Giants in the Earth
Times were good in Castle, with full employment and a booming economy. But it only took 72 hours to send prosperity down Main Street and into oblivion.
All that was left of the town were its broken and weathered bones: a few ramshackle buildings with Victorian pretensions, all listing dangerously to one side or another, manifestly losing their slow-motion fight with gravity.
There were some stone foundations and several piles of crumbling boards, bleached gray under a merciless blue sky. That and nothing more. Castle, Montana, dead now for over a century, is a fit subject for the most fatuous of meditations. Man is vanity, one might conclude, and yet the earth abides. Or something equally solemn and silly. If the people who populated Castle were alive today, one imagines, they’d be heavily invested in Internet stocks.
I didn’t enter any of the buildings: They were prime breeding ground for hantavirus, which is spread by deer mice via dried urine and excrement. A footstep in an abandoned building raises dust, the dust harbors the deadly virus, and unlucky victims die of respiratory complications.
So I passed near the tumbledown buildings and had a sense of unseen eyes, watching, watching. Castle now belonged to the rodents, and the virus. Once there was a grid of streets, but it was gone now, grown over with sage and wildflowers. My dog and I wandered through the ghost town, occasionally scaring up whitetail deer that pogoed off into the trees, their long tails wagging over their backs like flags.
Above the town, set at the summit of the mountains, was the castle that gave the town its name: several crenellated towers of rock that looked a bit like medieval battlements. The old town site was set on a series of rolling hills and mountain meadows, alive with wildflowers. There were purple asters and lacy yarrow, along with wild roses and Indian paintbrush and mountain bluebells. The air sang with the hum of bees, and the wild silvery odor of sage floated on the breeze.
The town had a six-year run of incredible prosperity, and then it died, bang, like that, in a matter of 72 hours. The first 200 people had settled alongside Castle Creek by April of 1887. There was silver in them thar hills, and the Cumberland Mine, along with a dozen others, drew workers from all over America and Europe.
Miners made about $4 a day, which was damn good money back then. A cowboy, by contrast, earned about a dollar a day. In Castle a house with outdoor bathroom facilities and a dry kitchen could be purchased for $100, so that an ordinary working man could buy a modest place for a little less than a month’s wages. Try that today. European workers with experience in digging and blasting, notably Cornishmen—called, for some reason, Cousin Jacks—were highly valued. There were Irishmen as well, along with a few Chinese, called Celestials because, at the time, China styled itself the Celestial Kingdom. The Chinese worked the tailings, piles of scrap ore that Europeans and Americans could not process profitably.
A few days before my visit to Castle, I was chatting with a delegation of Chinese scientists and technicians from the Beijing Natural History Museum. They were visiting Livingston, Montana, to collaborate with Matt Smith, of the Livingston Natural History Exhibit Hall. Matt is an artist who builds dinosaurs from bones and casts sent to Montana from all over the world. They arrive at his workshop in big battered wooden cases that look like props from an Indiana Jones movie.
Matt reconstructs the dinosaurs, exhibits them, and then sends them off to paying customers like the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He’s built dozens upon dozens of creatures, including Ice Age mammals, several tyrannosaurs, and a couple of quetzalcoatlus,the largest creatures ever to fly, with a wingspan of 38 feet, about as long as a school bus. More to the point, of the 50 dinosaur species that once existed in what is now China, Matt has built or is building 25 of them, in Livingston, Montana.
Guan Jian, the head of the department of paleontology at the Beijing Natural History Museum, invited Matt to a dig in southern China in December of 1996, and the two men have worked closely together ever since. Matt Smith’s artistry, Guan told me on one of his Montana visits, begins at the excavation site. The biology of the creature, how it functioned, is important. The geology of the region will dictate excavation techniques. Taphonomy—the study of what happens to the creature from the moment it dies—is of supreme importance. How, in fact, did it die? Were the bones disarticulated by scavengers? How is it that some of the animal is preserved while other parts are missing?
Chinese workers, Guan said, were fast and efficient, but they weren’t “attentive.” Digging dinosaurs was a kind of hard-rock mining to them. I sort of liked the idea that, 100 years after Chinese miners worked the discarded silver-mine tailings in Castle, Matt was working digs in China in a similar way.
Most of the visiting Chinese museum technicians who would work with Matt in Livingston had never been to the United States. They flew into Seattle, where Matt picked them up in a rented van. Then they drove 750 miles to Montana.
In essence, all that the technicians knew of the United States at the time I first spoke with them came from a two-day road trip across the Northwest. Their impressions had to do with cars, and highways, which they found impressive and even artful. The “system of transportation” was “beautifully constructed,” and it wound through a land they thought was virtually deserted. Even when they pulled into some town for lunch, the first thing they asked Matt was, “Where are all the people?”
Along the way, they had seen beavers and deer and eagles, which was very exciting. It was different from China in so many ways. For instance, if you sit down in a restaurant in America, the waiter will give you a glass of cold water, without asking. In China, you’d get a pot of hot water.
One of the technicians said, “America is only 200 years old, and yet you are all so very interested in your history.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“Because every town we stopped in had one or more shops that sold old things. Everywhere you go, you see the sign: ‘Antiques.'”
I wasn’t sure this didn’t say more about the acquisitive nature of Americans than their love of history, but I decided to keep my own counsel.
“What we especially noticed,” one of the women said, “was that rich people live out of town, with a lot of land all around them. We wondered: Do they do that because they are afraid of the poor people?”
Did they? Or did it have more to do with the boom-and-bust cycle of the American West? Something to think about, anyway.
In Castle, over 100 years ago, shopkeepers supplied the miners, and by the time Castle’s population reached several hundred, lot jumping was common. A man might find his town lot, purchased from the Castle Land Company, occupied by armed men who drove him off. A vigilance committee was formed, headed by the local postmaster. The lot-jumping toughs hung out in a log cabin on the slopes above town. The vigilantes rushed it one night. A man inside shouted out that the first man through the door would be shot, but the vigilantes broke down the door with a log. The toughs escaped through a back window, never to return.
Castle reached its peak in 1891, the year it was incorporated. It had nine stores, one bank, two barbershops, two butcher shops, two livery stables, two hotels, a photo gallery, a dance hall, a schoolhouse, 14 saloons, one church, and seven brothels. Aside from the vigilant postmaster, there were a deputy sheriff, a justice of the peace, a chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and four newspapers. There was a permanent population of 1,500 folks. By day, the main street was jammed with outbound ore wagons pulled by teams of horses, with inbound teams pulling produce, with buggies, with men on horseback, with coaches and pedestrians. People arrived daily on stagecoaches, among them prostitutes ready to work at the local “sporting houses.”
The main drag was now a gravel road leading up into Lewis and Clark National Forest land, high above in the Castle Mountains. All the buildings that had lined the thoroughfare were gone. To the west was the three-story skeleton of a boardinghouse, and south of that were several more weathered buildings with large bay windows looking out at the mountains above. They must have seemed graceful and luxurious in their time.
To the east, across the gravel road, was what had been the disreputable part of town. Most of the saloons and brothels had been located there, and the remains of Minnie’s Sporting House lay dreaming in a high meadow. My dog found a dead ground squirrel to roll in, and she lay on her back, paws in the air, wiggling about in what appeared to be an ecstasy of putrescence. She’s a bird dog, and I believe she wants to disguise her odor. Somewhere, deep in her demented hunter’s brain, she must imagine that sage hens and ruffed grouse, upon being presented with a creature streaking up on them from a distance, barking hysterically, must think, Hey, nothing to worry about here, it’s just a dead squirrel.
The issue of disguise and birds was on my mind. The women who worked the brothels, such as Minnie’s Sporting House, were euphemistically called “soiled doves.” They each arrived in the booming town carrying a trunk. Almost without exception, folded neatly at the bottom of each of these trunks was an elaborate white wedding dress. It is true that sometimes whores married miners or shopkeepers, but more often the wedding dress became funeral garb. The soiled doves were often buried in these gowns, and so they went into that dark night as virginal brides.
AND THE BUST:
The year after Castle was incorporated, production of silver began to dwindle. In 1893, there was a financial panic in the United States, and President Grover Cleveland was convinced that the government’s mandatory silver purchase program was the cause of the depression. He called a special session of Congress that summer, and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed. Silver prices plummeted, and Castle’s Cumberland Mine closed down immediately. The Cumberland Boarding House served 135 suppers the last day the mines operated. Three days later, it served six men who remained to dismantle machinery. The town literally emptied out in 72 hours. A few families remained, but for all practical purposes Castle was dead. By 1936, only two people lived in the old town: the 75-year-old self-appointed mayor, Joe Kidd, and the 70-year-old constable, Joe Martino. The snows came early in the winter of 1936 1937, and winds drifted the snow in the coulees 40 feet high; deer fell through the crusts of snow and could be found, after the thaw, frozen in the tops of cottonwood trees.
There was one blizzard after another that winter. One day, with supplies running low, Mayor Kidd hitched up a team of horses to a cutter (a light sleigh) and set out for the small ranching town of Lennep, seven miles down the canyon. He made three miles the first night and stayed with some shepherds at their camp. At Lennep the next day he picked up the mail, spent the night at a local ranch, and headed back the next morning. A mile from Castle the horses gave out, so Kidd walked to Martino’s house, arriving at 9 p.m. He had a cup of hot coffee and left for his own house. It was only 500 yards away, but the mayor collapsed and died in the snow.
Martino was unable to carry the body, so he skied down to the sheep camp and the shepherds got word to the nearest big town, White Sulphur Springs. The sheriff and coroner skied into Castle and carried Kidd’s body out on a toboggan, leaving Joe Martino as the last full-time resident of Castle. His fate is unrecorded, but when he passed on or left, the rodents took over.
The big Montana houses that so impressed the visiting Chinese are, for the most part, trophy homes built by out-of-staters, some of them occupied for as little as one or two weeks a year. They are springing up all throughout the West, underwritten by the seemingly never-ending bull market, and are symptoms of what has been called “the wealth effect.” In America, I should have told the Chinese, wealth is sometimes measured by the amount of land a person is able to post No Trespassing signs upon.
No one knows how long the bull market will last, least of all me, but all good things come to an end. Ask the dinosaurs. One geological moment they’re standing in some fern glade in the redwoods, bellowing brainlessly, masters of the earth. We were there: the mammals, or proto-mammals, small rat- and weasel-like creatures with sharp teeth and shining eyes. And when the dinosaurs died—when their life cycle went bust—we moved out of the shadows and took over the earth. We are the most fearsome predator the earth has ever spawned, and those creatures that know us, fear us.
Walking through the ruins of Castle, I had a sense of man as the dinosaur of this particular geological moment. There were shining eyes, watching from the shadows of ramshackle buildings. The others were there. I could hear them scurrying about when I looked through empty windows at rooms in which soiled doves once plied their trade.
There are other eyes in the woodlands, under the aspens, and these eyes are watching the big trophy homes that have begun to dominate the western landscape. There will be a bust to the boom, sooner or later, because that has always been the way. The big homes, too expensive for local folks, will fall into disrepair. The paint will peel from the walls, and the bare boards will bleach out, like bones under a desert sun. And then the watchers in the wood will move into the tumbledown buildings. The castles built by the wealth effect will lie broken and still under a merciless blue sky. And in the shadows under the shattered windows, the new inhabitants will scurry this way and that, their eyes shining, masters of all they survey.