Encountering Montana's Ghost Towns
Montana, like several other Western states, is home to many ghost towns. These ghost towns range from scattered ruins to incredibly preserved sites, from completely deserted to only mostly deserted. Some sites are fairly easy to locate with a state map and some determination, while other sites will require local input or assistance to have any hope of finding the ruins.
Terri and I arrived in Montana during the fall of 2008 with plans to live here for about five years. (The move was motivated by family reasons rather than a desire to relocate.) We brought with us a list of things we wanted to experience during this time – things uniquely Western that would be outside of our typical experiences as native New Englanders. Among the experiences on our list was visiting some (all?) of Montana’s ghost towns.
Three years managed to slip past before we made our first intentional ghost town trip. We had been near ghost town sites during winter (not the best time to do much in Montana – including driving on seasonally maintained roads), we had been busy and not near ghost towns in summer, and we had dealt with Terri’s cancer which too often has limited our plans in one way or another. I also ruptured a disc in my back during the summer of 2010 requiring surgery and a three-month rehabilitation thus wasting most of another summer.
September of this year found us with a bit of time on our hands, not enough money (as usual), nowhere pressing to be, a son to visit on the other side of the state, and a chemo schedule for Terri that allowed us to get out of town for some regional trips. We decided to visit some ghost towns. We were only able to hit a relatively small number of Montana ghost towns on this trip, so another trip is planned for next year to see more sites. Sadly, I also only had my mobile phone camera at the time so my photos vary in quality from barely acceptable to dreadful.
A word about maps: If you plan to travel off the beaten path in Montana you will find a decent map to be money well spent. Leave your GPS at home (it will get you lost), use the free, state highway map to start your campfire (it will also get you lost), and buy a decent and recently updated map for navigation.
A word about distance: If you are from just about anywhere other than Montana (or perhaps Texas) you will be horrified at how long it takes to get from point A to point B on the map. Montana is a huge state and nothing is close; it will take longer than you expect to travel between sites. Don’t even think about passing a gas station if your tank is not at least half full. Many areas in Montana do not have gas stations or other services for a considerable distance.
Kendall ghost town is located near Lewistown. I worked in Lewistown at the News-Argus during 2010, but had never made the journey to Kendall.
Kendall ghost town was the first ghost town I had ever visited. We started with this site as it was one of the closest to our home base in Central Montana. I also knew of several camping sites in this area that were not likely to be crowded in September.
Kendall ghost town is actually quite easy to access, though it is still in the middle of nowhere (as would be expected). The gravel road into the site is at the intersection of two state highways. Interestingly, the Boy Scouts of America owns and maintains the property.
Terri and I both arrived at Kendall ghost town with a preconceived notion of what a ghost town should look like – and Kendall did not fit that notion. We were expecting weathered wooden structures lining a dusty street, but Kendall was built mostly with stone, and the site is covered with prairie grass rather than dust. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience and well worth the trip. We had the site almost to ourselves with only one other couple visiting the site.
Maiden and Giltedge
Maiden and Giltedge are both near Kendall and were on our way back to Lewistown where we planned to camp for the night. Sadly, spring flooding had destroyed a bridge so we were not able to locate these ghost town sites.
A second attempt to locate Maiden and Giltedge from the other direction a day later was similarly unsuccessful as the gravel road continued to have “extra” unmarked turns. These forks in the road were a detail not revealed on the state map. Eventually we quit searching for these two sites, but do plan to return at a later date with better information.
Zortman and Landusky
Zortman and Landusky are a pair of “ghost towns” located in the North-Central part of Montana near Malta. These towns are interesting in their own way, though they are likely not what you envision when you think of a ghost town. Zortman and Landusky are, in fact, shells of what they used to be, yet they are still inhabited – by people rather than ghosts.
Both Zortman and Landusky have state parks located adjacent to the town sites. This is convenient for those wishing to camp and explore as services are exceedingly rare in this area.
These “ghost towns” will certainly bring some amusement to your day if you are used to towns that have features like paved streets, stores, and other modern conveniences. Zortman and Landusky are not, however, ghost towns in the traditional sense of the term.
Castle Town was the first ghost town we visited on this trip that resembled the stereotype of a ghost town. Many of the abandoned buildings in Castle Town are weathered wooden structures that one would associate with a classic ghost town. This site does have several stone ruins as well though.
Castle Town is located near Lennup in Central Montana. The town site is accessible via seven miles of seasonally maintained gravel road. Access during winter or during “mud season” in the spring is not likely.
The Castle Town ruins span both sides of old Main Street (now a graveled County road). The ruins of this ghost town are all located on private property and require permission of the owner for access. Nonetheless, many buildings are visible from the gravel road.
Castle Town was deserted and quiet when we visited. The cliché “postcard pretty” seemed apt as I walked up and down old Main Street in Castle Town, with the scent of sage unmistakable in the warm, Autumn air.
Bannack ghost town is located at Bannack State Park. Bannack is Montana’s best-preserved ghost town. This site is described as being “preserved not restored.” This description perfectly fits Bannack ghost town.
Bannack State Park, like most state parks in Montana, is free to state residents who have registered their vehicles in the Montana and paid the state park access fee with their vehicle registration. This was a nice surprise when we arrived at Bannack. Non-residents will need to pay an access fee at the site.
Bannack is mostly one main street with buildings lining both sides of the dusty street. A few buildings are scattered behind the main row of buildings, but not many. The focus of the town was obviously one street, complete with saloon, hotel, and Methodist church.
High on a hill overlooking the town sits the Bannack cemetery. I found the cemetery disturbing for all of the unmarked graves which can be seen at the site. Below the cemetery, but not far from town, stand the gallows where outlaws (and the falsely accused) were hung.
Whispers of the past
Visiting Montana’s ghost towns is truly like listening to whispers of the past. Those who listen can almost hear the voices and sounds of yesteryear in these nearly forgotten places of the American West.