It was in the summer of 1862, that prospector John White stumbled upon a treasure trove of gold in the creek waters of what is now Bannack. This marked the inception of a new era for Bannack and the State of Montana, portraying itself as one of the final frontiers.
Initially named Willard Creek by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805, this creek got it's name changed in 1862 to grass hopper creek because of all the Grasshoppers in the area.
Word of this gold discovery spread like wildfire, sparking a new goldrush reminiscent of the California Gold Rush in 1848. A makeshift mining camp sprang to life almost overnight, with miners residing in tents and slapped together huts.Some men slept in caves dug out of the banks along the creek. The gold from Grasshopper Creek boasted an unprecedented purity of 99-99.5%, compared to the typical 95%, attracting a steady influx of prospectors. Bannack quickly became known as the New Eldorado of the North and had over 400 prospectors by October.
Some folks say that at its peak, Bannack boasted a population of around ten thousand, isolated and accessible solely via the Montana Trail. The town three hotels, a couple of bakeries, three blacksmith shops, two stables, a couple butcher shops, a grocery store, a restaurant, a brewery, a pool hall, four saloons and of course a red light district.
While Bannack's initial boom was short lived, the placer mines continued to yield gold, albeit on a smaller scale. The introduction of hydraulic mining in the late 1860s demanded even more water, prompting the construction of additional ditches, some stretching up to 30 miles.
By the late 1870s, placer mining dwindled, reducing Bannack's population to a few hundred residents. Despite sporadic lode and hydraulic mining activities, the town endured. Lode mining gained prominence as placer mining waned, with significant operations such as the Golden Leaf claims emerging in the late 1800s.
In 1890, the Golden Leaf Mining Company erected a new mill, electrifying both the mine and mill. Soon dredging became a lifeline for the local mining industry in the mid-1890s, with the first successful gold dredging operation in the United States taking place on Grasshopper Creek in 1895. The Fielding Graves dredge, powered by electricity, operated until 1902. This dredge was capable of mining upwards of 2000 yards of gravel per day.
Of course all these old towns have some unique characters that go down in history for one thing or another. In Bannack it was Henry Plummer, whowas the sheriff of Bannack. He faced accusations of leading a brutal group of road agents. Early reports suggested that this gang was responsible for over a hundred murders in the gold fields of Virginia City and Bannack, as well as the trails leading to Salt Lake City. Despite historical documentation only confirming eight deaths, some contemporary historians question the true nature of Plummer's gang, with others outright denying its existence. In any event, Plummer and two fellow deputies were summarily hanged in Bannack on January 10, 1864, without a formal trial. Numerous associates of Plummer met similar fates, either through lynching or banishment under the threat of death upon return. The Vigilance Committee, also known as the Montana Vigilantes, took matters into their own hands, informally trying and hanging twenty-two individuals in Bannack and Virginia City.
Another interesting person was Dr. Erasmus Leavitt, who gave up medicine for a time to become a gold miner. Dr. Leavitt arrived in Bannack in 1862, and alternately practiced medicine and mined for gold with pick and shovel. Although he find some success in gold mining, he soon found that he had more reputation as a physician than as a miner, and that there was greater profit in allowing someone else to wield his pick and shovel while he attended to being a doctor in the town.
Bannack holds a prominent place in gold mining history, securing its position as one of Montana's most vibrant and productive historic gold mining camps. While precise production records are either nonexistent or unreliable, estimates suggest that the Bannack mining district produced approximately $12,000,000 in gold from 1862 to 1930 with gold priced at $20.67 per ounce. The placer operations alone, from 1862 to 1876, contributed an estimated $3,000,000 worth of exceptionally pure gold.