Garnet - Montana's Best Preserved Ghost Town
We all love a ghost town, right? It's not only the curiosity of visiting an old place, but additionally, for me, it's the wonder and excitement of uncovering a moment in time - a now weathered building, a child's toy lying haphazardly on the floor, a chair pulled just slightly out from the table. I'm witnessing a snapshot. Exactly as it was.
Montana has several ghost towns, 60 actually. Visiting them is to travel back to our Wild West days. Goldrush mining towns that were all boom then quickly bust and saloons that you can imagine were full of vigilantes.
Now, some of our ghost towns have been incorporated into modern times, like Virginia City, Montana, the frontier mining town that is now Madison County's seat. Still, some are completely abandoned, like Garnet.
A Ghostly Adventure
Garnet is located in western Montana, in the Garnet Mountain Range east of Missoula. Ben and I were headed up to Missoula to visit his daughter in college at the University of Montana; she and her friends wanted to check out the hats I paint. But like most of our day trips, our best-laid plans usually turn into "hey, what's that road over there??". Then screeeeeech just like that, we're off on another adventure. This day was no different, a quick turn off I-90, and we're making our way to Garnet, the deserted mining village.
Founded in 1895 and named for the ruby-colored stones found there, Garnet wasn't full of gunslingers. Instead, Garnet bustled with skilled workers who brought their families with them to mine gold. In place of the shacks that were typically built in boomtowns, Garnet's families built houses, a schoolhouse, barbershops, a doctor's office, and a union hall.
Having lived in Montana his entire life, Ben had visited Garnet many times, but being my first, I was amazed at how well preserved we found it. The credit goes to the hard-working Bureau of Land Management and the Garnet Preservation Association, who utilize state funds and public contributions to work on keeping Garnet ranked as Montana's no. 1 most intact ghost town. That plus a rough winding road leading up to a remote location, the town is hidden away, high up in the Garnet Mountain Range, giving all those who dare to venture here the chance to appreciate and respect times gone by.
Remnants of a Gem
If you're as brave as Ben and I to make the trek, you'll find a visitor's center, interpretive signs, and self-guided trails. Leashed pets are permitted, so Rocky Balboa and Cowboy were in tow. Striking out along the path, I imagined what it would have been like to live (and survive!) in this mountain wilderness some 100ish years ago. At its high point, Garnet was home to 1,000 souls looking to hit a rich vein of ore. The "boom" was on. You had to claim your gold before it was gone. And "gone" is exactly what happened to Garnet. Eventually, because so many prospectors were trying to get their piece, the town's shafts became scarcer and harder to mine. Then by 1917, when almost $1,000,000 had been extracted, just like that...there were no more riches to be had. Subsequently, the town's population dwindled to just 150. A shadow of what it was in its heyday.
Today, as you walk through, despite earnest preservation efforts, you can see where the souvenir hunters got to it and buildings that have been stripped of woodwork and wallpaper. Even now, Garnet's "good times" can still be viewed through windows and by peeking around corners. Some of the houses even have items on the floor.
Leaving Garnet, making our back from another day's adventure, I reflected on the robust, full life the villagers of Garnet lived. And honestly, so do I. Today was another chapter of this Montana life. It's awesome to call this place home.