As playwright Henrik Ibsen remarked, “There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand in the sea.” Montana is no exception. The ghosts of miners and shopkeepers, cowboys and Natives, madams and johns still wander through their old haunts. Virginia City is especially well known for its restless spirits, but it not the only haunted place in Montana, not by a country mile: there are hundreds of stories about the Last Best Place’s restless souls.
Bannock, once a booming territorial capital, now a metaphysical ghost town as well, has had many odd yarns told about it. People brave enough to stay there during the winter months have reported mysterious honky-tonk music rising from the center of town, so loud it sounds like a party, and yet vanishing suddenly when approached. At Little Big Horn ghostly forms are said to appear and clash at night. And at the Old Prison Museum in Deer Lodge, visitors brave enough to go into the Hole, the solitary confinement cell that admits no light, have supposedly reported feelings of something malevolent clawing at them in the dark.
But Your Humble Correspondent, despite a life-long interest in the supernatural, has never seen a ghost. My grandmother sometimes claimed to be able to detect spirits and guardian angels, and to hear disembodied voices speaking. One memorable evening she exclaimed that she had just seen a figure which passed between her antique end table and the wall. I remember that as a kid I was simultaneously thrilled, scared, and a little jealous.
So I set out to scare me up some ghosts, starting at the Butte-Silverbow Archives, which if we are to believe the Internet is one of Montana’s most haunted locations. One Web site called Haunted Places claims that it has had over 200 “episodes” reported (www.hauntedplaces.org/item/butte-archives/), including books thrown across rooms, ringing alarms though power has been disconnected. One story has it that a visitor walked in on a group of phantom firefighters from a century past playing a card game. Turns out the Archives used to be the old firehouse.
I emailed the Archives to inquire about what sounds like a rather serious spirit infestation. The response I got sounds almost like they protest too much: “We are delighted to inform you that we are not a haunted place.”
Undeterred, I turned next to Bear Canyon, where another persistent Internet rumor (www.hauntedplaces.org/item/bear-canyon-campground/) has it that a girl in white tries to coax female hikers and campers away to some inscrutable fate. So of course I decided to hike the trail, taking an unsuspecting female companion along as bait. And though I was somewhat disappointed (and she relieved) that nothing tried to lure her away, there was something odd about some abandoned shacks we found on the way. Admittedly, it could have been the effect of the elevation, and the fact that I was out of breath.
At any rate weird feelings aren’t ghosts. I had to continue my journey. And it was then that I realized there are places where staff (and guests) have repeatedly encountered unexplainable things, and where I could, if brave enough, stay the night.
Built as a luxury hotel by the Great Pacific Railroad in 1910, the first in Glacier Park, the Belton Chalet currently has what General Manager Christie Dunn calls a “year round resident guest.” Three, in fact. Dunn has even had her own strange experience: “I always would get a weird feeling in specific areas of the property, but one late winter afternoon I found myself working alone in the main chalet building. I heard my name, looked around, and no one was there. I quickly got my keys and left for the day.”
While I was unable to stay at the Chalet, I was able to make it to Chico Hot Springs in Pray, MT. I had been told about Chico’s haunted reputation ever since I was a kid, so I was excited to book room 349, which is famous for its ghostly activity. It is in room 349 that Percie Knowles, once the widowed owner of Chico, spent her last time at the resort. Under her reign it was briefly transformed into a popular hospital, until a sharp drop in its popularity in the 1930s resulted in her tearing down the hospital wing and eventually, due to ill health, setting up in Room 349. By the end one of her only comforts was sitting in her rocking chair by the window, admiring the view of the mountains. Her rocking chair still moves by itself sometimes, still cranes towards the view if turned.
My night in Chico was mostly without incident, except that at 1:30 in the morning I was awakened by something like a low growl, which admittedly could have been my stomach. In addition, some things seemed to move around the room in between visits, but it could have been my forgetfulness. Regardless, there is something spooky about Chico, despite its rustic and comfortable charm. The narrow hallways, the knowledge that it used to be a hospital, and the occasional appearance, according to staff, of several spirits all made it an uncanny stay.
The same is true of the Sacajawea Hotel in Three Forks. Opened in 1910 and weathering two world wars, economic downturn, and a bevy of owners, it has recently been completely renovated and reopened as a luxurious historical hotel. And while sometimes a renovation will chase away spirits, the spirits at Sacajawea and the adjoining Madison House are as present as ever. While the Madison House is currently used for storage, a helpful ghost enthusiast and desk clerk named Jacob was kind enough to give me a tour, warning me that a malevolent entity lived at the top of the stairs and liked to try to push people down.
Again, insensitive as I seem to be about the spiritual, I didn’t see anything but I will admit to a palpable sense of dread throughout the Madison House that contrasts wildly with the old fashioned comfort of the Hotel itself. And though the hotel is said to be haunted by three spirits
I must admit that even in the room in which I was staying, ostensibly the most haunted room, a room where a young woman named Anastasia hung herself from a support beam, I felt only goodwill and contentment.
So while I had a great deal of fun chasing after these ghosts, I am still a little wistful. Why couldn’t I have had the experience of encountering something metaphysical?
But sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, because almost as soon as I had typed the word “metaphysical,” my computer shut down and refused to turn back on, necessitating that I retype the whole article from my notes. A quick Google search reveals that ghosts love to tamper with electronics. Did I take something with me from one of those haunted hotels? Does something not want me to write about their incorporeal existence? Ok, now Your Humble Correspondent will own up to being just a little creeped out.
If you’d like to stay the night in one of these hotels listed, here is their contact information:
Belton Chalet West Glacier (888) 235-8665
Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa Pray (406) 333-4933
Sacajawea Hotel Three Forks (406) 285-6515
We’d like to know:
Have you ever had an unexplained experience? Have you seen or heard or interacted with some kind of phenomena not recognized by science, including but not limited to one of the following:
• ESP or other psychic powers
• Cattle Mutilations
• Witchcraft, hexing, or other spell casting
Please send anecdotes to be used on the Montana Writers blog to [email protected]
Helena was born of the gold rush, nurtured in the wealth of its financiers, and raised on the political struggles that formed Montana’s cornerstones. The lawless gold camp and its dozen hangings left an indelible imprint on the modern community; remnants of this violent past remain if you know where to look. Explore the legacy of the hangman’s tree and meet ghostly miners of a bygone era. A teenager in a yellow dress, horses thundering through a modern kitchen, footsteps on a wooden bridge, and windswept landscapes where spirits travel suggest that the present and past intertwine with the supernatural.
Historian, storyteller, and award-winning author Ellen Baumler weaves a ghostly web that captures Helena’s distinct personality and brings its darker past to life. Illustrated, $19.99. Published September 2014 by The History Press, www.historypress.net.