Ask a Great Falls local about their favorite haunt and they will likely point you to their preferred watering hole. But ask about ghosts and you are sure to get an earful as Great Falls has its share of unexplained happenings. Here’s a handful that may pique your interest.
1. Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art [The Square] | 1400 1st Avenue North
So many ghosts. So many. I guess that’s what goes hand-in-hand with being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The most retold haunting that came out of The Square is that of a young boy who drowned in the pool in the basement. Many ask, “what pool?” The story has since been debunked, but the creaky old floors and cranky boiler tell a different story. Or rather, stories. Hearing unseen children playing in the halls or singing coming from the music room has been occurring for a century. Some staff throughout the years either refuse to be left in the building alone or have given notice because of the eerie occurrences – while others remained because they “got used to the old ghosts”.
Just prior to the end of WWI a janitor lived with his wife and children in the southeast corner of the attic. His daughter, being of high school age, went to school there. She would get up in the early morning and walk away from the school and join her friends for the walk back to school because she was embarrassed that her father worked there. This schoolgirl is said to be one of the young ghosts roaming about the old building. Odd, how at one time she didn’t want to be associated with the place, and now she won’t leave.
2. The Lobby Bar | 518 Central Avenue
The ghosts of this joint are as colorful as its patrons. The place is teeming with paranormal activity, even in the afternoon, people have claimed to see a cowboy in the second story window as they look up from Central Avenue.
Above the bar are two floors that once housed the Davenport Hotel. Local legend tells of later years it becoming a brothel – which is feasible since Great Falls had an abundance of them. During an evening of brisk business a fire broke out and several of the working girls perished in the flames. It is said you can hear their cries from within the walls.
CJ Peterson once ran the bar, but during his time it was known as the Jockey Club. The nightclub’s walls were painted with sweet little Art Deco ponies and was the place for live jazz and martinis. Peterson had a penchant for wearing double-breasted pin-striped suits and sporting a fedora, which hinted at his possible mob ties. Well, he is still seen about the joint. If you head down there you can see a photo taken decades after his death with his image reflecting in the mirrored back bar.
Years ago the bartender let me loose upstairs. At one point I rounded a corner to find a doll perched on the step of the stairway leading to the top floor. As I climbed up the flight of stairs I hugged the opposite railing. I know that it’s someone playing tricks – leaving the doll there for the sole purpose of creating more taunting than haunting but I still think about that plastic-headed, unblinking face peering at me. In reality, I am sure ghosts don’t exist, that the only undead lurking here were the pigeons beating their wings against the dirty, broken windows.
During business hours The Lobby videotapes the cash register for security purposes. While doing research for the Downtown Ghost Trolley Tours I was given a copy of surveillance footage. It shows the bartender mixing drinks, ringing up customers and bottles jumping out of cabinets. Yes, the video shows a cabinet door opening and bottles of vodka – maybe the preference of this particular ghost – roll out and one of the bottles halts abruptly as if some unseen hand reached out to stop it. This particular cabinet has an inch high lip and a door handle that needs a button to be pressed while pulling to open. It unsettled me enough to grab the remote and immediately turn it off as if somehow watching the apparition on my TV would affect the comfort of my home.
3. The New Park Hotel | 100 Central Avenue
Located kitty-corner from the Civic Center this building has a fabulous history. This beautiful structure was built in 1915 to replace the original Park Hotel that burned down in 1914. Great Falls founder Paris Gibson and his wife Valeria Gibson lived in the top floor penthouse. Valeria had been sick for quite sometime before the evening newspaper, The Great Falls Leader, printed she passed in her rooms on August 18, 1900. Her funeral was held at her son Theodore’s house at 402 4th Avenue North, the house where Paris Gibson himself passed in his elderly years.
But local lore tells a different story.
Supposedly Theodore Gibson pushed his mother down the stairs at his own home. The fall broke her neck killing her instantly. Theodore picked up his mother’s corpse and carried it to her residence at the Park Hotel using Great Falls’ underground tunnels. He threw her body off of the top floors to make it appear a suicide. Theodore ended up dying in the state mental hospital years later.
There was so much belief over this story that The Travel Channel’s “Dead Files” investigated and aired an episode about the house. According to the homeowner, the whole Gibson family haunts the house as well as the surrounding yard.
4. Murphy-McClay | 202 Central Avenue
The oldest dry goods store in Great Falls was originally housed in tents before a brick and mortar structure was built in 1896. The unfinished basement is a dark labyrinth of shelving and old machinery. On one end of the building, there are two large doors that open up to a bricked-up wall, leading me to believe the underground tunnels were real.
One cold January afternoon I was digging through the Great Falls Public Library’s microfiche archives and found a great story about a human skeleton found in the Murphy-McClay basement. Apparently a man had been killed in Fort Maginnis, Montana and his remains were being shipped back home. The ghastly package ended up at Murphy-McClay because it was once the stagecoach stop for Great Falls. The parcel was refused forwarding due to a lack of postage and was tossed into the basement. It was several years later when the dry goods store was making room for more inventory, a warehouse worker was going through old packages and found the bones.
If I were left as unclaimed baggage for 40 years I’d surely haunt the place.
5. Kellergeist | 111 Central Avenue
German for “The Ghost in the Cellar”, the name says it all.
I received a tour from friends just after they purchased the building. It’s a great structure with tons of potential and tons of spooky baggage. Imagine just what kinds of ghosts are running amok – it was, after all, an adult theater and porn shop for several years. Old movie projectors covered in dust and pieces of garter belts litter the top floors. I took pictures during my tour and when we reviewed them there was a strange orb in several of the photos. That creepy orb seemed to follow the male owner.
So long these tales have been told they have morphed from recollection to reality and are now woven into the fabric of Great Falls history. Check these places for yourself and maybe you’ll soon be sharing stories of your own.
Thank you to our own resident ghostwriter for these amazing stories! If you are looking to embrace more of the spookiness of Halloween, check out the Historic Ghost Tours with the Downtown Chicks, or even check out some of the tombstones in the old Highland Cemetery of some of Great Falls’ more historic residence.