Bannack, Montana – Gold to Ghost

Bannock, Montana Gallows

Bannock, Montana Gallows

The vigilantes dispensed rough justice by hanging about twenty-four men. When one such man, by the name of Erastus “Red” Yager, who was about to be hanged, pointed a finger at Sheriff Henry Plummer as the leader of the gang, all hell broke loose.

The residents were divided on whether or not Plummer was part of the murderous gang. But, one night after heavy drinking in a local saloon, the vigilantes decided he was guilty and tracked him down. On January 10, 1864, fifty to seventy-five men gathered up Plummer and his two main deputies, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray. The three were marched to the gallows, where the two deputies were hanged first. According to one legend, Plummer promised to tell the vigilantes where $100,000 of gold was buried, if they would let him live. However, the vigilantes ignored this as they gradually hoisted him up by the neck.

Interestingly though, even after Plummer and several of his henchmen were hanged, the robberies did not cease. In fact, the stage robberies showed more evidence of organized criminal activity, more robbers involved in the holdups, and more intelligence passed to the actual robbers. Many historians today think that the story of Plummer and his gang was fabricated to cover up the real lawlessness in the Montana Territory – the vigilantes themselves.

By May 1864, Sidney Edgerton, the territorial Chief Justice decided there were so many people in the area that they needed a new territory. Edgerton convinced the president and on May 26, 1864, it was made official, with Edgerton as the governor. Bannack became the first territorial capital and the Legislature of Montana met in Sidney Edgerton’s cabin.

In the summer of 1864, the number of school-age children had increased dramatically and the Edgerton home could no longer accommodate the classes. A crude log cabin was built to serve as teacher Lucia Darling’s schoolhouse.

By the fall of 1864, nearly ten thousand people crowded along the area hillsides, living in tents, shacks, lean-tos, and eventually sturdier housing. Settlements were so numerous and scattered that people called the area the “fourteen-mile city.” But, for these thousands of people, the gold was already getting harder to find.

Masonic Lodge in Bannack, Montana by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Masonic Lodge in Bannack, Montana by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

By 1866, Virginia City in Alder Gulch was large enough to take the title of territorial capital from Bannack, where it remained until 1877 before permanently moving to Helena.

In the meantime, the vigilantes continued their antics and three years after Sheriff Plummer was hanged, the vigilantes virtually ruled the mining districts. Finally, leading citizens of Montana, including Territorial Governor Thomas Meagher, began to speak out against the ruthless group. In March 1867, the miners issued their own warning that if the vigilantes hanged any more people, the “law-abiding citizens” would retaliate “five for one.” Though a few more lynchings occurred, the era of the vigilantes was past.

By 1870, there were no more easy diggings in and within just a couple of years, the population of Bannack shrank to just a few hundred.

In 1874, realizing the need for a better school, Bannack Masonic Lodge No. 16 built the combination lodge and schoolhouse. Classes would be held in this building for nearly 70 years.

In 1875, the Beaverhead County Courthouse was built, a building that still stands in Bannack today. In August 1877, the courthouse played a role in one of the most exciting events in Bannack’s history, when the town was threatened with an Indian attack.

Methodist Church, Bannack, Montana

Methodist Church, Bannack, Montana

Chief Joseph and the Indians had just defeated General Gibbon at the bloody Battle of the Big Hole. Word reached the isolated community that the Indians were on the rampage and headed straight for Bannack. People from around the area gathered in Bannack to seek protection. Two lookouts were built on the highest points of the hills on either side of Hangman’s Gulch for early warning. In case of a siege, the local water supply was barricaded. The women and children were gathered in the brick fortress. Some stories tell of hiding the children in the safes located inside the courthouse. Although the Indians killed four settlers in Horse Prairie, they never came close to Bannack.

At the time there was no church in Bannack and a Methodist circuit preacher named William Van Ordsdel, used the Indian scare to convince the townspeople to build a church as thanks for God’s deliverance. The church still stands in Bannack today.

In 1881, nearby Dillon became the county seat and the courthouse was abandoned. The building remained empty until 1890 when it was purchased by Dr. John Meade, who remodeled it as a plush hotel. However, by this time Bannack was called home to only about 400 people, and the hotel was closed several times over the years, reopening whenever mining activity revived.

In 1895, Bannack was revived for a time when the first electric dredge was invented. In no time at all Grasshopper Creek supported five of them for the next ten years. Unfortunately, it was these very same dredging operations that destroyed several hundred of the many buildings that had been erected in the 1860s.

Old truck in Bannack, Montana by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Old truck in Bannack, Montana by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

By the 1930s the businesses and social community had left Bannack and very few people remained. By the 1940s there would be so few students that the school would have to close and Bannack became a ghost town.

Bannack survives due to the good graces of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who saved the town from the elements and vandalism by making it a state park on August 15, 1954.

Today, over sixty structures remain standing, most of which can be explored. The staff preserve, rather than restore the buildings of this old town allowing visitors an opportunity to relive the American West.

Bannack State Park is open year-round with winter operating hours of 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, and summer hours of 8:00 am to 9:00 pm. The Visitor Center is open seven days a week during the summer months from 10 am to 6 pm.

Bannack Days, with historic displays, activities, and events, is held the third weekend in July each year. The visitor center is open from mid-May through September. A group picnic site is available. The park is 5,800 feet in elevation and is 1154 acres in size. There are 28 sites in the campground with vault toilets, grills/fire rings, firewood, picnic tables, trash cans, drinking water and access to Grasshopper Creek for fishing. Flush toilets are located in the visitors center and escorted and unescorted tours are available.

More Information:

Bannack State Park Website

Bannack Barn & Wagon

Barn and wagon found in the ghost town of Bannack by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated July 2019

Also See:

Ghost Town Ghosts in Bannack, Montana

Bannack Photo Prints & Gallery

Henry Plummer – Sheriff Meets A Noose

Henry Plummer by Emerson Hough

Virginia City, Montana – Heart of the Comstock Lode

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