On my recent trip out west, I have to confess that, other than Tex in Cowboy Café in Sheridan, Wyoming, my trip was sadly lacking in paranormal experiences. Part of that could be that we stayed mostly with family in newer homes and part of it might have been the time of year. There’s something about freezing cold temperatures and snow that inhibits your desire to go exploring. But, as we drove through Montana, it did remind me of the wonderful trip we took several years ago to a real ghost town, Bannock.
The website for Bannock describes it as the best preserved of all Montana ghost towns.
Bannack State Park is a National Historic Landmark and the site of Montana’s first major gold discovery on July 28, 1862. This strike set off a massive gold rush that swelled Bannack’s population to over 3,000 by 1863. As the value of gold steadily dwindled, Bannack’s bustling population was slowly lost. Over 50 buildings line Main Street; their historic log and frame structures recall Montana’s formative years.
The nearest town to the old ghost town is Dillon, Montana, about 20 miles away. Bannock sits deserted in the midst of the hills and mountains that initially drew settlers to it. The street is dirt, the lawns are sage brush and weeds and you can see the gallows sitting at the top of a hill about 100 yards beyond Main Street.
The buildings sit empty, or relatively empty, if you know what I mean. There are several places that are purported to have ghosts. One is Skinner’s Saloon, reported to be haunted by the former sheriff, Henry Plummer.
Plummer was an east coast transplant, the son of a sea captain, who came to Bannack after a six-month stay in San Quentin Prison for killing his girlfriend’s husband. He wound up having a duel with the irate man and killed him. He was convicted and sent to San Quentin on a ten-year sentence. However, the good people petitioned for his release, saying it was self-defense. Because of this petition and the fact that he had TB, he was released after six months.
But prison didn’t reform him. Henry Plummer decided that stealing from others was the best way to make a living when he was released early. He blew what money he had left and started his life in crime by joining a gang and robbing stage coaches. In January 1863, he appeared in Bannack, and won over the people there with his charm and personality. The Miner’s Court trusted him and elected him Sheriff Henry Plummer, who took advantage of his position, working both sides of the law.
While acting the lawman on the job, it is said that he and his posse of about 25 unsavory individuals, called The Innocents, terrorized the gold camps, robbing and murdering in cold blood 102 people.
In response, some leaders in Virginia City formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch, and began to take action against Plummer’s gang, gaining confessions from a couple of men they arrested in early January 1864. On January 10, 1864, Plummer and two associates were arrested in Bannack by a company of the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch and summarily hanged. He was hanged without a trial, evidence or even a reasonable theory. One resident even noted, “…not one body can be found.” Yet, the Vigilante Committee claimed Henry Plummer and his gang killed over 100 people. He was pulled out of bed while suffering from TB. He was hanged without due process. He was hanged by the neck, being pulled up rather than given the drop. He was strangled slowly to death. Ironically, the leader of the Vigilante Committee took control of many of the victims properties and holdings, including Henry Plummer’s gold claim outside of Bannack. Before his death, Plummer and the Vigilantes often argued over the tactics of the committee. They hanged at least 138 people in Bannack without trial, including a 17-year-old boy who stated Plummer was innocent after the committee had already hanged him. The Vigilante Committee always executed their victims late at night so the townspeople were never there to witness it and the only witnesses were committee members. They totally controlled the narrative. The accused never were given the opportunity to state their case, mount a defense or plead guilty or not guilty.
There are quite a few stories from Bannock that would lead you to believe that many of the dead are still restless. When I walked through Skinner’s Saloon, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched. The weather was warm, but the old, wooden structure was freezing cold.
I also walked through the old hotel and followed voices up the narrow staircase, only to find empty rooms with stained wooden floors and cracked plaster walls. The back staircase at the hotel, the servant’s staircase, had lingering shadows that moved soundlessly in the corner of your eye. The huge wooden front door opened on its own, even though there was no wind that day.
I highly recommend a trip to Bannock where you can actually step back in time and “visit” with some of the folks who used to live there. A spirited vacation indeed!