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.
America's ghost town
Why? Because Garnet is the best-preserved ghost town in Montana — and one of the most intriguing in the whole country.
Abandoned for some 70 years, it offers a fascinating insight into an important era of America’s past.
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.
And although all volunteer positions are currently filled, those wanting to experience a real ghost town for themselves can hire a cabin during the winter months. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to experience one in all its spooky glory.
After all, ghost towns in the U.S. are few and far between — and even those accessible are not always worth the risk.
Bodie Bluff ghost town
One of those places was what’s now known as Bodie Bluff, a mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada. Mind you, the last of Bodie’s mines didn’t close its doors for good until 1942, owing to a direct government order resulting from America’s involvement in World War II.
The town’s Post Office shuttered the same year and mining operations never recommenced postwar – leaving the place completely desolate. Amazingly, Bodie had been called a “ghost town” as early as 1915, but by the 1940s that description was incredibly apt.
Just under two decades later, the U.S. government designated Bodie a National Historic Landmark.
And by 1962 it had become Bodie State Historic Park. In fact, it’s now looked after by California State Parks, which has maintained the buildings in the same condition of “arrested decay” for the past half-century. The result is a ghost town that’s effectively frozen in time.
Explored by YouTuber
But with this novelty status comes a modern influx of tourism. You see, around 200,000 people now visit Bodie State Historic Park every year.
Among them is Josh, a YouTuber who travels around abandoned locations, exploring local legends, urban myths and places of interest. His YouTube channel, Exploring With Josh, has almost four million subscribers. And in 2016, he paid a visit to the wild west ghost town.
Left almost untouched
At the first house he encounters, the California State Parks’ preservation attempts are already evident. Rather than restoring the buildings, the state body has simply maintained their structural integrity – in this case, by changing the windows.
And that approach has clearly extended to the buildings’ interiors, because the house still contains the original furniture from when it was abandoned decades ago.
Indeed, it’s obvious just from looking at the furniture that it’s all been left completely untouched. You see, the wallpaper is peeling, there are cracks in the walls, and the furnishings are caked in a thick layer of dust.
That’s not unique to the first house that Josh encounters, either – it’s a common theme throughout all of Bodie’s buildings.
The next building Josh encounters is the Methodist Church, which was first constructed in 1882. As with the house, many of its original features are still intact – including almost all the pews, and the organ along the back wall.
Although a fence prevents modern-day visitors from entering the building, you can still gaze inside and imagine what once was.
Stepping back in time
As he continues around the town, Josh rhapsodizes, “This is seriously a blast from the past just walking through here. All this history is still here and kept up.
That’s what I really love about it.” And while much of that history is gated behind fences, there are plenty of the 100 or so buildings that visitors can walk through.
By way of example, Josh wanders into a house with an open door. Like the first building he encountered, the interior offers an authentic, unaltered snapshot of life in Bodie.
And remnants of furniture litter the rooms, including chairs, beds and cabinets, while crockery still rests on the kitchen table, as if the house was suddenly abandoned mid-meal.
Not without risk
But not all the buildings are so well-preserved. Indeed, at one point Josh comes across a structure that’s in a real state of disrepair.
Planks of wood are spread across the foundations, while huge timber slabs rest haphazardly between the ceiling and walls. And Josh points out that a similar building has been blocked to visitors, but this one remains open.
When the original residents of Bodie abandoned their homes, some of them also abandoned their vehicles. For instance, Josh points his camera at the rusted ruins of what was presumably once a well-loved car – but is now an almost unidentifiable wreckage.
Elsewhere, a long-forgotten 1937 Chevrolet Coupe lies discarded, doomed to forever rest under the intense California sun.
While indoor plumbing became more widespread over the 19th century, no U.S. city had a comprehensive sewer system before 1885.
It makes sense, then, that the citizens of Bodie would still rely on outhouses for their toilet trips. And, true to form, Josh soon stumbles across the remains of one of these antiquated restrooms.
Saloon still stands
Considering 65 of them once lined Bodie’s mile-long Main Street, it’s little surprise that at least one saloon still stands in the town. This particular example is another building that’s off-limits to the public.
But looking through the enormous window reveals a bar, piano and even a roulette table. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the evening entertainment once offered to the town’s miners.
Another relic of Bodie life that’s survived its various fires and disasters is its stores. In fact, Josh comes across one that’s still fully-stocked with goods: from chairs and lamps to canned food and even long-expired medicine.
Upon seeing the various detritus, he exclaims, “It’s almost like an apocalypse happened!”
Almost as equally well-preserved is Bodie’s enormous schoolhouse, which once provided education to more than 600 children. Now, it shut down in 1942 in tandem with the forced closure of the town’s last mine.
But a glance inside reveals that not much has changed in the decades since. Indeed, desks are still strewn around the room, and there’s even writing on the blackboard.
Hard to access
Having toured through the remnants of the ghost town, Josh heads up to one of the surrounding hills to look over the valley. From there, we can see the lone road that leads into the town.
Situated off State Highway 395, the 13 mile-long trail is bumpy, dusty and slow-going, but that doesn’t put off the hundreds of thousands of people who rock up to Bodie every year.
Closed to the public
While it’s obviously no longer in operation, the Standard Consolidated Mining Company Stamp Mill still stands tall in Bodie. Unlike most of the buildings that are open to the public, however, access to this particular slice of gold rush history is accessible only by guided tour.
As a result, Josh is unable to enter.
Rumor has it that Bodie may now be a ghost town in more ways than one, because some suspect it’s literally haunted. However, it’s thought that the lightheaded sensation many visitors report may simply be down to the town’s impressive altitude of 8,375 feet.
“People often experience what they expect,” local photographer Jeff Sullivan told Business Insider in 2016.
Josh caps off his video by pushing that altitude even higher with a drone camera, which he sends up for a bird’s-eye view. His 10 minute-long exploration of the wild west town has since accrued more than 1,700 comments, mostly from people fascinated with the long-forgotten locale.
For instance, one wrote, “I think this place looks so amazing! I can only imagine what it was like to live in that place.”
Threatened to close
In recent years, Bodie State Historic Park has been threatened with closure twice – once in 2009, then again the following year. On both occasions, though, the state of California managed to find a solution that allowed the town to remain open to visitors.
Yes, it’s currently administered by the Bodie Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving a number of historic towns across California.