Bannack is a remote ghost town in Montana, far from everywhere, nestled among rolling hills split by the small Grasshopper Creek that flows out onto vast plains of wiry Rocky Mountain scrubland 25 miles west of Dillon. The town flourished in 1862 when gold was discovered in the creek. The population swelled to over 10,000, and the town became capitol of the Montana Territory in 1864.
Bannack is now a Montana state park and national historic site, although it doesn’t seem to be staffed year round (it certainly was not when I visited during the cold days of March). The town isn’t popular among tourists due to it’s remote location, however it sports a storied past. Rumors persist that the town sheriff ran a gang of highwaymen known as the Innocents whose trade was in robbing and killing travelers as far south as Salt Lake City. In 1863 the locals formed a posse to hunt down bandits and robbers, calling themselves the Montana Vigilantes. The posse caught and hung 24 suspected criminals, ending the reign of terror former sheriff Henry Plumber.
In 1877 the battle of Big Hole became a massacre as the US Army surprised an encampment of Nez Perce indians on the Big Hole River. Remnants of the tribe fled south in a fighting retreat, reportedly killing settlers they encountered in the process. The warband’s march looked to threaten Bannack, and the residents formed a quick posse to stand guard. The Nez Perce turned north and fled toward Canada before entering Bannack, however the incident convinced many of the residents who had remained after the gold boom had died to leave for more prosperous parts. The town struggled on until 1940 when the last doors were closed and the buildings abandoned to the hard Montana winter.
Rumors persist of apparitions and hauntings. When I traveled through Bannack, I felt a certain forlorn pall so common among abandoned places that once housed a bustle of human activity, however I am certain the “ghosts” I experienced were the ones I brought with me. The nearby hills shelter Bannack from the wind that whips across the northern plains, keeping snow from settling even in the depths of winter. Below is my 2008 journal entry after exploring this town.
Montana in late March was still cold and barren, locked within winter’s icy grip. Strong, biting winds blew snow off the barren hilltops and down rocky valleys where it collected in great white sheets. This was not the light, fluffy snow of early winter but the dirty, tired ice leftover as winter proved reluctant to give way to the revitalizing warmth of spring. The seasons were on the cusp of transition, yet the known routine of the old felt too comfortable to leave behind. Spring and the renewal it brings was still just a promise hanging longingly too far in the distance. Nature mirrored my own internal struggle with transition– my journey began more than 2,000 miles away in North Carolina as I left the Army and Iraq behind, both figuratively and literally. On the trip home I stopped to visit a friend in Montana only to find I was not yet ready to return to the routine of a ‘normal’ life. I realized then that I was not traveling, but wandering, searching for something unknown, and that wandering had brought me to Bannack, alone. Like the seasons I was in reluctant transition– no longer a soldier, but not yet ready to be a civilian. And like this abandoned town in the heart of Montana, I was lost and carrying my own ghosts.
The former town of Bannack lies 25 miles west of Dillon, south of Wisdom, in the very definition of middle of nowhere. The road turns to gravel, then to trail as it departs the highway, winding across plains into foothills before finding Grasshopper Creek and turning south into a small hollow between the hills. An ancient cemetery overlooked the road leading into town, overgrown and long since abandoned as the settlers migrated elsewhere- a reminder of the lives that had once called this desolate place home. Soon I was leaving my car behind and entering the ghost town of Bannack. Although now a state park the town is attended seasonally. There is a difference between lonely and alone: I was the only living human for tens of miles.
Empty wooden buildings stood along a single dirt street much as they had been built, as though I had wandered into town before the residents had woken from a long night’s sleep. Wind whipped over the hilltops into this hollow, and whistled through the windows as the only sound other than my own footfalls in this abandoned town. Even the birds and insects had yet to return from the long winter.
There is a feeling that often accompanies ghost towns and abandoned places: a forlorn sadness, emptiness as though the buildings themselves passed away after their humans disappeared. It is as though these dwellings carry a spirit within them that longs for human occupation, like a pet without its master or a grandparent who must come to terms with their existence in final years being memory of what they once were until time finally takes its toll and they pass from the moment, the here and now, into the then and never again. Sometimes these buildings seem to awaken when humans come to visit, elated to once again have a purpose and a family, to be warm and protective like a hen sheltering her chicks. Sometimes, they are indifferent, knowing too well that your presence is fleeting; within moments you will disappear and leave them once again alone, just like all the others did. And sometimes the buildings are hostile, lashing out at the visitors as trespassers while making clear that your presence is unwelcome.
Warily I began to crawl through the town. Building to building I went, taking pictures and soaking in the solitude. Before long even my own footsteps grew quiet as though the silence of the town was sacred, like the alcoves in a university library where precious, old leather bound tomes are kept, or a cemetery after visiting hours. One dare not make a sound, not from fright nor respect, but because of awareness that you simply don’t belong here and have no right to disturb the nature order. Metal objects were scattered about, rusting red in the weather next to piles of clean white snow. Nearby a dilapidated wagon rested on broken wheels while a stagecoach sat quietly tucked inside the remains of a shed, never again to carry passengers to this place.
Outside the schoolhouse an oddly shaped children’s merry-go round sat fenced into the play yard, unused, yet ready as though at any moment children would flood out and occupy the grounds again. I could almost hear their playful giggling riding as whispers on the chill wind. Nearby the sheriff’s house and jail cell door lay open and rusting prompting one to wonder of the characters once locked away within. The cell was deep and black, a standing testament to frontier justice and the hanged men of Henry Plumber’s gang. Perhaps it was the ghosts I brought with me however this town did not feel as empty as it appeared. The feeling of someone or some other presence was pervasive, raising the hairs on my neck. I felt as though I had been walking on someone’s property uninvited; trespassing on private turf. Occasionally I swore I glimpsed a flash of movement outside the windows, a fleeting shadow living just out of sight. During momentary breaks in the wind I swore I heard soft footfalls behind me, just out of sight. Again dismissed this as an overactive imagination, demons I had carried with me trying to break free, to gain a life of their own in this isolated place.
The longer I explored, the stronger this presence became as though the ghosts of this town had not left with the last settlers. The eerie feeling became unsettling as I moved through the town, creeping in and out of houses. Over and over I told myself it was simply apparitions created by an unsettled mind and not the long-passed phantoms of gold miners. Chill wind whistled across the hills and down into the valley below, like long bony fingers gripping all in a biting cold.
Seeking shelter from the cold wind I hustled into the largest building in Bannock, the grande Hotel Meade. Two stories tall, this building was majestic when new. A grand staircase led up to the second floor, paint peeling from the banisters. Wallpaper made by hand from newspaper scraps lay in strips, crumbling and rotting off the walls and exposing layer upon layer of previous papering. Ceiling tiles sagged and more than a few lay on the floor, dashed to pieces, scattered. Legends say the hotel is haunted by several spirits, from that of a young girl drowned in the creek to an old woman on the second floor.
I crept through the hotel quietly as if by emulating a ghost I would not arouse any spirits, imagining what this place must have been like when it was new and occupied by less ethereal beings. A grand brick building, the Hotel Meade as read the faded paint above the second story windows, made for the centerpiece of Bannock. Guests from all across the mid-west would have come here seeking fortunes in the gold rush. Working ladies would have turned business in the few spare beds upstairs. A large iron stove sat in the kitchen, selling hot meals to prospectors and passers-by at the height of business. Housing the only vault, this building was the very heart of the frontier town. That vault now stood open and long since empty.
Wind still buffeted the buildings and seeped through cracks in the walls and windows, but inside the hotel I was sheltered from the worst. I spent a long time here, waiting out the gusting wind and trying to stay warm. One-hundred fifty years before people had gathered here for protection as the Indian Wars and Big Hole massacre pushed violence into the area. What an interesting turn of events then, that just as they had once sought shelter here, so too was I. Hearing the building creek in the wind was a welcome break from the silence. The creepy feeling that had followed me through town subsided, as though this old hotel was happy to once again serve guests. I felt as though if I needed to stay for the night, this building would not raise objections. Stories describe several ghosts who supposedly inhabit the hotel, showing themselves from time to time. I climbed the stairs, poked into each room, and huddled in the lobby for a long while. If ghost do indeed reside there, they did not choose to show themselves to me. Finally the wind gusts died down and I was ready to leave. Stepping out onto the front porch of the hotel I was once again confronted with the unsettling feeling of another presence. Something told me that this time it was no figment of my imagination.
Trying to keep my sanity and deciding my welcome in town overstayed, I descended the steps to the street quietly and swiftly, making nary a sound. Rounding the corner of the hotel I found the town’s occupants, those ephemeral flashes I had seen from the corners of my eyes, the ghosts whose footfalls had followed me through town. Halted mid-stride, I stared at these visions manifest, and a herd of surprised white tail deer stared back at me. The feeling of being watched, the notion of something stalking along behind me, just out of sight… as I crept through the buildings the curious deer followed at a respectful distance. When the icy wind gusted and I had taken shelter in the hotel, a herd of deer had moved into town to take refuge amongst the buildings. Dozens of them now stood between the buildings and in the street as though they were the long lost residents. Nodding to the surprised doe standing only a few feet in front of me I turned and made my way back to the car. As I drove away from Bannock, the unsettling feeling grew into comfort at the knowledge that the personal ghosts I had brought with me had not escaped, and for now remained firmly within my head.
The story is finished, but the coolest part is right here!