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Arrested decay: Visitors still drawn by Montana's stuck-in-time Garnet Ghost Town
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Arrested decay: Visitors still drawn by Montana's stuck-in-time Garnet Ghost Town

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GARNET GHOST TOWN — Some people ascend the winding road to Garnet Ghost Town in search of actual ghosts. Some are looking for a place to live and work as a volunteer. Some imagine revitalizing an abandoned town.

But as an increasing number of people visit the old mining town each year, park management are committed to keeping Garnet in a state of “arrested decay” with the hope that people enjoy its history, regardless of what drew them to visit.

"I want them to just enjoy public land," said Jake Thurman, the lead Bureau of Land Management ranger for the site. "If they're here for ghosts, they can find stuff online. We don't have anything to share, but if that's why they're here, they might as well enjoy the history. That's really the main thing. That's the whole point."

In the early 1860s, prospectors flocked to the area to work their way up the creeks and gulches to mine following strikes of gold and semi-precious stones. Miners established the town, which included a general store, saloon, jail and schoolhouse, and at its peak in 1898, Garnet was estimated to be home to roughly 1,000 residents, according to the BLM. But by 1905, many of the mines were abandoned, and by the 1940s, Garnet was a ghost town.

The town feels less abandoned today, though. Visitation is up this year to 350 people on a busy day, compared to 250 people on a busy day in previous years, said Maria Craig, an outdoor recreation planner for the BLM. That 40% increase comes without international visitors whose plans were dampened by the pandemic.

“This year’s been pretty crazy,” Craig said. “People started coming, and they didn’t stop.”

In the past, the town's history was the main attraction, but viral articles, TV shows, and a pandemic have diversified the pool of reasons tourists have flocked to the site in recent years.

“This place has gotten pretty popular,” Thurman said. “It’s made some ‘top 10’ lists, some ‘must visits’ in Montana. That changes it a little bit.”

The "ghost town" has also become especially popular with horror enthusiasts despite a lack of actual ghost stories, though some have reported the faint tinkling of piano keys drifting through the night.

“People really focus on that now that they’re doing haunted TV shows, and it's like ‘No, there’s not really any ghost stories,’” Craig said.

Five or six years ago, the search for the paranormal activity among some visitors led some of the town’s long-term volunteers to quit, Craig said.

“They didn’t like the way the town was changing,” Craig said. “I asked what’s changed, and they said ‘People coming up here asking abut the haunted part instead of the history.’”

As BLM looked to recruit more volunteers in 2016, national media outlets picked up a Missoulian article titled “Garnet Ghost Town seeks volunteer resident” and sensationalized the headline in articles such as one published by the Huffington Post titled “The Federal Government Will Put You Up In This Haunted Ghost Town, If You Dare.”

Although there was some truth to that and similar headlines — BLM would pay about $29 a day for volunteers’ sustenance — the national attention led to about 10,000 emails and countless calls from people all over the world, Craig said.

“The worldwide ones are always interesting because a lot of people ask if they come here, if it's a path to citizenship and just interesting things that you’d never think,” Thurman said.

In previous years, when the visitor’s center was open, people from all over the world would sign a guest log, but this year, staff are mostly keeping track by browsing license plates in the parking lot during peak hours. Thurman said he estimates about 75% of the visitors this year are from the West Coast.

Wendy Goodfellow, a visitor from Coarsegold, California, was among that group. Goodfellow said she was stopping on a road trip to visit her son in Seattle and decided to escape the smoke from wildfires.

"We looked at what places to visit along I-90," she said. "I like the way they’ve kept it not restored but kind of like, 'This is what it is, but we’re going to try to keep it going,'" she said. 

Craig, Thurman and others with the Bureau of Land Management oversee the town, restore buildings as needed, and record history so that visitors like Goodfellow can step back in time.

Small maintenance tasks like pounding nails are done by park rangers, but more detail-oriented preservation is tasked to historic preservation teams within Glacier National Park and the U.S. Forest Service.

Earlier this week, Thurman said a Forest Service team replaced a few window frames with ones they built based on historical photos of the buildings. Apart from the lighter wood that differentiates the new window frames, it's hard to tell how much work has been done to maintain the buildings. Some look like they're falling apart, but Thurman said that's kind of the goal.

"We keep it in a state of arrested decay so that you don't improve it, but you don't allow it to deteriorate any more," Thurman said. "It’s just maintaining it how it is."

In October, Thurman said a crew from Glacier will lift one of the cabins and replace some of the ground logs. Other maintenance tasks that aren't as obvious to visitors include snow removal from the roofs of buildings in the winter. 

BLM funds most of the maintenance through park fees, which are $3 per person. Thurman said it's an honor system, but "if you enjoy it, that $3 is what’s going to keep it here."

Some people come back year after year, like Bill and Mike Moraca, two brothers related to Frank Davey, who owned Davey's Store, a staple of the town that sold dry goods, jewelry, shoes, mining tools and other things.

Mike said they visited for the first time when they were 6 or 7 years old.

“A lot of the buildings were just decrepit,” Bill said. "It’s great now. I hope they keep going."

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