Lode mines were discovered at the 6,500-foot level in the Garnet Mountains as early as 1867, when prospectors from Bear Gulch, 2,000 feet below, wandered up First Chance Creek looking for the source of their placer gold. But the area was so remote, and the trail so precipitous, that any thought of development was quickly abandoned.
Samuel I. Ritchie, who is regarded as the founder of Garnet, located the “Nancy Hank” (named after Abe Lincoln’s mother) lode mine in 1873 and for years was alone in the mountains, digging the ore out by himself, processing it in a crude arrastra and carrying it down the mountain on the back of his mule.
It wasn’t until the repeal of the Sherman Act in 1893, which devalued the price of silver and threw a lot of silver miners out of work throughout the West, that interest in the gold lode mines in the Garnet region picked up.
In 1894 Dr. Armistead Mitchell became interested in the district and built, with great difficulty, a 10-stamp mill to process the ores from the mines that were opening up.
A camp started to emerge, at first called Mitchell, but soon renamed Garnet. A post office was added in 1896, and two years later the population was estimated at nearly 1,000.
Dr. Mitchell took on a partner, Dr. Peter Mussigbrod, a graduate from the German Mining Academy, and the two ventured into mine ownership, eventually controlling 22 claims between First Chance Creek and Cave Gulch and another eight claims between Cayuse and Day Gulches.
With the Mitchell & Mussigbrod properties, the Butte & Garnet Gold Mining Co. mines, the Nancy Hanks complex, the Shamrock group and other small properties, all working 24-hours-a-day nonstop through summer and winter, Garnet hit its peak as the new century arrived.
The latter half of the 1900s saw production start to ebb as mines played out and closed, and by 1910 the population was down to a few hundred.
And then disaster struck— According to an article in the Helena Herald, October 4, 1912: “The mining camp of Garnet was almost wiped out by fire early today. The fire started in a saloon, of cause unknown and spread rapidly. One store, a small hotel and a saloon were all the buildings that remain standing tonight.”
There was little rebuilding and with the exception of minor upswings, the mining town withered and died. The school was closed for lack of pupils and finally the post office, which hung on until 1928, also closed.
In 1930 the last inhabitant, Frank A. Davey, had to stand in front of a mirror to sign his IRS declaration as “Signed and witnessed before myself.” Hopefully the government accepted his explanation.
When the value of gold doubled in 1934 there was renewed interest in the Garnet mines, several reopened, new ones were discovered and the population started to return, occupying old cabins and building new ones. Davey’s saloon and store was back in business.
The World War II ban on the use of explosives for any reason other than the war effort sounded the final death knell for Garnet.
On November 8, 1947, Davey died, and his estate held a massive auction, selling off countless store items that had never sold over the years. Hundreds of prospective buyers turned up but looters started cleaning out the abandoned cabins, carrying off everything that wasn’t nailed down, and in the case of the J.K. Wells Hotel they came back later and took the entire staircase.
What remained was left to time and weather, but in 1970 the Bureau of Land Management decided that Garnet was worth saving, and with the help of the University of Montana, the Montana Historical Society and others, buildings were stabilized and in some cases repaired using materials and workmanship similar to the original construction. Today, the Garnet Preservation Society, in conjunction with the BLM, operates the town, supplying volunteer guides during the tourist season.
Facts and photos courtesy of Alberta, Canada, resident Terry Halden, author of Ghost Towns and Mining Districts of Montana (reviewed in this issue).
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.