The Bonanza Inn in Virginia City dates to the mid-1860s. It was built as the Madison County Courthouse, but three Catholic Sisters of Charity arrived from Leavenworth, Kansas, to convert it to St. Mary’s Hospital for miners in 1876. Mining waned, and the sisters moved on in 1879, but they, and some of their patients, left unusual legacies.
From the 1950s, guests have reported ghostly visits. A female spirit soothes the sick and comforts the depressed. Some claim to have seen the shadowy nun moving along Idaho Street or sitting in a pew in the Episcopal Church. I set out to discover her identity. One of the sisters was Irene McGrath, an 18-year-old novice who endeared herself to Virginia City. Community women, concerned about her safety among the rough miners, made a pact to secretly follow her whenever she went out alone. Years later as superior at St. James Hospital in Butte, Mother Irene cared for a patient who had known her at Virginia City. From her Mother Irene was overwhelmed to learn of this service. It’s not surprising that she might come back to repay the debt.
Not all encounters at the Bonanza Inn are comforting. In the summer of 1975, the Bonanza Inn housed the production crew filming The Missouri Breaks with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. The occupant in Room 1 was ill and declined dinner in Ennis. As he dozed alone in the building, a loud knocking jolted him awake. He flung open the door to find no one there. Then behind him came a sharp knock at the window. He whirled around, pulled up the shade: no one was there. Then at the door, at the window, at the door—he gathered his belongings and thereafter slept in his car.
Room 1 sat locked and unused for twenty years. In 1997, the State of Montana acquired the building for housing state workers and others. Fear paralyzed one of the first overnight guests in Room 1. She awakened to see a male figure looming at the foot of her bed, wearing a wide brimmed hat and duster. She watched him fade away. Another guest in Room 1 felt someone watching her through the window. Drawing back the curtain, she found a figure wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a duster, staring at her. During renovations to the building, another worker spent a scary night as something under his bed plucked at the bedsprings.
I stayed in Room 7 in the summer of 2000. Coming out of the steamy bathroom after a shower, a strong unpleasant odor hit me, like that of the geriatric ward where I worked as a candy striper in high school. The cloying smell lingered then dissipated. Another guest in Room 7 awakened to the sound of water splashing, as in a bowl. Later she discovered that the sisters used basins for washing wounds and bathing patients.
One hot and still August afternoon I lay down to rest in Room 2, thinking about my lecture that evening. I had the Bonanza Inn all to myself. At first they were so soft I didn’t notice. Then I could hear the small female footsteps in sturdy shoes at the far end of the hallway. She came closer, pausing midway down the hall. I clearly heard a key turn in a lock. The door clicked open and softly closed. I heard a few bumps and clunks, and then more footsteps behind the closed door. Slowly they grew faint and then faded away. I felt honored that Sister Irene visited me.