Story and photos by Carol Polich, Bozeman, Montana
All was ghostly quiet in Bannack, an abandoned mining town surrounded by hills and mountains in southwest Montana. I was the only one exploring the old brick buildings and deserted streets.
More than 140 years ago, activity filled the streets of Bannack. The laughter of schoolchildren mixed with the sounds of buckboard wagons and stagecoaches rolling along the dirt streets. Miners and cowboys tied their horses to hitching posts as they went about their business. On this quiet day, it was hard for me to imagine the hubbub of the once-thriving gold rush town.
Today Bannack is a state park and one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the West. The morning of my visit was a cold, dry one, the kind that chills you to the bone. I wondered if the spirits were asleep on such an arctic morning—spirits, like that of Dorothy Dunn, that bring visitors to Bannack year after year.
In 1916, Dorothy drowned in a pond dredged by miners. She was 16 years old and had been living with her mother. Several years after her death, a friend of Dorothy’s claimed to see her spirit, clad in a long blue dress, in the Meade Hotel, where Dorothy had worked. More recently, a boy entered one of the hotel rooms and said he saw Dorothy standing there, laughing at him.
Dorothy’s isn’t the only ghost reputedly haunting Bannack. Visitors report hearing the cries of the babies who died of illness in the Bessette House, which has been nicknamed The Crying Baby House. Over the years, John Phillips, a state park employee, has heard many stories from people who have felt chilling atmospheric “cold spots” while exploring some of the buildings. Some claim to have felt the presence of another person, even though they were alone. Many even say they’ve seen the faces or bodies of ghosts.
Visitors can see the “ghosts” in action during the Ghost Walks in October. History buffs dress in costume and conduct candlelit tours of the town after dark.
Other Western ghost towns are allegedly haunted by spirits of the past. Northeast of Yosemite National Park, off U.S. Highway 395, Bodie, California, is the largest unrestored ghost town in the West. The discovery of gold in 1859 brought more than 10,000 people to this corner of the country, hopefuls who left as quickly as they’d come once the mines closed.
As you peer through the clouded windows of the town’s buildings, you’ll see old bottles, glasses and dinnerware embroidered with the cobwebs of time. Some believe that bad luck follows anyone who takes such an artifact from the town, which is preserved as a national historic site and state park.
Rhyolite, Nevada, another gold rush town, is a newer place, built in the early 20th century. Many of its buildings have been reduced to concrete rubble, but in its prime about 4,000 people lived in the area and frequented the town’s 50 saloons. Rhyolite even had electricity and a public swimming pool. Since the ’20s, some two dozen movies have used the town as a background, including Ghosts of the Golden West.
You may not believe that ghosts haunt these towns, but the past does haunt them, and that is what truly captures the imagination.