Two weeks ago we took a trip to Bannack, the site of the first big gold rush in Montana. Unlike the other historic 'ghost' towns in the area, Bannack is deserted except for a handful of state park employees. There are no sweet shops peddling hard candy, no old-fashioned mercantiles pushing souvenir t-shirts. The buildings have been preserved in their original condition, not 'restored'. And many are still in good enough shape to go in and walk around. The Meade Hotel especially is amazingly intact.
The brick structure was built in 1874 as the Beaverhead County Courthouse. When the gold petered out and the county seat moved to Virginia City, it was converted into hotel. Walking inside now, it seems as if, with a little paint, wallpaper and elbow grease, it could open again tomorrow. It is incredibly easy to imagine one of the town's 'women of negotiable virtue' trailing her hand down the bannister as she descended the curving staircase, running a practiced eye over the crowd below in search of men flush with gold burrowed from the rugged canyon.
There is a campground on the outskirts of town, where Grasshopper Creek gurgles along, once again undisturbed by the miners who swarmed the area like hungry termites, washing tons of mud and gravel with its water in the desperate search for gold. Aspens rustle in the breeze, leaves glistening green in the sunlight.
But what must it be like at night? To leave the serenity of the campground and stroll the barren streets, where fortunes were made and lost, and the Vigilantes wreaked their horrible justice on men like Henry Plumer and his notorious gang, the gallows still visible up the draw.
Or was it the Vigilantes themselves who were the outlaws, cloaking their crimes with righteous rhetoric?
Imagine climbing the steps to the old hotel, the creak of the warped front door. Moonlight streaming through the windows and across the staircase, and the memories of a thousand souls rustling about the silent rooms and echoing hallways. Would you feel the vast emptiness of not only the town, but the surrounding mile upon mile of desolate canyons and mountains?
Or would you, instead, sense the presence of the woman said to haunt these halls. Even see her translucent form, nerves screaming as you watch her trail her hand down the long curving bannister, drawing nearer and nearer....