GARNET — In this ghost town in the dead of winter, the stillness of the night rarely is broken. It’s a pure silence that makes a person think they heard something, slightly beyond ear’s range. Was it the gentle tinkling of chandelier lights?
On crusty snow, the nearly full moon casts shadows that fall between cabins abandoned a lifetime ago, when golden dreams gave way to reality. Out of the corner of the eye, something moves — or did it? And is that a light on in the old hotel, or merely the moon’s reflection off the windowpane?
It’s hard to believe that this hidden alcove nestled at 6,000 feet between Helena and Missoula was home to 1,000 people in 1895, mainly gold miners and their families. They built stores and bars — 13 of those — a hotel and homes. In the Honeymoon Cabin, newlyweds could live until displaced by another newly married couple who needed a place to stay. Dancers waltzed across Union Hall, whose maple spring board floor was one of the finest in the state. At Frank Davey’s store, you could mail a letter, get your gold assayed and purchase shoes, tools and cuts of meat.
Yet within 10 short years, only 150 people called Garnet home. A fire in 1912 destroyed most of the business section. When Davey died in 1947, walking to one of his mining claims, the town was formally considered abandoned even though some residents, like Marian Dahl, lived there into the 1960s.
During the summer, Garnet comes alive with tourists eager to glimpse into the past. The Bureau of Land Management, along with the Garnet Preservation Association, work together to protect and stabilize about 25 remaining buildings. Interpretive sites are scattered throughout town and a visitor center is open every day.
In the winter, though, the windows are shuttered and the doors locked. Gates are closed at the two roads leading into the ghost town, so the only way in is by foot or by snowmobile. A mining claim is still being worked west of Garnet, but can’t be seen from the ghost town.
It’s only in winter that the public can rent two historic cabins from the BLM. For $30 per night, people can stay in the one-room McDonald Cabin, built in the early 1930s by the Hall brothers; for $40, they can rent the larger Ole and Marian Dahl house, built just down the street from their saloon in 1938.
For the adventurous, a winter visit to Garnet is a chance to better understand the trials and challenges experienced by Montana settlers during the long, dark days.
Oregon natives Steve and Kristina Lehecka brought their 2-year-old son, Lucas, to Garnet recently, along with Kristina’s parents, Cris and Jennie Criswell, and 8-year-old Allie Ocain. As the children sledded down the street — similar to what Garnet children probably did — the adults peeked into store windows and stomped their feet to stay warm, wondering aloud about the hearty souls who eked out a living here.
They entered the Dahl house, where a blazing fire in the small wood-burning stove was taking the chill out of the log structure. Two leather and log loveseats, as well as two similar rocking chairs, flanked the fireplace. A wire above it was lined with clothes pins for drying wet mittens and hats; below it, the wooden floor rises to a peak in the middle. Three propane wall lamps gave off a dim light in the waning winter afternoon.
“I can’t believe someone lived here like this,” Kristina Lehecka says, surprised at the sparseness of the surroundings. “It would be hard.”
And the Dahls were lucky. The smaller, box-like one-room miners’ cabins all have dirt floors and large cracks between the chinked logs. Even in the fancier homes, outhouses were a way of life, with anything from a single-holer for the miners to a four-seater at the hotel.
The vision alone of a bunch of people seated next to one another, especially in single-digit temperatures, isn’t for the weak of stomach.
It was a tough life, and some say that while no one lives in Garnet now, the souls of some of the former residents remain.
Ellen Baumler, the Montana Historical Society’s resident ghost whisperer and author, wrote that at midnight, people have heard ghostly fingers striking piano keys, with the music floating across the empty buildings.
She said that especially during the winter months, Garnet visitors see visions and hear unearthly noises.
“Late at night, the spirits of Garnet come out to play in the moonlight,” Baumler wrote in “Montana Chillers.” “Sometimes, in the deep winter quiet, a piano tinkles in Kelley’s Saloon and the spirits dance to ghostly music. Men’s voices echo in the empty rooms. But the moment a living, human hand touches the building, the noises stop.”
She adds that winter visitors tell of transparent figures, clad in old-fashioned clothing, wandering the streets and footprints in fresh snow leading into buildings but never come out from them.
“They cause no trouble and anyone who visits the deserted town in the dead of winter should be prepared to meet them,” Baumler wrote. “They hide in the shadows, laugh in the wind, and come out when you least expect them.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com