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A Glimpse of Garnet

Updated: Mar 30

Standing above the haggard former mining outpost of Garnet, I felt like I was in the foreground of an old Charles Russell painting as the sun sat low in the sky atop the swaying pines. Main street was just a tiny path curving in front of the handful of old commercial buildings remaining in the town, spread out below me. A few had classic false fronts and made the scene almost appear to be a Hollywood set shutdown in the winter. Small cabins were scattered on the hillside behind the street, but the sides of main street were largely empty besides the cluster of just a few buildings near its end. Patches of snow sat about like spots on a cow, a reminder of the long, cold season to come.


My journey to the quaint ghost town began earlier that day when I turned off I-90 onto Wallace Creek Road. The road had been more like a dirt path, narrowly winding through an area called Mineral Ridge, and rightly so, on account of all the small private mines surrounding me on either side. It had snowed a week or two prior but had been melting off and on in the strong late-fall sunshine, making the path slippery, especially on the many switchbacks. A few were tight enough that I had to do a forward-reverse sort of shuffle in order to nudge the heavily loaded truck around them and up towards the summit of the ridge. After about an hour, I had covered the dozen or so miles necessary to meet up with Route 200. I turned the wheel and guided my tires onto asphalt for another few miles before I reached mile marker 23 and the turnoff for what was known as the "Ghost Town Byway."


Thankfully, the gravel byway was fairly well maintained and even wide enough for two-way traffic at most points. Along the sides of the road were bundles of trees here and there, with wide grassy meadows scattered in between. The trees were a mix of various kinds of evergreens, with many growing strong and tall, making me wonder if any of the old-growth ones had survived the miners axe. After a few miles, I passed by Sand Creek Cemetery, perched up on the hillside, basking in the sun.



I continued down the road for a few more minutes before a small ridge began to rise up on the passenger side, which was also covered in pines. I saw a small ,dark structure up there, so I pulled over to the side and scrambled up a slope, weaving my way through a few smaller pines on top of the crumbling dirt. The structure looked pretty solid for its age, I imagined, and the door was wide open, pushing my temptation to explore over the edge. Walking over, I heard nothing besides the slight breeze blowing among the hills. Stepping beneath the worn timbers, I blinked my eyes as they adjusted to the shadows. It was mostly open, with a small table and a cupboard on the wall. There were also signs of rats, as well as some kind of dark black fur that might've been from a bear who'd busted in at some point. The walls were adorned with carvings and names, printed on the logs from visitors past, and there were a few empty cans of food and beer embedded in the earthen floor, rusting away.



It seemed as though someone had maintained the cabin here and there over the years. The roof was solid, and there were no gaps in the timbers; it would've been a decent place to spend the night with a fire outside. My curiosity having been satisfied, I bounded back to the truck and popped the brake, eager to get to Garnet while there was still some good light.


As I began rolling along, the pines soon fell away, and a beautiful vista unfolded before me. It provided a view down along the eastern face of the Sapphire Mountains, themselves blanketed with trees spreading south into the thick, craggy Bob Marshall Wilderness. Little did I know that less than two years later, I would be trudging miles a day through a couple feet of snow in that same wilderness, trying to find elk among the cold silence of the peaks.


Moments later, pulling past some newer cabins and interpretive signs, I swung the truck into the small parking area for the ghost town itself. Walking up to the signs, I could see that there was a small trail leading down to Garnet, as well as another path that went past a number of old mineshafts that surrounded the town. Mineshafts hold a sort of eery curiosity to me because they're often surrounded by so much mystery; their connection to the world below us never fails to chill. It is hard for me to imagine what caliber of person it must take to go down into a primitive shaft in the earth in the middle of nowhere, with only the power of your fellow human to lift you back to the light again. I am eager to learn from the signs that these people have left behind in their hunt to wrestle minerals from the underworld of Mother Nature.


Turning down the interpretive trail, I walked up and down small hills between rocks, winding around and among all the large pine trees. They were fringed with brushy evergreen bushes as well as dormant plants that had nearly dropped all their leaves for the coming winter. Between them at certain places, I could see depressions in the earth that were old mine shafts. Some still actually went down into a hole a few feet deep but had been filled in beyond that. I was careful not to get too close to the soft-looking ground that accompanied some of these spots. A few of the shafts appeared to go even deeper because they were blocked off with chains or a fence. A tumble down one of those would've been a cold, uncomfortable, and achey night at the very best.



Eventually, I came upon a decrepit wrought iron fence that was marked by thick tree trunks at three corners. It was tall and curled at the top—a long-standing attempt to keep many prying eyes away, I reckoned. At its center was a large shaft that was a lot less vertically aligned than the others I had seen, more like a doorway into the earth instead of a chimney. It made me wonder if it had been a mine much larger than the rest, perhaps even one of the larger producers in the area. It couldn't have been the Nancy Hanks mine, which was west of town. The Nancy was Garnet's largest producer through the years, helping to expand and grow the town in the years before the arrival of the twentieth century. Dr. Charles Mussigbrod and Dr. Armistead Mitchell had built a stamp mill at the head of the gulch to process ore around 1895, and not long after, Sam Ritchey struck the vein of gold that would become the Nancy Hanks. Because of the mill, the town even carried Mitchell's name for a short while before everyone settled on Garnet.


Miners had first come to the Garnet area in 1865, when gold was discovered in First Chance Gulch. There were a few mines here and there making some money, but the boom did not truly happen until expansion of mining occurred during the silver crash of the 1890's. A road was built around this time that allowed the transport of equipment more suitable for hard rock mining to the Garnet area.


The Nancy Hanks kept producing gold off and on for over half a century before succumbing to the tides of mother nature, when more and more water began rushing in in the 1950's. By 1954, the mine had closed for good, and Garnet was now all quiet, with its residents all gone.


The trail was looping back around by now, so I continued on down another one to the town of Garnet itself. Within a few moments, I was looking at the site as described above. I walked down the steps to get to street level, thirty or so feet below the viewpoint, and popped out next to a well-maintained cabin with a steel roof. Walking out into the empty street, I was glad that it was not crowded. I had only seen one other car in the parking lot. Just before the turn of the century, this town had been bustling with over 1,000 residents, prompting the construction of many buildings, including a handful of stores, multiple hotels, livery stables, barbershops, and more. There was even a school in Garnet early on with over forty students, which wasn't exactly the norm for boomtowns on the frontier. I'm the vast majority of cases, they were rough and tumble places with many saloons, brothels, and mostly single men fighting it out for their piece of the riches away from any sort of formal authority.



Garnet was different in the fact that men had brought their families to the town early on, and this laid the groundwork for an accelerated pattern of development in a way, compared to many other boomtowns of the time. There were activities such as dances, hay rides, and picnics going on among all the hard work of hard rock mining. This was still the frontier, however, and saloons remained the establishment of choice overall, with more of them than any other kind of commercial venture in town. No brothel is mentioned in any of the sources I found, though the trade likely existed in some form.


The larger building to the left in the photo above, with the false front, is Frank A. Davey's old General Store. Davey was one of the biggest believers in Garnet, owning a hotel, blacksmith shop, and a stage line in addition to his store. He came to Garnet soon after its founding and stayed all through the years, running his general store until the very end, witnessing the boom and busts along with both world wars. Davey passed away in 1947.


Walking down the street, I came to the old J. K. Wells hotel. Its tall, imposing form must've made it one of the focal points of the town, with all sorts of activities going on there. The structure was surprisingly complete and seemed very solid, especially considering it is one of the older buildings in Garnet, built in 1897. The Victorian woodwork still remained just below the peak of the roof on the eave, with its worn, intricately carved dowels and thin decorative trusses standing up to the weather and winds year after year. The building's design had been based on an earlier hotel down the road in Bearmouth that Mrs. Wells had owned. Apparently, the hotel had been adorned with stained glass windows back in the day, a rare luxury on the frontier. Curiously, there was also a truss jutting out for loading things into the building, possibly luggage, into the single door on the second story that was part of the front of the hotel.



In this photo, the home in the back was a 1.5-story home known as the Hanifen House. After Hugh Hanifen built it in the early 1900's, he lived there until 1916, and then a schoolteacher, Mrs. Clearly, lived there until 1926. Inside the home were full, ten-foot-tall ceilings, which helped with ventilation, especially when cooking indoors. The house was fairly simple, with two rooms downstairs and a tight stairway to get up to the fully enclosed loft room. By tight, I mean it was barely enough room for a person to spin around in when going up. The steps were all various dimensions of a triangle in order to make the ascent fit into such a tiny space. I'd never seen a staircase quite like it—a very compact spiral. The loft was spacious and offered a decent amount of room overhead in the center. Walking back down, I noticed the wallpaper peeling off the inside walls of the first floor. It was faded to gray with blue vines and leaves that had once been green wrapping down the walls. There were flowers among them too, long faded to white, but they still brought a sense of refinement to the place so far from civilization.


Descending back down, I went across the road and wandered behind the shops, up onto the hill where the scattered cabins lay. Wandering into one that had no door at all, I stepped inside to see a dirt floor and simple holes for windows, metal scraps, and part of an old bed frame remaining. The place impressed me with the effort its owner must've put into it, even knowing that they may not be there for long. They likely never imagined that their little cabin, built on the side of a hill on the frontier in the treasure state, would become a part of history, visited by curious explorers more than a century later.


Garnet circa 1894-1896 Photo courtesy of the Montana Memory Project.


Many of Garnet's original buildings burned to the ground in a 1912 fire, and after that, a majority of the residents that had still remained left to go work in defense-related jobs during the war. The fire mainly affected the commercial district, taking with it many of the saloons, shops, and businesses that made Garnet a bustling town. It spared many of the residential buildings, and that is partially why they dot the landscape there today. In 1934, when President Roosevelt raised the price of gold from $16 to $32 an ounce, the gold market once again boomed, and men rushed into Garnet, attempting to strike it rich. The town was temporarily revived, and Davey's store was busy once again for a brief time. There were roughly 250 residents in town before a world war once again brought mining to a halt since there were heavy war-time restrictions on the use of dynamite.


Kelley's Saloon circa 1898


Wandering around up the hill, I continued to peek my head into more cabins. Most of them were simple dwellings, made up of a single room with only the barest of necessities. Some of them didn't even have a floor or windows. A few places were a little bit nicer, with bits and pieces of wallpaper defiantly holding on a century later. Many residents had left their heavy cast iron stoves behind when they'd moved on as well, the only piece of furniture remaining in many cases. Plenty of those homes hosted a cozy family or two at one point, and I could just imagine the stove simmering, filling the home with savory smells while snow fell outside in the middle of a cold winter. Now all that was left were scraps of the past, of a people now moved on and away, but such was the way out on the frontier.



Many cabins had plaques out front on a stand explaining a bit about the home. Some had been covered with snow or faded from the sun, but others were still legible enough to read. One such plaque was in front of the Adams home. Built sometime between 1896 and 1900, the house was constructed of logs and had a nice picket fence out front. Sam Adams was a miner and owner of one of the local general stores when the family lived in the home from 1904 to 1927. I was glad that many of the cabins had something known about them, if only a few sentences. In fact, I only realized later that the pamphlet that I had casually picked up on my way in and proceeded to put straight into my pocket had a map of the whole place right on it! It marked every building still standing and contained paragraphs of history about the whole town.


After wandering the hillside for what seemed like a couple hours, I was content with all I had seen and decided to begin heading back to the truck. I proceeded to leave town opposite the way I came, headed south on Bear Gulch Road. The road immediately began to drop in elevation, from the 6000' the town was at down to the valley floor below. This was accompanied by tight switchbacks that began a few hundred yards from town. One of these switchbacks had a bit of room in the bend with an excellent view to accompany it. I considered camping there, but decided against it since I still had a bit of time and the spot was pretty close to the roadway anyway.



In another one of these mountainside bends, I was greeted with a couple of cabins, and between them ran a tiny fresh water stream bobbing beneath the trees and between the rocks. It seemed like a scene from a story book—a tiny oasis tucked into its own craggy slice of rock. Curious what the cabins had left behind, I glanced in the front doorway of the cabin to the left and was immediately glad I had, since the floor abruptly dropped away. It turned out that the small structure had its own basement chiseled out of the bedrock itself. The floor had rotted away and collapsed. I was able to work my way the few feet to the bottom on a solid-looking, thick beam and stare up from the hole. Whoever built that place had gone to a whole lot of effort to hand dig a basement into bedrock. Perhaps to store gold they never found or to keep vital food fresh in the summertime.


After a few seconds had passed, a stench reached my nostrils and immediately informed me that I wasn't completely alone. Afraid that I would soon be blasted by a fluffy-striped critter, I high-tailed it right out of there and bolted through the doorframe. I knew that if I were sprayed, I would smell horrid and inevitably have to stink up the whole camper and everything I owned in order to get clean in the end.


Happy I had stumbled upon the oasis, but glad to be away from the skunk, the truck rolled on, and I continued down through the end of First Chance Gulch and into Cave Gulch, not knowing what other creatures I'd encounter on my way down from the highlands.



















Sources:


Montana’s Office of Tourism. (2022, August 18). Garnet ghost town. Garnet Ghost Town. https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/ghost-town/garnet-ghost-town


Garnet Preservation Association, INC. (n.d.). History. Garnet Ghost Town | Montana’s Best Preserved Ghost Town | Missoula, Montana. http://www.garnetghosttown.org/history.php


Marlin, P. (2020, July). Past prologue: Garnet ghost town. dmarlin.com. http://dmarlin.com/pastprologue/blog/garnet-ghost-town-montana/







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