Teaching your kids about history when you travel doesn’t have to mean a long, boring day of museums and statues. If done right, history can be more than just artifacts behind a glass case, or a plaque that points out where something used to be. When my kids were studying the old west, with its wagon trains, gold miners and outlaws, I knew there was no better place for it to all come to life than in a real western ghost town.
Montana is home to quite a few ghost towns. The discovery of gold in the 1800′s led to mining camps popping up all over the state. Many of these camps turned into thriving towns over time, but once the gold ran out, few of them could survive as the residents picked up and moved on to the next lucky strike.
Over the past 150 years, these towns were left to fall apart and fade away. You could drive all over the western part of the state looking for the remains of hundreds of old settlements, but you’d need a lot of time, a very sturdy vehicle and an extremely patient family.
Luckily, several locations have been well preserved by the State of Montana, so you don’t have to go hunting high and low.
You’ll have the best experience at Bannack State Park, the sight of one of the first major gold discoveries in the area. During its 1860′s heyday, Bannack had a population of over 3,000, and it soon became the first territorial capital of Montana. For several decades, the town boomed and prospered, but by the turn of the 20th century only a few dozen citizens remained. By the 1940′s the last resident had died or moved on, and Bannack became a true ghost town.
In 1954 the state turned the town into a State Park in order to preserve it. And that’s one of the keys to the place. They preserve the buildings, rather than restore them. This isn’t some glorified amusement park recreation of history. This is the real thing.
As you and your kids stroll the walkways, it’s easy to imagine what the rough and rowdy town might have looked like filled with prospectors, settlers and thieves. The buildings are in surprisingly good condition and are filled with character. There’s the saloon, sheriff’s office, fancy hotel, schoolhouse and blacksmith’s shop, just to name a few. Many of these buildings are safe to enter and explore. My kids well remember one house that was used to quarantine children during a measles epidemic, and is said to be haunted by those who died. I’m not saying we believe in ghosts, but my entire family definitely felt something in that house and couldn’t get out fast enough. Part of history coming to life is when imaginations run wild!
According to some people, Bannack is filled with ghosts, from the sick house to the school room to the hilltop cemetery that overlooks the town gallows. If you visit in October, the ghosts will be walking the streets with you during the Bannack Ghost Walks. These special performances are based on actual historical events, including gunfights, hangings and other ghastly misdeeds. You’ll need tickets and reservations for the Ghost Walks, as these spooky reenactments are very popular in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
Bannack State Park has other special events during the year that are fun for the entire family. On the third weekend of July, the park hosts Bannack Days, a celebration of the town and its special place in Montana history. Families can have fun with activities such as gold panning, pioneer food, wagon rides and even wild gunfights in the street.
In September there is the Living History Weekend, which focuses on historically accurate demonstrations of life in an old west town. Kids can experience the daily life of a miner, blacksmith, teacher, barkeep and town sheriff.
Of course, Bannack State Park is open year-round if you just want to explore on your own. During one of our family visits, we were the only people in the park. Talk about spooky! Every creak of a door and gust of wind had us looking over our shoulders.
Entry fee is only $6 for your entire vehicle if you’re out of state; it’s free for Montana residents. There are no extra costs for Bannack Days or the Living History Weekend, but the Ghost Walks will cost an extra $10 for adults and $5 for children. During the summer, hour-long guided tours are available if you want to hear some vivid tales of the town’s most memorable characters. The park is easy to access, too, located about 20 miles off I-15 near Dillion, Montana. It is close to the Idaho state line, too.
If you’re a camping family, they have two different campgrounds in the park. But if you like something a little nicer, I highly recommend Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in Anaconda, Montana. It’s about an hour north of Bannack, just outside of Butte. We’ve used it as a base of operations for exploring western Montana, and it’s always a joy to end a tiring day by taking a dip in the hot pools.
– Phil Corless
Phil Corless is an at-home dad of two living in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2004, he has been writing about fatherhood and family at the Idaho Dad blog. He believes the best way for kids to learn about the world is to travel through it.