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OLD WILD WEST ECHOES IN GHOST TOWN
HISTORY'S IN THE AIR ON THE DUSTY STREETS OF A MONTANA STATE PARK

HISTORY RIDES the wind in the ghost town of Bannack, Montana's first territorial capital.
It whispers through trees, moans in and around the empty buildings.

You can taste it in dust devils, swirling up from the dirt street that once teemed with miners, merchants, freighters, dance hall dollies, Chinese cooks and launderers, territorial politicians, outlaws and drifters.

And you can smell it along the sagebrush-lined trail leading to the gallows where Sheriff Henry Plummer and two of his gang members -- Ned Ray and Buck Stinson -- dropped into eternity.

Never an ordinary territorial capital or mining camp, Bannack always was different. It still is. Today, the ghost town is incorporated into Montana's state parks system.

Amazingly, Bannack appears much as it did in pioneer days -- no telephone or power poles and wires, no modern homes, offices or commercial establishments, no paved streets. Of the more than 200 original buildings in Bannack, nearly 90 still are standing, many in remarkably good condition.

From the dusty main street and creek bottoms to the tops of nearby hills, what you see is pretty much what the miners, merchants and road agents saw -- with the exception, of course, of what aging, weathering, erosion and foliage growth have contributed.

Although there were fewer than a thousand inhabitants in Bannack when it was named territorial capital, the population swelled to some 5,000 when gold mining at nearby Grasshopper Creek was at its peak. The boom brought an influx of all types of humans -- good and bad, dedicated and misguided, ambitious and ne'er-do-wells.

Helping to recapture some of those moments is a suggested, self-guided walking tour that permits interior inspection of many of the structures. With a minimum of effort, visitors can visualize some of the camp's historic and colorful incidents.

Handsome, educated, conniving Henry Plummer came to town on Christmas Day 1862. A short time later he mortally wounded Jack Cleveland, an old outlaw friend, and then went hunting for Sheriff Hank Crawford, in case Cleveland had made a deathbed statement.

Forewarned, Crawford made a pre-emptive strike with a rifle shot and broke Plummer's arm. Before Plummer regained his shooting prowess, Crawford left for Wisconsin and Plummer was elected sheriff of both Bannack and Virginia City.

Plummer had a jail built in Bannack. It still stands with its barred windows, thick log walls and sod roof.

But terror reigned along the 90-mile stretch of road from Bannack to Virginia City. Headed surreptitiously by Sheriff Plummer, ruthless road agents allegedly murdered some 102 travelers, robbed countless others and waylaid stages at will.

Vigilantes finally ferreted out Plummer and his gang, "The Innocents" -- Boone Helm, Cyrus Skinner, George Shears, Whiskey Bill Graves, George Ives, Red Yeager, Buck Stinson and Ned Ray.

Captured in his Bannack home, Plummer groveled as he pleaded with vigilantes to cut off his ears, turn him out naked in the snow -- anything but hanging. Finally, he faced the inevitable and begged his captors, "Give me a clean drop."

Another tragic Bannack chapter involved an Illinois girl, Helen Patterson. At age 16, she promised Howard Humphrey she'd marry him in their small hometown, but first she wanted to go out West with a sister and brother-in-law.

Once she got to Bannack, she forgot about poor Howard. She assumed the name Nellie Paget, became a dance hall hostess, and was caught up in the wild life of the mining camp -- until, at age 22, she was shot dead by an enraged suitor in a saloon.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Howard Humphrey, learning of the tragedy, refused to believe it. After waiting 55 years for her return to Illinois, he decided to go to Montana to find her. He located her in the sagebrush-dotted Bannack cemetery. You still can visit it today.

A more joyous occasion occurred when a colorful Methodist frontier circuit rider, W.W. "Brother Van" Van Orsdel, came to town. Brother Van preached, taught and sang to the people of Bannack as he directed construction of the Methodist church, which remains standing. He had a lot of extra helpers because townspeople feared an imminent Indian attack on the community.

After the battle of the Big Hole (there's a national battlefield there now) on Aug. 9, 1877, members of Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce camped on Horse Prairie Creek near Bannack. Hillsides were fortified, and women and children were housed in the new county courthouse, but the attack never came.

The church today is still used for an occasional worship service or wedding.

Bannack, which literally sprouted after Montana's first major gold discovery occurred along Grasshopper Creek in 1862, was named by George Washington Stapleton, and was spelled Bannack to differentiate it from Bannock, a settlement near Boise City.

Actually, Bannack was in Idaho Territory at the time. Montana didn't achieve territorial status until 1864. Territorial Gov. Sidney Edgerton proclaimed Bannack as the first territorial capital. The first legislature met there in 1864-65.

But Bannack's political tenure was brief. In 1865 with gold reserves dwindling and the population decreasing, the legislature voted to move the capital to the more prosperous mining camp of Virginia City. (Helena is now the capital).

But Bannack didn't dry up and blow away. A Masonic Hall and school building was constructed in 1874. A year later, a two-story county courthouse was completed and the Methodist Church was built in 1877.

The courthouse, which later became the Meade Hotel, is one of the most impressive buildings in Bannack. It served as the county courthouse for only six years, and then the county seat was moved to Dillon in 1881 after the arrival of the railroad.

Around 1890 Dr. Christian Meade converted the red brick structure into the hotel and community social center. The Meade Hotel operated until 1940.

Among other buildings still standing are the drugstore and assay office; the Jackson house, whose owners operated the Goodrich Hotel and a general store; Skinner's Saloon; a few relics on Bachelor's Row; the Graves House, the first frame house in the territory; the Renois log cabin, one of the oldest in Bannack; Amede Bessette's cabin, which provided its owner shelter until his death in 1919; George Chrisman's store, now used as a warehouse; the Gibson boarding houses, one of which served as a blacksmith shop; and Dr. Ryburn's home.

Well after Bannack's heyday, the ghosts of Sheriff Plummer's highwaymen rode briefly on Nov. 4, 1931. That's when two masked, armed robbers held up five patrons and the bartender at Monte Verdick's bar (soft drinks only -- Prohibition, you know) and got off with $800. The Associated Press wire story commented: "Only the escape lacked historic color. They roared out of town in a powerful car . . . "

In 1954, Bannack became a Montana state park. About 40,000 people a year stop by to relive a little Western history. Open from May 1 to Sept. 7, it is easily reached by a well-maintained four miles of gravel road leading from Montana 278, 25 miles southwest of Dillon in southwestern Montana. Butte is the nearest city of any size.

For information on visiting Montana, call Montana Tourism at (800) 541-1447.