Montana/Dakotas

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NPS Crew Stabilizes Garnet Cabin

 photos and story by David Abrams, Western Montana District Office

Hawe cabin 

Bob Mounsour walks around the Hawe House to get another board for stabilizing the interior of the leaning cabin.
hallway of the Wells Hotel
Ghostly light filters through the second-floor hallway of the Wells Hotel in Garnet.  The ghost town was recently place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gravity was taking its toll on the haunted cabin. For years, the Hawe House had been left to the elements—sun, rain, snow, rodents, and the occasional ghost—and because it was built on an incline at the southern edge of the Garnet town limits, it was starting to take a definite downhill lean.

Enter Nick Leritz and Bob Monsour, two National Park Service employees, who spent several weeks in September shoring up the inner walls of the 1930s-era dwelling. Thanks to an interagency agreement signed in 2002, Leritz and Monsour have come to Garnet for several years to conduct preservation work at the Montana ghost town.

“It’s interesting to see the different workmanship of the buildings, how they were built, and how they’re deteriorating,” Leritz said as he pulled a board through the cabin’s window before nailing it into place against one of the leaning walls. During Garnet’s gold-rush boom-town period, he added, “Everything was put up quick, without the idea that they’d be here for 50 years or even longer.”

Leritz and Monsour are racing against time as they spend a few weeks each year “on loan” to the BLM from the NPS.

“We want to arrest the decay,” Leritz said. “Once things are lost, you can never get them back.”

Last year, the NPS carpenter and maintenance mechanic worked together to restore the old-time swing at Warren Park, the playground at the end of a two-mile trail that starts in the Garnet visitor’s parking lot. The playground, which is a ghostly revelation at the end of the moderately-strenuous walk, was built around the turn of the 20th century by a bachelor who longed for the company of townsfolk on their way to his park.

“We take a lot of pride in the work we do, trying to duplicate the craftsmanship of the work which was done 100 years ago,” Leritz said.

They began their project on the Hawe House by digging a 4-foot hole on the west side of the building which was filled in with a terraced retaining wall. When they dug down to the building’s foundation, Leritz said, they found there wasn’t much left holding the house to the hillside. “We only found two bricks—everything else was rotten.”

The two workers anchored the building with new studs and layered the ground around the structure with rock, geocloth barriers, a drain pipe, and dirt. “Ideally, we’ll keep the moisture away from the cabin because that’s what’s killing these buildings,” Monsour said.

The importance of Garnet’s heritage as a classic example of a mining town has never been keener. Even as Leritz and Monsour were working on the Hawe House, the Garnet Historic District was being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation which had been decades in the making.

Efforts to place Garnet on the National Register date back to 1987 when a draft nomination was submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office by Bureau of Land Management archeologist Jerry Clark. That draft was returned with a request for revisions and additional information and documentation. Over the years, the nomination was worked on sporadically, but ultimately it never met SHPO’s standards for a recommendation of approval.

Last year, a concerted effort was made by individuals in the BLM’s Missoula Field Office to place Garnet on the National Register by addressing all of SHPO’s concerns. Working in cooperation with John Boughton of SHPO, the nomination was presented before the state historic review board in January where it was approved for forwarding to the Keeper of the National Registry in Washington, D.C. After a several-stage process which involved multiple agencies at the state and national levels, the nomination received approval from the Keeper of the Register on Aug. 8.

“It’s been a long and twisting road and we are extremely happy to see Garnet finally take its place on our nation’s honor roll of treasured historic sites,” said BLM historian Allan Mathews of the Missoula Field Office.

At its peak, more than 100 years ago, Garnet was a thriving gold-mining town with several hotels, a newspaper and assay office, two barber shops, a meat market, several general stores, a blacksmith shop, a jail, a stage stop, and almost a dozen saloons.

As the gold played out in the early 1900s, the once-prosperous town slowly slipped into a deep sleep until New Deal policies of the 1930s, which supported a doubling of the price of gold, resulted in mines reopening and several hundred residents returning to Garnet. The revival was short-lived and restrictions on the private use of dynamite applied at the onset of World War II dealt Garnet a death blow. Frank Davey, Garnet’s last full-time resident, passed away in 1947. 

Though never producing the tonnage of gold that its contemporaries at Bannack, Virginia City, Helena or Butte did, Garnet took its place as the last of the 19th-century Montana “boom” towns associated with the American dream of “striking it rich,” and became the predominant mining center of the Garnet Range. The ghost town is now publicly owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM implemented a preservation program in 1972, which entailed stabilizing buildings within the Garnet town site.       

Fifty of the seventy- nine contributing buildings were constructed before 1900; eight between 1900 and 1912, and the remaining nineteen during the mining revival of the 1930s.

Mathews said he’s especially pleased with the National Register designation because it will give the ghost town a higher national public profile, which could lead to more funding for stabilization and restoration projects like the one at the Hawe House.

“It may increase visitation numbers because many tourists focus on National Register sites,” he said. “It will remind people and agencies, from this point on, of the importance of preserving this nationally-recognized historic treasure.”

Meanwhile, Leritz and Monsour are doing their best to keep at least one building from rolling downhill.

“This is our heritage,” Monsour said. “We want people to be able to come here and see how people used to live.”