By 1870, there were no more easy diggings in and within just a couple of years, the population of Bannack shrank to a just a few hundred.
In 1874, realizing the need for a school, Bannack Masonic Lodge No. 16 built the combination lodge and school house. 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.
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 is 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.
By the 1930’s the businesses and social community had left Bannack and very few people remained. By the 1940’s 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 10am to 6pm.
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.
For More Information:
Bannack State Park Website