Montgomery City, California
A Real Ghost Town
Text and photos by David A. Wright
California's Mono County contains a generous number of ghost towns, including the premiere ghost town of Bodie. But only 41 air miles southeast of Bodie lies a ghostly site that is for the most part forgotten, a town that was a contemporary of Bodie's earliest days. That site is Montgomery City.
When Mono County was still in its infancy, the town of Benton became a destination of miners seeking new strikes, and by 1865 was the county's largest town. The area became a beehive of activity and as usual, miners began roaming when nearby prospects became scarce.
A few miners were already finding ore where the perpendicular cliffs of Montgomery Canyon opened onto alluvium at the foot of the spectacular White Mountains, a few miles to the east. In 1863, the Montgomery District was formed, but the identity of the man who left his name on the land remains a mystery.
The town site of Montgomery City was soon christened, but it never got very big. Attorney Pat Reddy, well known throughout the entire Eastern Sierra region, moved to Montgomery City in 1864. He had recently lost his right arm in a Virginia City saloon shoot-out, and began dabbling in a law practice. He also ran for Recorder of the Montgomery Mining District and won 61 out of 99 total votes.
Montgomery City didn't live very long. There was never even a post office established in the town. The Montgomery Pioneer newspaper was apparently published in November and December 1864, though no issues are known to exist today. The paper was mentioned in Bodie newspapers, and one copy of it was reported to be in existence in 1881.
The Montgomery Pioneer's editor and publisher didn't stick around very long and later became Judge of the Superior Court of San Francisco. Mining in Montgomery City at the time can be well summed up in a letter to the editor he sent to the Inyo County Register (forerunner of the still-published Inyo Register of Bishop, CA).
"Benton, Mono Co., Cal., July 1, 1885, EDS. REGISTER -- In early days -- about '63 and '64, I believe -- some very rich rock was found in Montgomery Canyon, and a tremendous rush and excitement was the consequence. A lively little town of three or four thousand inhabitants at once sprung up, locations were made and mines opened out, and large shipments of rich ore made to San Francisco and other places. I have been told that some of the ore was worth from $2 to $3 a pound; but the ledges were broken on the surface, and apparently gave out, and the excitement soon subsided. In the meantime, parties prospecting around found rich ore on Blind Springs Hill."
Today, Bodie is the big ghost town attraction of Mono County. The original Benton is now a sleepy village with a small population. What maps show as Benton on U.S. 6 is a late comer in the area, established as Benton Station in 1880 when the narrow gauge Carson & Colorado Railroad came to the area. But Montgomery City is a true ghost town and rewards anyone who makes the rough but short trip up to it, an extremely enjoyable experience.
Nearly a dozen stone walls can easily be seen scattered throughout the site. They are all located within the confines of Montgomery Creek and the base of the White Mountains. One stone cabin nestled along the base of the mountains has a fairly intact roof with both square and round head nails, indicating later occupancy. Another stone cabin exhibits a nicely preserved hearth and fireplace.
While I have been unable to go further up Montgomery Canyon, I have heard reports of what appears to be a mill site along the creek, just above the town site. Mine dumps can be seen on the face of the ridge just south of Montgomery Canyon.
Montgomery City is situated at an elevation of just over 6,500 feet and affords pleasant summertime browsing, though it can be warm in the direct sunshine. The camp is truly ghosted, so normal backcountry caution is recommended. I've seen plenty of lizards and had one snake run across my foot (fortunately a red racer). The area is situated in heavy sagebrush and scrub, with scattered pinyon pines. Montgomery Creek normally flows year around.
Those expecting to find another Bodie need not apply here. But if you're out for gorgeous scenery, abundant fresh air and a pleasant outing, then come to Montgomery City.
Montgomery City is easily accessed from Bishop, Mammoth Lakes or Lee Vining, California.
From Bishop, take U.S. 6 north to Benton.
From Mammoth Lakes, one can either travel a series of scenic back roads around Crowley Lake to access Benton or take California Highway 120 from near Lee Vining (both routes closed in winter).
From Lee Vining, take California Highway 120 east to Benton (closed in winter).
Montgomery City is located 3.05 miles east of the junction of U.S. 6 and California Highway 120 at Benton (Station). From the junction, drive east 0.4 miles to the entrance to the Benton dump site. Turn north (left), then east and gradually climb the alluvium. At a point 2.95 miles from the U.S. 6 / CA120 junction, another road will cross just as you enter the pinyon belt.
This is a good point to turn southeast (right) and drive a short distance to park next to a shady pinyon pine on Montgomery Creek at the road's end. From this location, which is a nice picnic spot, the lowest of the ruins can be seen a short distance to the southeast.
The road from Benton dump site to Montgomery requires 4-wheel-drive, though it is not particularly challenging. It follows the alluvium for the most part, and while washouts occur in several places, there are obvious detours around the worse spots. The road is mainly tedious and slow, taking 45 minutes to an hour if you care about your vehicle's underside. Hikers often walk to the site, and my first trip to Montgomery City was on foot in 1981.
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