It sounds almost too good to be true. A beautiful mountain town full of rustic cabins where guests can stay without paying a dime. But if you’re thinking of paying a visit, you might reconsider once you find out one of the possible reasons why bedding down here is free of charge.
Maybe 20 miles east of Missoula, Montana, a small town sits tucked away in the mountains of Granite County. Accessed by 11 miles of dirt track, Garnet enjoys a picturesque location surrounded by forest, 6,000 feet up from sea level.
But there’s something amiss about this town. Behind bare windows and open doors, the rooms are empty and show signs of decay. Furthermore, once-proud establishments as well as former homes are replete with this haunting quality.
Kelley’s Saloon, a bar that once hummed with laughter and music, sits quietly gathering dust, while the Wells Hotel still stands but hasn’t seen a guest for many years. And although you can still pay a visit to Davey’s Store, you might be waiting a while for service.
Why? Because Garnet is the best-preserved ghost town in Montana and one of the most intriguing in the whole country. Abandoned for some 70 years, it offers a fascinating insight into an important era of America’s past.
Montana’s Garnet Mountains first started attracting miners in the 19th century. Moving northwards from spent mines in places like Colorado and California, the prospective workers were drawn to the area by the presence of gold-carrying quartz veins running through the hills.
Then, in 1895, a mill for crushing ore was erected in the First Chance Gulch valley. Soon a small town grew up around it. And while it was initially named Mitchell, after the mill’s founder, Dr. Armistead Mitchell, the town was rechristened Garnet in 1897. It took its new name, incidentally, from the valuable red stones found in the region.
Now not long after the town was founded, local miner Sam Ritchey struck gold. What’s more, by January 1898 business was booming – and Garnet was home to almost 1,000 folks seeking their fortunes.
With the people came all of the facilities and amenities needed to support a community of that size. There were four hotels, two barber shops, a school, a doctor’s office, four stores and an impressive 13 saloons, as well as countless other buildings erected haphazardly, almost overnight.
But as the 20th century rolled around, things began to change. Gold was becoming harder and harder to come by, and many of the mines were leased out. By 1905, then, a number of the mines had been deserted entirely, and as few as 150 people were left living in the town.
Then, in 1912, disaster struck: a fire raged through the wooden town, destroying many of its dwellings. Moreover, instead of rebuilding, many residents simply moved away. Garnet became a ghost town.
Cabins were left empty of their inhabitants but with all their furniture left intact inside, as if the owners had stepped out on an errand one day and never returned. Only Davey’s Store remained open, catering for an ever-dwindling number of customers.
Interestingly, though, the town experienced a brief resurgence in 1934, when President Roosevelt doubled the price of gold. Another generation of would-be miners took over the empty cabins of Garnet, hoping to make their fortunes in the hills. However, this new popularity was cut short by changes brought about by America’s entry into the Second World War. So the residents once again left Garnet, this time never to return. And the old buildings of the town were left to rot and decay.
Still, thanks to the work of the Garnet Preservation Association, this fascinating slice of American history has been maintained for future generations to enjoy. The non-profit has managed to keep a number of the buildings intact, too, including the saloon, hotel and general store.
Today, Garnet is open all year round – although those hoping to see it during winter will need a snowmobile or skis. That said, it’s during the summer that many people take the U.S. Bureau of Land Management up on its offer to stay in the town free of charge – despite the creepy catch.
Each year, a team of volunteers move into the ghost town to carry out maintenance and look after the tourists who arrive each day. In return, these volunteers may well get the opportunity to live in one of the historic cabins free of charge and even have a food allowance provided.
However, many locals believe that anyone spending the night in the ghost town could end up dealing with some spookily real spirits. These residents claim that Garnet is haunted by some of the numerous souls that have called the town home over the years.
According to historian Ellen Baumler, various people have reported ghostly experiences in the town, including witnessing a mysterious woman in a window of the hotel. She also claims that visitors have seen transparent figures walking the streets, not to mention footprints that enter but do not leave doorways.
Other reports refer to piano music and unexplained voices that can be heard echoing through the empty rooms. And although there is no mention of the hauntings on Garnet’s official website, the stories are apparently well known throughout the local community.
Despite such spooky tales, however, many find themselves enchanted by Garnet’s otherworldly appeal – with some volunteers returning every year. And although all positions are currently filled, those wanting to experience a real ghost town for themselves can hire a cabin during the winter months. But be careful: according to Baumler, that’s when the spirits really come out to play.