Montana’s Spirited Southwest
After awaking in my comfortable room at the Wingate I headed to the city’s newest lodgings, the Great Northern, to meet with someone that would start my exploration properly. Ellen Baumler is an Interpretive Historian for the Montana Historical Society but it was her other occupation that drew me in. Ellen is an author of several books that are filled with ghostly tales and stories. The side of Montana that lurks in the background is what she likes to call Spirit Tailings.
Helena’s beginnings started with four prospectors who were nearly out of food, provisions and patience. On July 14, 1864 they found gold in what is now known as Last Chance Gulch. Soon the town was filled with others seeking their fortunes and 3000 souls moved in. The Blackfoot Indians left the area and crude cabins filled the town. Today you can step back to that time by visiting the Pioneer Cabin, Helena’s oldest remaining structure.
Head ‘em UpAfter exploring Helena it was time to head out under that big sky that Montana is known for. My next stop on the spirit express took me to the Town of Deer Lodge and two amazing locations. The first was the Grant – Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, once a 10,000,00 acre spread. Don’t let the size fool you—in the arid area it takes close to 20 acres to provide enough vegetation for only one cow and a calf. Johnny Grant, the ranch’s founder, exemplifies the tough determined type that tamed this part of the west. In the 1850’s he started the town and established good relations with Indians by marrying several from different tribes. At the ranch he settled in with his Bannock tribe bride Querra, “who spoke Native Indian, French and English as well as made great butter and could ride any horse”.
As the sun set behind the surrounding mountains the house seemed to awaken, the diminishing sunbeams through the windows took me back in time. I thought about the note written to Conrad by Teddy Roosevelt, “Wish you were President and I was on the ranch”. Well put Mr. President! There is no fee to explore at times and a true picture of ranch life is reached.
Before heading to the big haunting hoped for that night we hunkered down at the Broken Arrow Steakhouse. Though Deer Lodge is a small town the Arrow provided big taste and raised a bigger question. Why is a great cut of meat from Montana cattle called a New York Strip? This was a definite Montana Strip and damn good. Beefed up we headed to the old Montana Prison to meet with some genuine ghost busters.
We had passed the imposing prison by day and the thought of spirit searching in the cold Montana night seemed ludicrous, but so necessary. The Montana Prison was established in 1871 to tame the outlaws and relieve the vigilantes of their growing number of lynchings. After entering I wondered if a quick hanging might not be a better choice.
five heavily breathing explorers rose against the light of provided flashlights and pitch-black skies. We slowly walked down the cells of the well-named East and West Siberia area. Ghosts or not it was just a damned spooky place. Riots, murder and mayhem filled the prison and indeed the vibes powerful.
Soak and Reflect
Montana is blessed with an abundance of hot springs bubbling up from the earth’s core. Bunking down at the Fairmont was sheer bliss, and its pools are open 24 hours a day. The water’s heat and Montana’s cool night air was a blessed mix, one I was sure Turkey Pete would have appreciated. I awoke to find myself surrounded by snow-capped peaks and headed to a coach ride to my first Ghost Town.
“Hop on and roll with the road” sounds like rock and roll lyrics. At the Gold Creek Overland Stage Company it is reality. Cover with buffalo robes and jostle up to Pioneer, a mining town that fell from 2000 residents to none. After exploring the remaining ruins we settled into a meal much done in the past, complete with biscuits, beans and coffee I poked into real ghost town. Cattle shit mixed with memories are forever imbedded in my mind. That afternoon I went on to my Montana bonanza.
The Living Spirit
The afternoon I arrived at the Broadway Hotel in Philipsburg I felt that the real spirits of Montana are very much alive. The Broadway, refurbished and run by Jim and Sue Jenner, is one of my best picks for stays in over thirty years of traveling. Each of its nine rooms is themed based. My room was the Andes Suite and was furnished with the couple’s collection from a yearlong stay in Ecuador. The lounge and library area is colorful and cozy. Best of all is the couple themselves; tickets to the Rotary fundraiser were given to me for the Opera House that evening, and what a night it was.
It was obvious that most patrons at the Silver Mill Restaurant were filling up before the night’s festivities and “howdy” was bantered fast and furiously. The historic Opera House was filled when I arrived and Jim introduced me to the Sheriff, Steve Immensch. This guy gives law enforcement a good name! This town was just plain friendly in a way that should be followed everywhere. The beautiful Opera House was only surpassed by the talent performing on the stage, a Montana legend named Kostas. Songwriter/singer Kostas has written many hit songs for stars but his own renditions are sheer magic.
Back to the Past and Future
The Sheriff escorted us up to the Ghost Town of Granite the next morning, and here the mountains surrounding P-Berg was a special place. Remains of cabins, saloons and mine shafts are all that are left of this once booming town. The snow was falling and it was again a step back into the past. Soon I headed to place that is a tragic remembrance for America and Native Americans, the Big Hole. Big Hole was the scene of a battle between US soldiers and the Nez Perce holdouts.
After visiting Big Hole the soothing, naturally heated pools at the Jackson Hot Springs Lodge were heavenly. On July 7 1806 Lewis & Clark had lunch by these springs, and they are the first springs mentioned in western history.
Big Bad BannackWith my time exploring SW Montana running out fast, I headed to Bannack, Montana’s first territory capital. This ghost town was the scene of all embodied by the
Within months the population swelled to 3000 seeking fortune. With them came miners, thieves, soiled doves and all that that implies, wild and wooly. Today Bannack’s remote locations have made it well preserved yet real and open. The buildings standing are not rebuilt but preserved. There is no big visitor center or roped off areas, and access is at your own pace.
The main street has over fifty buildings to explore. The combination of wind through Cottonwoods and scent of silver sage is living, feeling history.
As I walked through the old Meade Hotel I could hear the sounds of revelry and big strike celebrations. The feeling of lawlessness sits like a mantle on the Skinner Saloon, well earned. Cyrus Skinner was a member of the “Innocents” a group of road agents and robbers.
As soon as it was discovered that the elected sheriff Henry Plummer was the leader the Vigilantes Committee was formed and Cyrus and Henry swung from the gallows built by Henry himself. It is thought that Henry spent a very short time in the jail he had constructed; hanging justice was swift, and final.
That afternoon I opted to skip Butte’s huge mining pit and concentrate on everyday life on the “world’s richest hill”. Old Butte Historical Tours certainly gave me a powerful feeling that spirits are indeed still to be found. This company has recently found treasures such as the Rockwood Speakeasy and Myra Brothel.
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