Montana: Chasing Ghosts in Big Sky Country
August 07, 2013
The morning of
August 11 dawned cold—40-something cold—with fog hanging low over the Gallatin
River Valley of southwestern Montana.
The bike and sidecar
huddled under cover outside our room, just as we had inside a few minutes
before. The bike covers were soaked from an overnight rain and obviously
wouldn’t dry before we left, so I made a note to pull them out of their travel
cases as soon as we stopped for the night.
I took a deep breath
and exhaled a cloud nearly as thick as the fog. August 11. The height of
summer. And here we are in Big Sky, Montana, shivering under no sky at all.
We were in the midst
of a family motorcycle vacation, with my wife and I occupying the bike’s saddle
and our 13-year-old daughter riding in the sidecar. We’d been traveling for
three days from our home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and had already paid the
obligatory visit to Yellowstone National Park. It was time to start our second
mission—searching for ghosts of Montana’s past.
With an excellent
breakfast warming us from the inside, we left Buck’s T—4 (Tee-Bar-Four) resort
in Big Sky, and headed north on U.S. Route 191 toward Bozeman.
The highway follows
the canyon of the Gallatin River between steep, tree-covered slopes. Damp
pavement, fog and an absence of traffic created a quiet, almost ethereal,
atmosphere for our ride. Hemmed in by mountains on either side and low clouds
above, we felt thoroughly isolated from the rest of the world.
About 20 miles north
of Big Sky, the land began to flatten and the fog burned off, revealing patches
of sunshine. Soon, the pavement was steaming as it dried, and the Montana
weather began to resemble August rather than October.
We turned west on
state Route 84 and climbed into the Madison Range, which had been on our left
during the trip north. Fir and aspen trees replaced fields of alfalfa and wheat
as the road wound into the higher hills.
Crossing the Madison
River, we turned south on U.S. Route 287, passing through dry wheat fields on
our way to Ennis. From there, we picked up state Route 287 and headed west
toward Virginia City.
Virginia City looks
like a restored Western ghost town, except that it never actually gave up the ghost.
There have been times during its 130-year existence when the town’s life signs
were weak, but it was never abandoned altogether. It came so close, though,
that Virginia City today looks pretty much the way its original settlers left
The town got its start
when a couple of prospectors, Bill Fairweather and Henry Edger, panned a little
gold out of nearby Alder Gulch one summer evening in 1863. The two staked their
claims and then set off on a 50-mile trip to the town of Bannack, where they
could gather supplies. Within weeks, word of their discovery had reached the
outside world and Virginia City sprang up overnight.
Arriving more than a
century too late to be part of Virginia City’s boom, we rode into a quiet town
that lines Route 287 for about a quarter of a mile. Up and down the main
street, we found original buildings housing small shops and restaurants, along
with displays of items for sale in the town’s heyday. And we got a quick lesson
in Virginia City history at almost every turn.
Like many other boom
towns, Virginia City experienced its share of growing pains. In particular, the
original settlers had to deal with highwaymen and outlaws who drifted into the
area, following the scent of easy money.
In 1863, the people of
Bannack elected a well-dressed, smooth-talking man named Henry Plummer to be
sheriff of the Montana Territory. It’s doubtful that anyone was aware of Plummer’s
past, which included at least one murder and several shootings in California
and Nevada, along with an extended vacation in San Quentin. But it might not
have mattered if they knew—all the other men were too busy mining to be
bothered with a job like sheriff.
Hiding behind his
badge, Plummer assembled a group of thugs who became known as the Road Agents.
The group was said to be responsible for numerous robberies and killings in and
around the gold camps during the summer of 1863. By January 1864, the local
citizenry had had enough of Plummer’s methods and formed the Montana Vigilantes
to restore order.
The vigilantes weren’t
always particular about legal procedures, but they certainly were effective in
cleaning things up. On January 10, 1864, after a brief trial, they hanged
Sheriff Plummer and two of his associates, Ned Ray and Buck Stinson, on a
gallows at Bannack. Then they turned their attention to Virginia City.
On the morning of
January 14, the vigilantes, along with a group of miners from up and down the
gulch, surrounded Virginia City and rounded up five men: Boon Helm, Haze Lyons,
Jack Gallagher, “Clubfoot” George Lane and Frank Parrish. The men were given a
quick trial, then marched up the street to an unfinished building where they
were lined up and hanged from an exposed beam.
In all, the vigilantes
executed 22 of Plummer’s Road Agents in southern Montana in two months,
bringing a halt to the area’s crime wave. As one local citizen noted about the
hanging of Henry Plummer, “It calmed him down considerable.”
We visited the
cemetery where several of the Road Agents were buried and then walked through
some of the mining areas where millions in gold were taken from Alder Gulch.
After lunch at the Stage Stop Restaurant—housed in the old Wells Fargo
building—we climbed back aboard the bike and continued west.
delivered bright sunshine worthy of Big Sky country, and we rolled along
through alders and cottonwoods in a landscape that hasn’t changed much since
the days of the Road Agents. At Twin Bridges, we turned south on state Route
41, then picked up Interstate 15 briefly at Dillon before turning west on state
Black storm clouds
were gathering as we wound through the sagebrush and cattle ranches covering
the foothills of the Beaverhead Mountains. The first drops of rain began to
speckle the windshield just as we pulled into Jackson, which would be our base
of operations for the next few days.
Jackson is a small
collection of businesses and houses in a high, 6,500-foot valley framed by the
Beaverheads on the east and the Bitterroot Range on the west. Most important
for our purposes, it’s the home of Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, where we had
The main lodge
building is a two-story log structure that houses a bar, a restaurant, a large
dance hall and a pool filled with water from the hot springs, which was
discovered by Lewis and Clark in 1806.
We were staying in a
cabin that had its own fireplace plus another, more unusual source of heat.
Water from the hot springs is piped to each cabin, where it flows through
coiled plastic pipe along the walls. As a result, the cabin radiated a soft,
even heat that felt great after a long ride in the cool air. Unlimited warm
water is available for washing and showers, but the cabins offer no cold water
for drinking. Instead, you can pick up chilled spring water in the restaurant.
about traveling on crisp, cool days that makes food taste better than ever, and
we savored our evening meal at the restaurant. I can highly recommend the prime
rib, chased by a piece of homemade pie.
The next morning we
backtracked east for about 20 miles till we picked up the gravel road leading
to the true ghost town of Bannack. In the 1860s, Bannack was the most important
community in the area, serving as the first Montana territorial capital. But
after the gold boom, it was abandoned. Today, the town is a Montana State Park,
featuring the houses, stores, mining buildings and other establishments of the
We parked at the
visitor center, then hiked through the town, exploring the old buildings.
Unlike Virginia City, there are no shops, restaurants or other businesses in
Bannack. Instead, the town is preserved just as it was when the last residents
left. As a result, you can walk down the board sidewalks, wandering in and out
of buildings, and experience the place as it looked in 1863, when 3,000 people
called Bannack home.
We headed up a steep
hill at the north edge of town, following what was once the wagon road leading
to Virginia City and points east. At the top of the hill lies the town
cemetery. Those interred there may not appreciate it, but their final resting
place affords a fine view of the town and a sweeping valley beyond.
I pictured myself on
that spot back when Bannack was in its prime. In my mind, I heard echoes of
piano music and raucous laughter coming from the old saloon, and imagined
miners loading up their old buckboard wagons with supplies before heading back
to their claims. It must have been an incredible time, with everyone in town
convinced they would strike it rich at any moment.
After our day at
Bannack, we headed off the next morning to a very different sort of historic
site, Big Hole National Battlefield.
The ride took us up
the valley of the Big Hole River to the town of Wisdom, then west on state
Route 43 through scenic high desert country. When we stopped at the visitor
center, located on a hill just east of the battlefield, we noticed a man
wearing a floppy hat and carrying a rifle sitting on a picnic table. There was
nothing to worry about, though. He turned out to be part of the National Park
Service interpretive staff, ready to give us a detailed account of the battle
between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce Indians that took place here.
The battle of Big Hole
Basin was one of many in a running pursuit of the non-treaty band of the Nez
Perce. These Indians had been forced off their homeland near the Idaho-Montana
border in 1877 when the government, under pressure from mining interests,
ordered them onto a much smaller reservation.
Gen. Oliver O. Howard
was responsible for making sure that all the tribe’s members made the move, and
in mid-May he issued an ultimatum: All Nez Perce were to be on the reservation
within 30 days.
On June 15, when they
were almost to the new reservation, some of the young warriors attacked and
killed several white settlers. About 800 Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, fled
south, starting a long, 1,170-mile running battle with Howard’s troops.
By the time they
reached this spot, the Indian band thought they had left Gen. Howard and his
men far behind. They stopped to rest and made camp alongside the river in the
Big Hole Basin.
The Indians had indeed
left Howard’s troops far behind, but they were unaware that the 7th U.S.
Infantry, under Col. John Gibbon, had been ordered to join the chase. On August
8, Gibbon’s scouts located the Indian camp in Big Hole Basin.
In the predawn dark of
August 9, the infantrymen attacked from the west, meaning they had to cross the
river to reach the Indian camp. While they were doing so, several shots were
fired prematurely, leaving Gibbon’s troops still trying to push through the
willow- and brush-tangled banks of the river.
Having squandered the
element of surprise, Gibbon’s forces stormed the camp and fought the Nez Perce
hand-to-hand, while Indian snipers crept into the willows and began to pick off
soldiers one by one. Seeing that his men were suffering enormous casualties,
Gibbon ordered a withdrawal back across the river to a pine-covered hill above
the west bank. By mid-morning, Gibbon’s surviving forces were pinned down on
the hill, with no possibility of escape.
Just 60 Nez Perce
stayed behind to keep Gibbon’s 146 soldiers and 34 civilian volunteers trapped
on the hill, while the rest of the band escaped south toward Bannack. Late the
next day, the remaining Nez Perce warriors withdrew, sparing what was left of
That ended the battle
of Big Hole Basin, but it wasn’t the final conflict involving the Nez Perce.
Gen. Howard’s force continued to pursue the band south and east through what is
now Yellowstone Park. Eventually, the Indians turned north in an attempt to
reach Sitting Bull’s camp in southern Canada.
On September 30,
troops under the command of Col. Nelson Miles caught up with the Nez Perce just
40 miles south of the Canadian border. They fought for five days, negotiating
sporadically between skirmishes. Eventually, Chief Joseph agreed to a
surrender, saying, “I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun
now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
With the guide’s story
echoing in our ears, we walked through the Nez Perce encampment. The Park
Service has erected tepee poles on many of the sites occupied by the Indians,
and each tepee location is marked with the names of Nez Perce warriors who were
present. In front of many of the tepees we found bunches of cut flowers and
small medicine bags, evidence that the descendants of the people who died here
still remember and revere their ancestors more than a hundred years later.
We walked from the
somber battlefield, following the river around a sharp bend. There, within
sight of the place where so much blood was spilled, we watched a beaver slip
from the bank and swim downstream, leaving hardly a ripple in the water. A deer
paused for a moment on our approach, then went back to browsing on the bushes.
Beyond, wildflowers bloomed in a meadow. The world goes on.
The battlefield was
our last stop before turning back toward home. We had come looking for
Montana’s ghosts, and we had found them. Ghosts of the miners who came here in
search of gold, and ghosts of the outlaws who hoped to take it from them;
ghosts of the Indians who lived here and ghosts of the soldiers who drove them
off their land; ghosts of entire towns that sprang to life and died just as
Montana has plenty of
shadowy reminders of the past. But it’s full of life, too—life that stands out
all the more because of the ghosts around it.