Bannack, Montana: The Truly Haunted Ghost Town

"We didn't know what to expect at Bannack State Park. We were told it was Montana's best preserved ghost town. But we certainly didn't expect to see an actual ghost. It was hot outside and the doors of the Meade Hotel flew open when we touched them. It got cold, very cold, and we saw what looked like a small silver cloud fly up the staircase, and we heard children crying. Just crying, a pitiful noise. We looked around – we were alone. We ran back out into the street."

When I heard this ghost story years ago, I had to see for myself why Bannack State Park's annual Ghost Walk, set this year for Oct. 21 and 22, is so popular. Two guided tours are held each night, and reservations are required. The youngest kids get in free, it's $5 for kids up to age 12 and $10 for adults. Bannack State Park is in southwest Montana, about three hours from Yellowstone National Park.

Bannack was settled in 1862 when gold was found in nearby Grasshopper Creek. Soon thousands of people rushed into the area. Along with the common folk, there were deserters from the Civil War, desperate miners who arrived too late for the California gold rush, vagrants and criminals. There was so much murder and robbery that the good citizens of Bannack took vigilante action. The smooth-talking sheriff was implicated in many of the crimes, a hanging was held and 24 men swung from a rope. The sheriff is said to haunt the town to this day in an effort to avenge his name.

Another ghostly presence in Bannock is said to be young Dorothy Dunn, a drowning victim. She's been known to appear mostly to children in her blue dress, so warn the youngsters. Dr. John Singleton Meade treated many children in his hotel for things such as smallpox, diphtheria and typhoid. Both he and his unfortunate patients are said to appear and call out.

The population of Bannack dwindled to nothing in about 1940, but benefactors and now the state of Montana maintain about 60 log and timber buildings. Ranger John Phillips leads the walking tours and reenactors come out to recite and recreate some of the gruesome acts that took place in Bannack. This includes – you have been warned – an axe murder. Tip: Regardless of the weather, be sure to bring a jacket. Whether it's the fall temperatures or the supernatural setting, it can be chilly in Bannack.

Phillips had led the tours the past five years and says most visitors are enthusiastic about the tour's spooky moments which are both "historical and hysterical." When I took the tour, I saw a ghost behind every window. Who really knows if something was there?

The ghost tours begin at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on both nights. Bannack State Park is out-of-the-way even by Montana standards, but lodging is nearby. The city of Dillon is 26 miles from the park and offers several small hotels. Jackson Hot Springs Lodge is 30 miles, and has a lodge and restaurant. The Grasshopper Inn at Jackson Hot Springs, 21 miles, has also features a restaurant. Both lodges have hot spring pools. The Grasshopper Inn in Polaris, Mont., is 25 miles away.

Butte, Mont., is about an hour and a half's drive, and Bozeman, Mont., and Idaho Falls, Idaho, are about two and a half hour's drive. Don't let the drive scare you away. Gold rush ghosts are waiting.

Jack Terrell is a writer who haunts southwest Montana.