What a rush! Volunteers bring Montana gold mining ghost town to life

The response from volunteers seeking to rough it like gold rush miners at the Garnet ghost town was overwhelming, according to the Bureau of Land Management. (

The response from volunteers seeking to rough it like gold rush miners at the Garnet ghost town was overwhelming, according to the Bureau of Land Management. (

An old Montana gold mining outpost has gone from ghost town to boomtown.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is giving four history buffs the chance to live in Garnet, a preserved mining town on public land in Montana. But they'll have to help maintain it and they won't have the creature comforts of the current century.

“It’s primitive, to say the least,” U.S. Bureau of Land Management Ranger Nacoma Gainan told the the Missoulian. “It’s for people who love the outdoors and want to give back. There’s no electricity, no Wi-Fi and no running water. But there are trails to explore, artifacts to inspect. Volunteers are really left to their own devices after the visitors are gone.”

The response from those who want to volunteer and rough it like gold rush miners in the ghost town, located east of Missoula in the Garnet Mountains, was higher than expected.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” Maria Craig, outdoor recreation planner for the Missoula Field Office of the BLA, told “We’ve had 400 volunteers when we only need about four. We’re swamped. This is a time sensitive matter so we are now focusing on the upkeep.”

The volunteer residency program is conducted every September and usually lasts about a month. Quarters provided to the volunteers by the BLM consist of a private, furnished cabin with propane and wood stoves and a refrigerator. Participants get a food stipend, which they earn by providing visitor information, leading tours and staffing souvenir stands.

The volunteers usually perform their duties until 4:30 p.m. and then have the town to themselves. They also have the option of working with maintenance teams for the town or assisting with special events and developing exhibits.

“I started volunteering in 2001,” Janet Goodall, of Buffalo, N.Y., who has participated in the program for a dozen years, told “I needed a reason to be in Montana instead of wandering around aimlessly.”

Goodall, who runs the visitor center and give the occasional tour of the town, said she finds the experience rewarding, and that many tourists do, too.

“It’s a definite tourist attraction,” she said. “People arrived very surprised to see the town up in the mountains and 12 miles away from the closest main road.

“It’s become old hat to me, but people love it,” she added.

The remoteness and calming scenes of nature has a calming effect on visitors, Goodall said.

"People who visit seem to leave behind their urban personal distance," Goodall said. "I've seen visitors become friendly and helpful when unexpected things happen, like flat tires, empty gas tanks, keys locked in cars, minor injuries, and in one case, a diabetic faint.

"Maybe it's because cell phones don't work and help is hours away," she continued. "They do become much nicer."

The town, established in the 1860s, was originally named Mitchell. Its name was eventually changed in honor of its position atop the gold-rich "Garnet Lode." To this day, a small mine is still in operation near the boundary of the town site.

At the turn of the century, the town of Garnet was home to as many as 1,000 people. The town was abandoned in 1918, after it had been all but mined out - at least with techniques available at the time. A devastating fire six years earlier had also destroyed half the town, and it was never rebuilt. Preservationists have restored many of the building in town over the years including the union hall, a saloon, and several residences.

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych