It sounds almost too good to be true: a beautiful mountain town littered with rustic cabins has offered people the chance to live there without paying a dime. But if you’re thinking of applying to move there, you might want to consider one of the possible reasons why bedding down here is free of charge...
Welcome to Garnet
A small town sits tucked away in the mountains of Granite County, maybe 20 miles east of Missoula, Montana. Accessed by 11 miles of dirt track, Garnet enjoys a picturesque location surrounded by forest — 6,000 feet up from sea level. Yet nobody lives there.
Yes, there’s something amiss about this town. Behind bare windows and open doors, the rooms are empty and show signs of decay. Once-proud establishments and homes are replete with this haunted quality. The only people are curious passers-by.
Kelley’s Saloon, a bar that once hummed with laughter and music, sits quietly gathering dust, while the Wells Hotel still stands but hasn’t seen a guest for many years. And although you can still pay a visit to Davey’s Store, you might be waiting a while for service.
Packed with gold
Montana’s Garnet Mountains first attracted miners in the 19th century. Moving northwards from spent mines in Colorado and California, the workers were drawn to the area by gold-carrying quartz veins running through the hills. And decades later, people still pan for gold in the Garnet Range, though it pales by comparison to the hunger for a big score that lingered there during the 19th century when the town was first born.
A town blossoms
Then, in 1895, a mill for crushing ore was erected in the First Chance Gulch valley. Soon a small town grew up around it. And while initially named Mitchell, after the mill’s founder, Dr. Armistead Mitchell, they re-christened the town Garnet in 1897. Incidentally, Garnet took its new name from the valuable red stones found in the region, and not long after, many more would have the area on their radar.
A booming business
And not long after the town was founded, local miner Sam Ritchey struck gold. What’s more, by January 1898 business was booming – and Garnet was home to almost 1,000 folks seeking their fortunes.
Hustle and bustle
With the people came all of the facilities and amenities needed to support a community of that size. There were four hotels, two barber shops, a school, a doctor’s office, four stores, and an impressive 13 saloons — as well as countless other buildings erected almost overnight.
A point of no return
But as the 20th century rolled around, things began to change. Gold was becoming harder and harder to come by, and many of the mines were leased out. Around 1905, then, a number of the mines had been deserted entirely, and as few as 150 people were left living in the town. It was the beginning of the town's end.
Sound the alarm
Then, in 1912, disaster struck: a fire raged through the wooden town, destroying many of its dwellings. But instead of rebuilding, many residents chose to simply move away. Garnet became a ghost town.
All is lost
Cabins were left empty of their inhabitants — but with all their furniture left intact inside, as if the owners had stepped out on an errand one day and never returned. Only Davey’s Store remained open, catering to an ever-dwindling number of customers.
Turning it around
Interestingly, though, the town experienced a brief resurgence in 1934, when the government doubled the price of gold. Another generation of would-be miners took over the empty cabins of Garnet, hoping to make their fortunes in the hills. However, this new popularity was cut short by changes brought about by America’s entry into the Second World War. So the residents once again left Garnet, this time never to return. And the old buildings of the town were left to rot and decay.
An uncertain future
Still, thanks to the work of the Garnet Preservation Association, this fascinating slice of American history has been maintained for future generations to enjoy. The non-profit has managed to keep a number of the buildings intact, too, including the saloon, the hotel, and the general store.
Open to all
Today, Garnet is actually open to visitors all year round — although those hoping to see it during winter will need a snowmobile or skis. That said, it’s during the summer that many people take the U.S. Bureau of Land Management up on its offer to stay in the town for a small fee. And some have even gotten it free of charge — despite a creepy catch.
Free to live
Each year, you see, a team of volunteers move into the ghost town to carry out maintenance and look after the tourists who arrive each day. In return, these volunteers may well get the opportunity to live in one of the historic cabins free of charge and even have a food allowance provided. But is it too good to be true?
Many locals believe that anyone spending the night in the ghost town could end up dealing with some spookily real spirits. These residents claim that Garnet is haunted by some of the numerous souls that have called the town home over the years.
According to historian Ellen Baumler, various people have reported ghostly experiences in the town, including witnessing a mysterious woman in a window of the hotel. She also claims that visitors have seen transparent figures walking the streets, not to mention footprints that enter but do not leave doorways.
Other reports refer to piano music and unexplained voices that can be heard echoing through the empty rooms. And although there is no mention of the hauntings on Garnet’s official website, the stories are apparently well known throughout the local community.