By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Yet, according to legend, All Hallow’s Eve is also the time when spirits of the dead are able to cross over the invisible bridge that separates their world from ours. Their intention might simply be to communicate with a loved one or create some manner of mischief.
However, there are many people who believe these visits do not happen just one day a year. And one does not have to be psychic or an amateur ghost hunter to believe the bridge between two worlds is never closed or barred, or that ghosts have been frequently seen (and/or heard) by the living at any given time of the year.
How many of us have stayed at hotels that are allegedly haunted? How many of us have taken a ‘Ghost Tour’ of a historic area just for the fun of it? How many have experienced a strange phenomenon that defies logical explanation? I don’t deny there are many people who roll their eyes and shake their heads at any talk of ghosts, but I’ll be honest. I have a keen fascination with the paranormal—and I’m not talking vampires, werewolves, or zombies.
I love to visit historical sites where one can feel as if transported back in time. Truth is, I search for locations where the past is not only preserved but embraced. A couple years ago I took a ghost tour of Salem, Massachusetts, and it was wonderful. Over the years, I have also stayed in haunted hotels.
But one thing I haven’t done is visit a legendary ghost town of the Old West. Well, not a real one.
As a little girl, I visited my first ‘make-believe’ ghost town. Over summer vacation with relatives I visited Storytown USA, an amusement park in Upstate New York. There were several sections in the park and one was called “Ghost Town”. I don’t remember how I got separated from my family, but I do remember walking around (for what seemed forever) by myself in the western themed Ghost Town. With its version of Boot Hill, gunfights on a dusty street, and piano music that echoed out of swinging saloon doors, it seemed real enough to me. And as I wandered (hot, tired, and thirsty) repeatedly looking for a familiar face, western music taunted me from hidden speakers with the words, “cool, clear, water…water…water.”
Although it’s too late to visit an authentic Ghost Town for this Halloween, I've been researching potential destinations. At the top of my list is Deadwood, South Dakota. And it just so happens they have a hotel there, allegedly haunted by its original owner, namesake, and the first sheriff of Deadwood, Seth Bullock.
The Bullock Hotel website.
Located 4,533 feet above sea level in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Deadwood was established in 1876. Originally, the Black Hills were given in perpetuity to the Lakota-Sioux, as stated in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Forts were even built to prevent white men from settling in the area. Then, in 1874, after a military expedition to the area, Gen. George Armstrong Custer reported gold in the Black Hills.
Granted, Deadwood had its wild side, but respectable citizens and businesses settled there as well. One such enterprise was a hardware store called the ‘Office of Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants’, co-owned by Sol Star and Seth Bullock. In fact, The Bullock Hotel was built upon the site where the hardware store originally existed.
As mentioned earlier, Bullock (who had previously been a sheriff in Lewis and Clark County, Montana) became Deadwood’s first sheriff. To illustrate how rough a town Deadwood was when Seth Bullock arrived on 01 August 1876, a mere 24 hours later none other than Wild Bill Hickok (whose gun skills were almost legendary) was murdered—shot in the back while playing cards at Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon.
The railroad had been built using a labor force of Chinese immigrants who’d been living in Deadwood since 1880. In fact, by the late 1880s these immigrants had established their own Chinatown in an area that is now part of Deadwood’s Main Street.
Today, the spirit of Deadwood continues to thrive amidst the legacy of its Wild West past and the lingering influence of people who lived and died there long ago. How could it escape the echoes of their lives despite the passage of time? Consider all that happened during Deadwood’s turbulent history – reckless violence, murders, dreams, failures, fortunes made and lost, the diverse mix of its citizens including rough miners, respectable settlers, soiled doves, corrupt evildoers, not to mention floods, severe snowstorms, and a fire that gutted the business district in 1894.
One does not need to see a ghost or hear a disembodied voice to recognize a place haunted in one form or another. I am taken back as I write to an evening walk I made in Salem, Massachusetts two years ago; the rows of wooden homes and narrow streets, the old, gnarled trees and the misting rain. It seemed then that a peaceful, spiritual imprint still lingered in the air. You could not only see the history; you could feel it.
Consequently, I don’t find it difficult to believe that ghosts of Deadwood might still wander the streets beneath a full moon. Or, that one might not sense the influence still present of those who sleep in eternal slumber amidst towering pines on a hillside cemetery that overlooks Deadwood.
Thousands of people visit Mount Moriah and the graves of its famed residents each year. They are also able to review public burial records to learn how causes of death were listed in the early days of Deadwood. Comments such as, “bad whiskey”, “summer complaint”, and “God knows” are given as a matter of record. There is even one entry which lists cause of death as, “eating fourteen hardboiled eggs”.
Another location believed to be haunted is the Adams House. Originally built by Harris Franklin in 1892, the Queen Anne styled residence was located in a prestigious upscale neighborhood of its time. Franklin had made his fortune as a businessman in the early days of Deadwood, and had spared no expense in the quality of his home or the amenities it offered, including electrical lighting, central heating, indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, and telephone service. Together with his wife, Anna, he hosted many elegant parties at their prestigious home. After Anna died in 1902, Franklin remarried in 1905. At that time, he sold the house to his son, Nathan, for $1.00 and moved back East. Nathan, also a successful businessman became Mayor of Deadwood in 1916, replacing the four-term mayor, W.E. Adams. When Nathan Franklin and his wife decided to also leave Deadwood a few years later, he sold the house to Adams.
Do ghost towns of the Old West still exist? In the case of Deadwood, a thriving modern community has retained its history and preserved its colorful past from generation to generation. Perhaps the hauntings so frequently reported are simply the spirits of former residents who still feel part of Deadwood and appreciate the town's willingness to not forget them. Either way, visiting Deadwood is on my 'to do' list.
Haunted Deadwood: A True Wild West Ghost Town - Mark Shadley, Josh Wennes (Haunted America 2012)
The Bullock Hotel, Deadwood, SD
Adams Museum and House, Deadwood, SD