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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 it.

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.

The afternoon 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 Route 278.

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 reservations.

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.

There’s something 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 gold-rush era.

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 Gibbon’s force.

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 quickly.

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.

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