Montana’s Spirited Southwest

A country lane in Virgelle, Montana. photos by Laurie Gough.

Montana Still Has a Wilderness

By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor

With Halloween less than a week away, I wanted to explore a spirited place, one where I could connect with the past. Southwest Montana turned out to be a perfect choice. The marvelous mix of mountains, sky, and history proved to be powerful stuff.

While passing through today’s Montana my goal was to connect with its past—miners, ranchers, and soiled doves were to feature in my exploration.

Happening Helena

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 the 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.]

The last resident, George Mitchell, lived there till he died in 1938. Evidently, he didn’t believe in banks; his earnings were found in the nooks and crannies throughout the cabin.

We started our tour from Firetower Hill, perfect views of the city gave Ellen a chance to point out the historic buildings and mix in some folklore as well. Several old houses below-housed madams who profited from lonely miners, and across the gulch sits Reeder’s Alley. Reeder’s Alley was built in brick and housed small rooms for miners.

Two must-sees in Helena are the Capital Building and the St. Helena Cathedral. The Cathedral is stunning and modeled after the one in Cologne, Germany.

The white marble stone altars and stained glass windows are topped only by gold leaf. Its twin spires rise 230 ft above and its bells were bought by a gent called John Cruz in memory of his troubled daughter.

The capital has been refurbished yet its Greek Renaissance architecture stands the test of time. Perhaps to me one of the most interesting pieces of art besides the Charles Russell paintings and Edgar Paxson paintings is the statue of Jeanette Rankin, a passionate proponent of world peace and women’s rights.

She was the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916 and stated that she could not vote entry into World War I. “I cannot vote for war,” is inscribed at the statue’s base. She was reelected in 1940 and voted against entry into World War II.

Interestingly enough is the statue of Wilber Fisk Sanders nearby; he was a backer of the vigilantes. His base says, “Men Do Your Duty (hang the road agents!)”. More on that later!

Head ‘em Up

After 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”.

Bannack's Ghost. photo by Kent St. John.
Bannack’s Ghost. photo by Kent St. John.

He eventually headed back to his native Canada and the trading post and ranch fell into the hands of Conrad Kohrs.

Kohrs enticed his wife Augusta to the ranch by claiming it wasn’t far from the railway; in reality, the closest connection was in Cheyenne. The match however worked and Augusta furnished the ranch house as seen today, filled with nick-knacks and imported pieces.

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 ghostbusters.

Passionate Prison

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.

This was a place where certain suspicious prisoners wore shoes with concrete soles to prevent any fast moves, and solitary confinement was a small cell with a small window if you survived ten days on minuscule amounts of bread and water, you were declared fit to do it again. No wonder our ghost hunters named themselves Tortured Souls Inc.

After a quick video of a past journey into the prison at night, complete with eerie voices and flashes of unexplained light, it was time. Entering into the yard immediately made the possibility of an encounter seem likely. The breath of

Big Hole Teepee. photo by Kent St. John.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 were powerful.

After seeing the gallows on our way out a woman took a digital photo. Surprisingly, following the group was a strange mist with tortured features caught only by the camera.

Believe it or not see the sidebar about Turkey Pete, Butch’s Boy or the murdered assistant Warden. It was with relief that I headed to a better-explained mist; that of a hot springs resort.

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 a 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 a real ghost town. Cattle shit mixed with memories are forever embedded 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.

His backup band for the second set was Jim on drums and a local teacher and a rancher; all locals, pure fun! Sheriff, hotel owner, musician and artist Jeff Nobles bonded at the bar!

The after-event party back at the Silver Mill proved to me what a group of determined people can do for a town—this is no dying mining town; it is a gold mine. Many credit Shirley Beck for the town’s revival.

She is right now supervising the pair of sapphires I found after digging through a bag of local rocks. They are being made into earrings for my wife.

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 a 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.

Battle is not quite the word I would use; the Nez Perce were just trying to get to Canada and resting at Big Hole. An early morning shooting spree killed many in their teepees. The Nez however rebounded and moved on only to be captured at Bear’s Paw. Though Chief Joseph spoke of, “Fight[ing] no more”, they were ill-treated.

Cold Blowing Wind

The Park has two trails. One that lead up into the hills where the soldiers dug in and the second down to the flats near the creek where the Nez set up their teepees and tried to rest. The cold wind blowing down from the snow-capped peaks rustled the pale grass and whispered in pain.

The thought of the early morning ambush makes wandering around the lodge poles unsettling. Stark beauty and utter cruelty were evident in the falling of the sun behind the mountains.

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.

The Lodge itself is constructed of logs and maintains a western ranching feel, in a very authentic way. Dining at the lodge was a surprise as its menu was eclectic and varied. The lodge has cabins, apartments and rustic hunter’s cabins to bed down in. While flurries fell outside the huge fireplace inside roared and the day’s sites replayed in my mind, haunted indeed.

Big Bad Bannack

With 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

Wild West. Its beginning was classic with the discovery of gold by some members of “Pikes Peakers” in July of 1862.

Within months the population swelled to 3000 seeking fortune. With them came miners, thieves, soiled doves and all 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 the 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.

Still There

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.

On many levels history is still to be found in SW Montana. Though physical ghosts eluded me I realized that if America ever had a place where evidence of ghosts and spirits would provide proof it is here.

This area is certainly filled with stories, beauty of America, and is the heart of the West. I surely was beguiled and in awe. I saddled up and headed home.

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