Fort Benton's Bloody History Still Haunts Town

Once home to the “bloodiest street in the West,” Fort Benton, Montana naturally has a few former residents who aren’t too happy about how they became former residents.

Some of those folks may be sticking around to complain about it. “If there’s any place there’s ghosts, they’re in Fort Benton,” said Jack Lepley, town historian.

Armed with cameras, electromagnetic field readers and digital thermometers, paranormal investigators recently spent the night at the town’s famous 125-year-old hotel, the Grand Union, and uncovered mysterious blue and red orbs, ghostly faces, growling voices and a flashlight that went bump in the night.

“I think there are several people that haunt that place,” said Montana Association of Paranormal Studies founder Michelle Heberle. “Our investigation is ongoing - we have to find out what’s going on there.” The group hopes their research lands them TV time on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters program.

So far, they have applied their paranormal techniques in Great Falls at the Lobby Bar, the old Cascade County jail and a few professional buildings around town. But considering Fort Benton’s long and sometimes sordid past, the town is a ghost hunter’s spooky Shangri-La.

One street even earned the nickname the Hoodoo Block after buildings mysteriously burned down or blew over for decades. More than a century ago, the jail, which used to be on that block, caught fire and burned a soldier, a Teamster and another person.

“It just seemed like so many people got killed that the newspaper quit reporting it,” said Sharalee Smith, a local historian. “It was just that kind of lawlessness at that time. Some time around the turn of the century, people started seeing ghostly figures.” She estimates that between 25 and 30 people died in Fort Benton in a year’s span.

The list of potential former noteworthy residents and visitors who could have stuck around is long and diverse. A Chinese man hung himself in the back of a laundry and several inmates were beaten and dumped in a well often called the “well of skulls.” On a dare, one cowboy rode his horse up the entry stairs in the Grand Union Hotel, only to be shot by the night clerk, according to town legend.

A notoriously crooked night marshal was conned into buying the rope that vigilantes wrapped around his neck. The dead man dangled from the gallows for two days - the price he paid for beating up drunks instead of enforcing the law, local oral history states.

Then there’s Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher, who drowned in the Missouri River during an 1867 visit to Fort Benton. No one ever said what happened, and his body was never found. “I’d like to talk to his ghost, find out what happened to him,” Lepley said. “He was getting ready to fight an Indian war. I think the Republicans put him to rest.”

Among those who may be hanging around is the scandalous Madame Mustache, who may have returned to Fort Benton, the one town to embrace her business activities.

With so many stories, perhaps the paranormal investigators’ toughest task isn’t finding the ghosts, but narrowing down who is doing the haunting.

The 10-person crew spent eight hours in the Grand Union, taking photos, measuring room temperatures and taking electromagnetic readings. It wasn’t until midnight - after many of the employees went home - that the place came alive.

A few investigators smelled pipe smoke and another caught a brief whiff of lilac perfume. Invisible to the naked eye, a red Tinkerbell-like light floated about in one person’s photos. Other photos are filled with fuzzy blue circles that Heberle and the other investigators believe are ghostly energy balls.

In pictures of the outside of the building, the investigators see gray silhouettes of a Victorian-era woman in a second-floor window, where women used to enter on a back staircase to avoid the unseemly cowboys below. Once the photo is blown up, they swear a bearded man in a duster appears in a third-floor window.

Audio recordings captured a deep raspy voice in the background, which the M.A.P.S. team believes says the mysterious phrase “Vaughn Castle,” and, at one point, lets out an exasperated, “God.”

Thermal images in one third-floor room measured temperatures 20 to 30 degrees warmer than in any other place in the hotel. At times, the images take a seemingly human form.

Perhaps creepiest of all the team’s evidence is the rolling flashlight. The first time it happened, the investigators captured it on audiotape, later they were able capture it on video. In the video, the flashlight, which was stationary on its side on a downstairs table, moves in one direction, pauses and rolls back. Heberle and her crew believe a voice on the audio recording says, “I can make it stop.”

“It was an experience,” Heberle said. “I’ve never seen something move like that.”

Many of the investigators report ghostly experiences at their homes after their Grand Union visit - a sign, they believe, that the spirits may have followed them home.

“Some people are really fascinated with it,” Grand Union co-owner and manager Cheryl Gagnon said of the possibility of the hotel being haunted. “Other people, it gives them chills up their spines when they think about it.”

Fearing more of the latter, Gagnon is reluctant to hype her possibly haunted rooms. But the paranormal investigators believe ghosts are a lure, whether people are just curious or seeking a thrill. “We’re out to make the paranormal, normal,” said M.A.P.S. co-founder Chris Heberle. “We don’t want people to be scared anymore.”

Smith may be skeptical about the red lights and blue orbs, but she has heard some tales in her time that raised the hair on her neck. In one residence, the Chouteau House, people have cleaned out rooms - even putting garbage in outside trash bins - only to find the rooms in their original states the next morning, Smith said. In addition, she has sat for hours in the 1400 block of Front Street, trying to confirm the reports that people hear footsteps crossing the bridge.

Smith, a board member of the Fort Benton history group called the Rivers and Plains Society, has dug through old newspapers and books to collect as many ghost sightings and mysterious deaths as possible. Her long-term goal is to put them together in a ghost tour guide, hoping it draws people to town for a haunted walking tour. “If you start talking to people about it, they’ll tell you stories,” Smith said. “I really think a lot of people have just gotten used to it.”

The house of Connie Jenkins, who lives on the Hoodoo Block, would be one stop on the tour. A decade ago, her young grandson said he spotted a lady dressed in white with long black hair in the kitchen. Jenkins added that her lights flicker on and off and footsteps can be heard on the stairs.

Jenkins has invited the M.A.P.S. team into her house, hoping members will get a chance to see the lady and a second friendly ghost the family named “Charlie.” “It doesn’t spook me at all,” she said. “It’s been going on for so long that I’m just used to it.”

The paranormal investigators also are planning a second visit to the Grand Union in the fall, once the tourist season dies down.

The goal is to send their evidence to the Sci-Fi Channel, which will post the video, audio and pictures on its Web site. Ghost Hunter fans will narrow the choices on the site to the top four, and the Atlantic Paranormal Society, which stars in the reality TV show, will pick its favorite.

If the Grand Union footage is picked, a television crew would come to Fort Benton to film an episode of the show. In addition, the Montana ghost hunters would spend Halloween weekend at the Stanley Hotel, where horror classic The Shining was filmed.

The Grand Union is happy to play a part in their quest - as long as the only spirits bothering the guests are served at the bar.

“I guess I couldn’t say if I’m a believer or a nonbeliever,” Gagnon said after seeing the M.A.P.S. members’ computer presentation. “It’s certainly interesting. It makes you think.”

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