two-lane road that runs along the Madison River and it heads into the national park.  The route also passes along some of the finest fly fishing of the Madison River Valley.  The Old Kirby Place fishing lodge (c. 1885) was once a toll gate, lodge, and dwelling.  Adjacent is the historic Hutchins Bridge (1902), a steel truss bridge

that was once the primary river crossing for the increasing number of tourists coming down the valley to reach Yellowstone National Park.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Not only is the bridge a major landmark for those who fish, it is also part

IMG_0079 of a section of the highway where you will encounter magnificent views of the Madison River Valley and open ranch lands.

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