Ghosts of the Hill: Montana

So we’re both in Butte, the most infamous mining city in Montana and, at one point, the United States. We’ve taken a window seat at the Broadway Cafe, a pizzeria that sits at the end of an empty road right before you reach the mining pits. While our order is placed, we chat a little bit and relax as the evening light thins and dies over the city blocks of neon and florescent lights.

We pull out some books to do a little research. Right then, our server, Chris, comes back to perform the standard interrogation about food quality, how we’re doing tonight, etc. He sees our books and asks what we’re reading. We look at each other furtively, not wanting to explain why two grown men are reading books about ghosts stories in Montana.

But by then Chris has seen the cover of “Big Sky Ghosts Volume II” and his eyes light up. “Oooh, that’s a good one,” he says excitedly, jabbing a finger at the cover. “Are you paranormal investigators? Tony, our chef, is. He just bought an EVP recorder.”

“This place is haunted, too,” he adds. “The ghost doesn’t like me.”

After fifteen minutes of enthusiastic chatting and even more enthusiastic dining, Tony comes out. He’s a svelte guy in his late thirties with brilliant dark eyes and a dirty baseball cap.

“So, this place is haunted?” we ask.

He nods. “Can you feel it?”

Haunted Montana

Butte is teeming with ghosts. You can ask anybody walking on the street and they’ll have a good ghost story or two, ranging from those whose roots are a hundred years ago to those that happened in their antique house the day before. Our mission was to untangle the stories and myths that make Montana such a strangely appealing place. We were to go ghost hunting.

Butte is possibly the most appropriate place to do so, being one of the oldest civic centers of the state. Established in the late 1800s as a mining community, the town quickly exploded in size as highly-coveted copper was discovered in thick veins beneath the hills of south-western Montana. It has a reputation as a portal of multicultural history, rife with artifacts and the trappings of mining life; most buildings in uptown Butte are well over half a century old and made of the original brick, now crumbling, and next to hotels and local businesses are gallows frames, the massive steel elevators that squat over mine shafts.

Although many of the features of old Butte have been demolished long ago, leaving ragged streets dangling from the edges of the city, the characters of years past live on in the rich and sometimes macabre legends of yore. Miners have perished in falling elevator cages. Sanguinary murderers have been lynched behind the county courthouse. And poverty-stricken prostitutes have plied their trade in frigid cells underneath the city. All of these subjects are rumored to live on in a mysterious capacity, and there’s little surprise that such a colorful past lives on in the unseen world of ghosts and spooks.

First Contact

Butte does have its face looking forward, however. The center of the historical district is arguably the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, a repository of all extant records and everyday items from the town’s past. The building is located where the old Butte Fire Department No. 1 used to stand–and where it still does today. The Archives building is carefully constructed around the shell of the fire department and, through refurbishing, has kept many of its old fixtures. Being the living space of the fire chief and his family in the early 1900s, the place is rumored to be haunted by his widow, a lonesome spirit that Ellen Crain, archives manager, has personally seen.

Lee Whitney, the Archive’s administrative assistant, gives us a brief tour. Here is the dormitory where all the firemen slept; it is now the main display room, but the wooden floorboards are original. The lobby is where the fire chief had his quarters; it is where Crain witnessed her much talked-about spirit. Here is an attractive reading-room with a wall made out of the building’s original radiator grates. The entire place is immaculately clean, cozily lit and absolutely not where one would expect ghosts to hang out, except for in the archived folder of newspaper clippings marked “Ghosts” that Lee gives us.

Deeper Into the Town

Not every locale gives such emphasis on appearance, though. The courthouse, archives, and some of the grander hotels can be meticulously preserved through city funds, but many historical buildings in Butte do not have the financial backing to provide constant upkeep.

The Dumas Brothel is one such place. One of the most popular whorehouses in Butte’s expansive red-light district, it survives today on the merits of its architecture, its presence on the National Register of Historic Places and the rumors of ghostly madames that interacted with patrons in the early 1900s and that insist on leaving their fingerprints in the many workrooms.

The Brothel’s current owner, Rudy Giecek, opens the door for us on a chilly morning. It’s hard to tell if the place would be this cold in the noontime heat, but the frigidity seems to match the building’s constitution. The Brothel has been the recipient of sporadic care; the walls, floor, and decor are all vintage, meaning the Brothel has its share of grooves and worn corners. The ceiling is peeling off in great strips, revealing the thin boards underneath, and it’s a bit hard to navigate the hallways due to the presence of renovation tools everywhere.

The core of Giecek’s ownership is transforming the Brothel into a museum space, so each decaying room is stocked with genuine furniture and the personal effects of its past employees.

The upstairs, however, is where only the priciest whores and the madame held congress. Giecek takes us downstairs to the hallway of “cribs,” or tiny bedrooms where cheaper women timed their business to the minute. The Dumas used to connect to a larger network of cribs that crisscrossed a two-block radius in between buildings, but the rooms in the basement are all that survive of the district’s cramped hive.

The downstairs is in deeper disrepair than the surface, where bare light bulbs glow futilely in the dark and an unnatural coldness seeps everywhere. When we asks why so many ghosts haunt the Dumas, Giecek tells us that not only did many people die in Butte in its heyday, the Brothel itself was “not a happy place,” which seems to be an understatement. He shows us a hidden work room that was walled off before he purchased the building and just recently uncovered. Its sparseness tells us of its inhabitant’s loneliness; in this subterranean space is a stove, a bed, and a solitary ashtray. The floor is worn dark in a trail where she made her daily walk from the window, where she advertised her wares, to the door, the bed and back again.

This poignant place is certainly an unorthodox place to make a museum, but it doesn’t matter to Giecek, who maintains it with personal investments. “It didn’t matter to me if it was a whorehouse or a church, I couldn’t see it thrown away. Butte’s had a lot of history thrown away,” he tells us.

But it’s worth preserving in its idiosyncrasies. “A lot of people’s cameras goof up here,” Giecek says to us at one point after showing us photos of floating orbs and flashes of sourceless light, all taken in the Brothel. Immediately, our SD card refuses to save any more photos, despite us emptying it the night before. Giecek smiles.

“Yeah, that happens.”

A Tour of Spirits

Although Dick Gibson, of Old Butte Historical Adventures, is a self-described skeptic, he’s seen things he can’t explain, including the fire bells in the Archives that ring despite having no power source and a run-in with a particularly effective dousing session. But he does have an explanation for the preponderance of ghost stories in Butte.

“Butte is so old,” he begins, citing the town’s mining origins. The mines are not much different than caves, but are man-made, and therefore are more intimate, stranger, scarier. “Here’s a place where you could indeed get lost and could indeed die,” he tells us, “so if you even kinda believe in ghosts–that’s a good place for it.”

The mines aren’t a breeding ground for spirits, though, but rather for stories of spirits. Gibson speaks of official “haunted” city tours around Halloween that double-check with locals to get the “latest version” of folklore, as well as his own attitude as a tour guide and historian.

He merely presents the stories as they are known. “Not saying it’s true, not saying it’s false,” he says. “It’s just the story that’s told.”

But to Giecek and many others, ghosts aren’t merely grains of history preserved through a small-town oral tradition. They’re all too real.

Before he bought the building, Giecek didn’t believe in apparitions stalking about Butte. “I used to think it was bullshit,” he says, standing under the cherry-red door frame of a restored Dumas bedroom. But, he tells us, after experiencing the impossible, including furniture that rearranges itself under the cover of night, mysterious arrows shaped by stray two-by-fours, evanescent indoor mist accompanied by celestial voices and a terse phone call from his deceased father, he “certainly believes now.”

We can’t exactly debunk Giecek, Crain, and others, as we weren’t present to witness whatever unusual things they’ve seen. But it’s not as though there are any hard-nosed ideologues to chase after, anyway. The pervasive belief in ghosts is “not especially playful, but we play it up,” Gibson tells us. “Nobody will tell you that hauntings are a fact. They’ll say, ‘this has happened here. This has happened to me.’”

In fact, this word-of-mouth tradition is not even the most salient part of Butte. We ask if the relating of ghost stories is a prime cultural fixture, and Gibson says no. “If it comes up, people will talk about it. It isn’t a routine thing.”

It appears that to get to the bottom of Butte, we’re going to have to do some ghost hunting of our own, in the most stereotypical playground of the deceased: the graveyard.

Searching in the Graveyard

It’s cold and dark by the time we go out searching for one of the many cemeteries around town. Being a mining hotspot, and with mining being a particularly perilous occupation, Butte has six different burial grounds scattered through the city, with most of them containing over 15,000 (DOUBLE CHECK THIS) plots. We’re looking for a specific one–Mount Moriah Cemetery, where, in January of 1973, two on-duty police officers swore they saw a vanishing figure in a wheelchair. Lee Whitney has given us the number for one of the watchmen who stand guard beyond the stone walls that face the street. “She probably has plenty of stories to tell,” she said, scrawling a phone number out on the back of her business card. But we’re too impatient to wait for the cemetery’s office to open next week, so we take no leisure in packing up a camera and searching for our own story to tell.

Mount Moriah is, unfortunately, locked up tight, so we head to St. Patrick’s Cemetery next door, which either has the generous policy of being open to wandering college students at night or has caretakers who are especially forgetful about closing large gates. We marvel first at the sheer amount of headstones arranged in orderly rows, then begin to appreciate the fine details of the place. Many people died in their youth, and many graves are so old the headstones have begun to sink into the soft earth. We walk the length of the perimeter, leaving the comfort of the sodium streetlamps at the entrance.

Uptown Butte and our series of cemeteries oppose each other on great rolling hills and so a grid of orange lights rises before us in the blackness. The gallows frames that tower above the city glow scarlet with enormous Christmas lights that twine around their spidery legs. The effect is hardly quaint, and maybe a bit garish, but it takes the edge off the suffocating stillness around us. “Consensus:” Derek says, “no ghosts, but still spooky as shit.” And we leave.

Not the Only Ghost Hunters

We toyed with the idea of sleeping in our car for the night to up the creepiness factor, but we ended up in a motel, where we turned on a generic ghost-hunting show. Some asshole T.V. host type is parading around an abandoned building, trying to coax the spirit of an old miner out with an offering of gold.

“I have gold here!” he shrieks. “If you come out, you can have it!” He pauses. “Actually, no, this is my gold. But you still should come out.”

They begin to do some equally shallow thing with a microphone and a special video camera with ultraviolet lights, but by that time we have fallen asleep.

Mythical Butte

Back in the basement of Old Butte Historical Tours, Gibson waxes philosophic on the persistence of the ghost story. “These are human places,” he says of the ancient buildings and mining installations scattered around town. “There’s a personal connection, there’s a name there, maybe even a name you know. If the history becomes ghostly, it’s all the more interesting.”

We press him as to why Butte has an infatuation with history where many other places display only apathy. He pauses, looks down, walks around a bit in thought. He finally replies: “I don’t know.

“Butte is a strange thing. The people are complicated. There’s a fierce pride in everything, especially off-the-wall-stuff.

“Pick any bad guy in the early 1900s and someone will say, ‘Oh, yeah, he was in Butte.’” Any ghostly thing grows the bragging, makes a strong identity.

“Butte loves its myths,” he says.

As a new generation of men and women grow in Butte, though, there might be a different source for that identity. We stopped into a bar that Chris, our waiter, told us was chock-full of spooks. After we ask the young bartender if he has anything to say about ghosts, though, he gives us both a look, smiles nervously and tells us that he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. The myths of Butte are fading a bit, becoming less ubiquitous and more tenuous with time.

Even Giecek seems a bit tired. He tells us he plans on finding a buyer for the Dumas, citing the difficulty of securing government grants for funding restoration. He doesn’t appear to regret his efforts at all, though, and seems proud of his accomplishments as a historian. And even the least reluctant believers in the Archives are more concerned with their duty of preserving history than contacting the beyond.

Graveyard Redux

We decide to take one last look around Mount Moriah before leaving Butte, now that the sun is up and the gates are wide open. Granted, it’s less spooky in the glaring light; tombstones are less menacing and more wistful, a little sad. The trees rustle gently in the breeze as we take a couple photos and quietly reflect.
We don’t expect to see phantoms this time, and we don’t, so we take our exit. But our ghost hunt wasn’t a failure. We found exactly what we were looking for. It’s just that, for us at least, the spirits walked not in the silent graveyard, but in the circuit board of lights on the opposing hill, where brothel managers are well-versed in their property’s poignant history, quiet curators carefully archive away sheaves of browning paper and the red lines of the gallows frames keep their nighttime vigil over the city.

  • melody

    This was very interesting. i enjoy collecting ghost stories and have quite a few under my belt, but i’ve never had a paranormal experience… except perhaps when i lived on quartz street, my bathroom light would be on, when i usually turn it off. and when id be on my bed it would feel like an animal walked up beside me, but when it should be right by my head i looked and there was nothing there. i didnt have any pets at the time.