Bannack: Mining Makes a Comeback in Old Bannack (Part 4 of 4)

Wagons of a by-gone era stand silent in Bannack (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Wagons of a by-gone era stand silent in Bannack (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Bannack placer mining picked up again in the spring of 1866. Because water was needed to flush out the placer deposits, the first miners in the gulch ignored gravel that was too far from the creek. Now, ditches were built to extend the workings beyond the streambed. Prospectors could access more rich earth by sluicing the hillside and upper gulches. Gold mining continued for several more years. But miners working manually couldn’t reach the deposits on the bedrock, which were anywhere from 10 to 50 feet beneath the surface. A mere sluicebox and shovel wouldn’t do.

According to Dave Alt: “During the spring of 1895, the first gold dredge in the United States, an electrically driven model, started work at Bannack. Another followed in the fall of the same year, and two more machines arrived in 1896.” Eventually, five dredges labored in Bannack.

A gold dredge sits on a barge and uses a long chain of steel buckets mounted on a conveyor belt to scoop the gravel bed of the stream down to bedrock. The gravel is then flushed through sluices to recover the gold, and the leftover gravel is dumped. As it bites its way along, the barge floats on a small lake of its own making. Ponds created by this method of mining are still visible on Bannack’s south side. It didn’t take long for the dredges to remove most of the remaining deep placer gold from the Grasshopper Creek area. In some places bedrock was too deep even for the dredges to get to. Some rich deposits might still exist, out of reach, owing to the expense of recovering them.

Although hard-rock mining continued to take place downstream from the town site, once the dredges ceased, the population dwindled again. Remnants of the mines and parts of the mills that crushed the ore out of the rock and earth still stand as silent reminders of Bannack’s last fling at gold mining. By the late 1940s, most residents were gone. No longer were there stores to buy groceries in, doctors to visit, a school to attend or post office to pick up mail. Soon, Bannack was abandoned, and the first territorial capital of Montana gained ghost town status.

But this was not a place that would crumble and sink into the dust. Concerned folks in southwest Montana joined together to preserve what was left. Ray Herseth, Bannack State Park manager from 1972 to 1984, credits Elfreda Woodside, an active and dedicated board member of the Beaverhead County Museum Association in Dillon, as being the historic mining town’s main champion. She was instrumental in convincing the primary landowner to sell his property to the museum.

Vinola Squires, a director of the museum, recalls from the records, “Chan Stallings, a longtime Bannack resident bought the Bannack real estate of the 1. B. Haviland Mining Company at a public auction in Butte on Sept. 25, 1953. He then offered to sell the property to the Beaverhead County Museum, and on Nov. 4,1953, the transaction took place. On Jan. 23, 1954, the Beaverhead County Museum Association transferred ownership of the land to the State of Montana for a public park, historical site and recreational area for the generous sum of $1.00. If the state had failed to follow through on the commitment, the title would have reverted back to the association.” Later in 1954, Bannack State Park was created.

Today, thanks to the leadership and caring of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the nonprofit Bannack Association, more than 50 of the original buildings remain. This wonderful place is preserved for all to stroll the streets and linger on the doorsteps of our heritage.

University of Montana | Department of Geography | Rick and Susie Graetz