Tony Perrottet
Writer, Editor, Historian
Tony Perrottet photo
Cuba Libre cover

The Fading Ghosts of Montana

The haunted mining towns of the northern Rockies are endangered sites.


Jimmy Stewart was waxing lyrical about the specters of the northern Rockies—at least, you could swear the it was Mr. Stewart, if you closed your eyes and listened to the molasses-smooth whistle of a voice. In fact, the speaker was John Ellingson, probably the leading living expert on Montana's more hundreds of ghost towns. With his straggly moustache, antique brakeman's cap and an unnerving enthusiasm straight out of This Wonderful Life, he was showing me around the silent streets of Nevada City—founded by gold miners in 1863, abandoned by 1880, all but burned to the ground by 1900, and now resurrected by fanatical "Wild West-lovers" as Montana's most inventive historical site.

This ghost town is actually a composite of original gold rush-era buildings rescued from all over this Rocky Mountain state. Barns, banks, hotels, stagecoach stations—in the last four decades, over forty antique wooden structures have been lovingly grafted onto Nevada City's skeleton of streets, using a gloriously detailed 1865 photograph as a blueprint. (The image is the only surviving shot of Nevada City during the gold boom, when 5000 miners lived here). The result of this Frankenstein-like process has been to recreate an eerily authentic slice of the frontier—a simulacrum that has been used as a set in Hollywood films from Little Big Man to Missouri Breaks. Most of the buildings were saved literally from the brink of destruction. The Wild West barber shop, for example, complete with original chairs, mirrors and old razors, was bought in the 1970s for a few dollars from an elderly lady on the day before she planned to demolish it; she was delighted that someone wanted to save her the cost of carting the wood away. Other owners had sold their century-old buildings by weight, for the price of the lumber.

For Ellingson, Nevada City's curator, these relics inspire religious reverence. "We have clothes that were packed away in 1865 and have never seen sunlight since," he crooned, as we entered a musty tailor's shop with creaking wide plank floors; the light seeping through the gloom bathed his face in a sepia glow. "But y'know, the stock doesn't really represent what people actually wore in the West. What survives is stuff nobody bought—little boy's dress outfits, formal collars, fancy wool pants. There are no Levis."

We passed the few buildings of Chinatown (vandalized by hippies in the 1968 looking for opium) and a barn full of wagons and stagecoaches, before reaching the most intriguing venue—John's own house, which rose like a Gothic bordello at the loneliest fringe of the ghost town. It was surrounded by acres of rusting car parts; inside, every square inch was filled with antiques. "I keep collecting stuff," he apologized, a little redundantly, as we picked our way through a restored saloon bar piled with unfamiliar bottles and a stuffed grizzly covered by tarpaulin. "I can't help it. I'm addicted, I guess." John located his working pianola and sat down to play the St Louis Tinkle, written for the World's Fair in 1904, while a chill breeze wafted through broken windows. "I don't know when I'll finish renovations on this place," he mused. "I hope to do it before I die."

* * *

The American West is still awash with ghost towns. Drive up any dirt road in the Rocky Mountain states and you seem to end up amongst ancient buildings with faded lace over the windows and saloon doors swinging in the wind. Nowhere are these outposts more numerous—or atmospheric—than in Montana, the most far-flung, desolate and weather-bitten of the Western states. It was here that white settlement took longest to reach in the 1860s, and where it felt most tentative in its hold—and where, once abandoned, mining towns were simply left to the elements. According to the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society in Bozemen, there are some 600 'mining sites' scattered across the state. Any that have survived have done so by a combination of total neglect, luck and the inspired intervention of eccentric frontiersmen like John Ellingson in Nevada City.

The outside world's fascination with ghost towns is relatively recent. As late as the 1940s, most were so difficult to reach that they remained utterly preserved in the dry Montana air; it's said that you could push open the doors and find living rooms full of dust-covered furniture, kitchens with cutlery still in the drawers, theaters with antique musical instruments still sitting in the orchestra pit. Then the proliferation of four wheel drive jeeps brought vandals, souvenir-hunters and antique dealers into the mountains, and ghost towns became endangered. Farmers bulldozed old structures they found on their land, to avoid paying property taxes and deter unwanted visitors. One rancher torched the entire ghost town of Blackpine on his land to stop tourists from "bothering" his cattle.

"History was still so recent in Montana," says Ellingson, "that nobody thought it was history..."

Then, in 1954, some concerned local citizens joined forces to buy ramshackle houses in the ghost town of Bannack from their owners and donate them to the state government. Bannack, briefly the capital of Montana Territory, is now a wonderfully evocative state park, where fifty buildings are maintained by rangers in a condition of "arrested decay"—including Skinner's Saloon, where the local Hurdy Gurdy Girls once danced for miners.

Private property is sacrosanct in Montana, and the success of Bannack was difficult to repeat. So, later in the 1950s, an eccentric rancher named Charlie Bovey began his own private conservation project—purchasing condemned gold rush structures, building by building, from their owners all over the state. He collected them all in a fairground exhibit—aptly called 'Old Town'—in Great Falls, Montana, until the local authorities asked him to remove them, because they was spoiling the town's progressive, can-do American image. "It was the '50s," said John. "They only wanted new things." So the whole creaking shebang was shipped to Nevada City, where it now stands. "I think the folks in Great Falls came to regret that decision," he said, with a sideways chuckle.

Even in these more enlightened days, Montanans haven't quite shaken their love of the new. A mile and a half from Nevada City lies its twin, Virginia City—a former 'hell on earth' whose creaky old buildings have been renovated with Disneyesque facades, and which now operates with candy stores, souvenir shops and southwestern restaurants. Stagecoach tours leave every hour for the graveyard at Boot Hill, where tales are told of the town's sinister heyday. In the early 1860s, Virginia City was terrorized by a corrupt sheriff and a gang known as the 'The Innocents,' who brutally butchering at least 102 unlucky miners, until they were all caught by vigilantes and invited to 'neck-tie parties.'

Today, the town's delight in its violent past sometimes seem decidedly ghoulish: Inside one building, signs proudly indicate the wooden roof rafter used by the vigilantes to string up alleged Innocents—and a model diorama depicts the happy execution.

This was all very well. But if I wanted to see a real ghost town, John Ellingsen told me, I should drive to an outpost called Elkhorn. And do it in a hurry. Only a few weeks earlier, he said, three of its buildings had disappeared—and more were on the way out.

* * *

Late in August, it was already gloomy and bone-chillingly cold, as I drove into the empty main street of Elkhorn. The town is poised on a steep hillside, surrounded by granite bluffs and dense pine forest. As a ghost town, it has two signature Old West buildings—the Fratenity Hall and Gillian's Saloon—which stand side by side, both superbly intact. They looked as majestic as promised by coffee table publications, having been purchased and maintained by the Montana state government. But the rest of the town was a sorry sight. Of the three dozen or so surviving buildings, many were barely standing. The town may be officially "protected" by the US Forest Service, but in practice this guarantees very little. I learned that two historic buildings had been sold by their owners and removed for display in another Montana town. Another had just collapsed.

As I wandered the empty streets of Elkhorn, the silence was broken by the roar of a four-wheel motorbike. Riding it was Ron McGinnis, a third generation resident and Elkhorn's unofficial caretaker. A retired policeman, he felt the town's decay was quickly slipping out of his control. "Some of these buildings are damn dangerous," he said, pointing to one teetering cottage. "I tried to nail the door of that one shut, and bricks started falling on my head!" He pointed to another pile of wood. "That one just fell down of its own accord. I was looking at it when it crashed."

A few Elkhorn residents kept places as summer holiday homes, but Ron wasn't optimistic for the future. As he drove off, I noticed a For Sale sign in front of his own property.

Poetic as the decrepitude was—it was dusty, haunted, giving a luminous idea of how an Old West town might have felt—I couldn't help hoping that the Montana government would put a little money into restoration. It's not as if Elkhorn will ever become over-crowded; there'll always be plenty of elbow room for both the living and the dead.

FACT FILE: Visits to Montana's ghost towns can easily be added on to a road trip to Yellowstone National Park, which borders Wyoming and Montana, or be made from the urban hub of Bozeman. Virginia City and Nevada City lie only 2 km apart, and are connected by a narrow gauge railway (US$5 one way for a ride). The most atmospheric place to stay is the Nevada City Hotel, a wonderful antique-filled inn—actually, a restored stagecoach station from the 1860s—on the edge of the town; the cabins next door are also charming and quiet, with their own kitchens (and use of a jacuzzi!) Reservations for both are on (406)843-5377; doubles start at around US$72.

To visit the ghost town of Elkhorn, first get a hold of a good map: it lies along a dirt road (perfectly passable for regular cars) east of the town of Boulder (near the I-15).

Bannack State Park is open in summer from 7 am to 9 pm, 8 am to 5 pm at other times of the year, US$3 entry fee. It lies 26 miles southwest of Dillon (off Highway 278). For more information, call (406) 834-3413.

Tony Perrottet, an Australian author living in New York, is the author of Route 66 AD and The Naked Olympics (both published by Random House).