Help save Montana’s past by preserving ghost towns

Dwight Harriman
Yellowstone Newspapers

The vigilantes grabbed Bannack Sheriff Henry Plummer from his bed in the middle of a cold January night in 1864 and led him to the gallows outside of town. His entreaties for his life under flickering torchlights were rejected, and he was summarily hanged.
The gallows on which the shady sheriff met his end are gone, but a replica stands on the spot today. You can see it and the amazing preserved gold mining town of Bannack this summer if you get a hankering to visit some Montana ghost towns.
There are all stripes of ghost towns in Montana. Some, like Bannack and Virginia City, are big, famous, well preserved and easy to get to. But most of them are out of the way and nearly forgotten, brooding and silent with the weight of history pressing down on their sagging shoulders.
It’s difficult to know how many there are in Montana. One website that lists ghost towns all over the U.S. ( puts Montana’s number at 62. But it all depends on what your criteria is for defining a ghost town. One historian said the number is in the hundreds.
Because of mining booms, most ghost towns are in the western part of the state. But probably every county in Montana has quasi-ghost towns — communities that blossomed with homesteaders or with the railroad and then died as times got bad, leaving empty spots on a map with some old buildings and a few residents still hanging on.
Regardless of whether they are famous or obscure, all these towns are part of our shared Montana history. Visiting a ghost town will suck you into the past as you peer into old buildings and contemplate the history they hold, of booms and busts, and the hopes and fears of the families that lived in them with dreams and desires just like we have today.
A few Montana ghost towns receive government funding. Others are maintained by volunteers. Some have no help at all.
Either way, all these towns deserve protection. Contrary to what some think, ghost town buildings are not condemned to disappear. Preservationists have methods to keep them alive.
Roger Kasak, assistant manager of Bannack State Park, said, “The best we can do for them is to keep roofs, windows and doors on them … If you can keep the water out, you can save your structure for a long time.”
He also said preservationists use a linseed oil and mineral spirit solution, following a U.S. Forest Service forumla, to preserve old wood.
But preserving ghost towns and their buildings need not be only the domain of experts. Individuals can do a lot. Many ghost towns have an association that welcomes volunteers to help preserve a town. Check to see if there’s one near you. You can also donate to a group to help fund preservation.
One excellent statewide group is the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society ( There is also the Montana Site Stewardship Program, a great project trains volunteers to monitor historic sites around the state (visit
And another thing:
“We’ve got to contact our legislators, hound them and let them know that history is important to you,” said Zoe Ann Stoltz, reference historian with the Montana Historical Society.
If even you don’t get actively involved, you can do your part when visiting a ghost town. First, be aware many are on private land and make sure you get permission to visit, said Kate Hampton, community preservation coordinator for the Historical Society,
But most importantly, “Do no harm,” she said, by not picking up mementos or harming buildings as you explore.
A good Montanan knows the past is linked to our lives today. Get involved and help ghost town preservation efforts in your own county.

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