©Bert Gildart: After two weeks of travel throughout Southwestern Montana, we’re back home in Bigfork, Montana. Friends that we were traveling with have departed in their Airstream for Banff, Alberta, and we’re left now thinking back on all the excitement that our excursion provided.
In addition to the wildlife of Yellowstone, the Wolf and Bear Discovery Center of West Yellowstone—and the enchantment of Virginia City and Nevada City—the last leg of our journey took us to Bannack, Montana, the state’s first territorial capital. Here, legends were made and history was recorded, and what is so incredibly neat about Bannack is that not only is it one of the nation’s best preserved ghost towns, but it is a place where legends really do unfold, for stories are everywhere.
We arrived in Bannack traveling along a small secondary road that leads about 70 miles from Nevada City to Bannack, all, of course, in Montana. Because vigilantes rode back and forth between these two settlements–supposedly to protect traveling gold miners–the route over which we traveled en route to Bannack became known as the Vigilante Trail.
The road parallels several creeks, and the evidence of digging and dredging for gold is still abundant in huge piles of rock. Back dropping all this were the beautiful snowcapped Gravelly Mountains whose peaks were all fringed along its flanks by aspens and cottonwoods now turned gold. Within two easy hours of driving (lots of stops), we were pulling into the old ghost town of Bannack.
Bannack was founded on July 28, 1862, when John White and other members of the “Pikes Peakers” discovered gold in creek waters not far from where Bannack now nestles between several mountain ridges.
According to Wade Hucke, the maintenance man for the park and a man whose great grandfather once dug here for gold, the original site of discovery was on Grasshopper Creek, but not adjacent to Bannack; rather the site is several miles downstream from this well preserved old ghost town.
“This is a special place,” says Wade. “It’s a place that really provides us with some windows into the past.”
The State Park provides two campgrounds, and we pulled into the first-known as the Vigilante Campground. Here, after quickly setting up, we began our explorations.
The first thing we discovered was that the old ghost town really does bring the past alive. Old wagons stand ready to transport gold; buildings appear inhabitable, and the old jail, Montana’s first, appears ready to accommodate thieves, drunks and murders.
And, there, up on the hill in plain site is one lone gallows. Though it is a reconstructed gallows, it is located in the exact same spot where many a man took the long drop. Most were deserving, but there is speculation about the hanging of one man.
The man’s name was Henry Plummer and he arrived in Bannack in 1863. Glib and persuasive, he was elected sheriff several months later. What was not known by the town’s citizens is that Plummer may well have been the leader of an outlaw gang. Before long road agents began targeting the road between Bannack and Virginia City–the Vigilante Trail–for unwary miners.
Not all heeded the warning, and one man about to be hung pointed a finger at Henry Plummer. Though not immediately convinced, the vigilantes regrouped for several weeks and meditated heavily. Then, fortified with lots of liquor they concluded Plummer was guilty after all.
“JUST GIVE ME A GOOD DROP”
On January 10, 1864 about 75 men gathered up Plummer and marched him to the gallows. Though Plummer begged and pleaded–even offered to tell where $100,000 of gold was buried–the group ignored him. Story has it that Plummer’s final words were, “Just give me a good drop.”
The Vigilantes accommodated him-but was Plummer really guilty? Today, historians aren’t so sure. In fact, one historian we met in Virginia City believes the Vigilantes may have been trying to divert the blame from the true robbers-themselves. Probably we’ll never know.
Though Bannack holds the distinction of being the territory’s first capital, in 1866, gold was discovered in Alder Creek and the town soon shrank, soon having to relinquish its distinction to Virginia City.
But once again, gold was discovered in another part of the state, this time in Last Chance Gulch, soon giving rise to a settlement known as Helena. Its promise of much gold lured miners from Virginia City and from Bannack, and in 1875 Helena became Montana’s capital.
Once Bannack boasted a population of 10,000, but by 1870, Bannack had shrunk to just a few hundred. Today, a few people still live in the territory’s first capital, though most are state employees watching over the old town and renovating structures that need repair.
The old town is compelling and it lured Wade Hucke (the maintenance supervisor) from a teaching job in Nevada. He says that each year he and his family gather in Bannack to celebrate his great grandfather’s arrival as a gold miner.
“With all its history and beauty, I can’t imagine a better place to hold a family reunion,” empahsized Wade. “Can you?”