The historic buildings of Glacier National Park are home to a glut of ghoulish ghost stories and spooky accounts of specters that go bump in the night, which for years former Red Bus driver Robert Lucke shared with restless young passengers onboard his bus tours.
“If you have a bunch of kids on your bus, especially unruly ones, they settle down immediately when you begin telling ghost stories,” Lucke said. “It works every time.”
And if Lucke’s tales could set still a squirmy youngster, they had the opposite effect on his contingent of full-grown passengers, whose apparitional appetite apparently isn’t tempered by age, or the fear factor.
“These stories are not for the faint of heart when you consider that most of them are true,” said Lucke, who trained Red Bus drivers for a decade prior to his retirement.
Through the years, some of the scariest tales have been preserved through oral tradition, many of them by the winter caretakers and hotel night clerks at some of the park’s great lodges, like Lake McDonald Lodge and the Many Glacier Hotel, where ghostly creaks and groans are creepy enough, until one begins perusing their paranormal histories.
To document the tales, Lucke began jotting down their accounts and compiled them in a driver’s manual for other bus drivers to read and share with passengers, many of whom are eager to hear about Glacier’s haunted history.
At the Lake McDonald Lodge, a woman dressed in old-time clothes has been spotted by a security man and night auditor many times looking out the lobby windows that open to the lakeside veranda. Guests have heard a couple arguing loudly on the balconies, though there was no one there. And a night auditor felt something run its fingers through her hair one evening, Lucke said.
And just outside the park’s West Glacier entrance, a resident paranormal prankster nicknamed “Bob” has earned his keep at the Belton Chalet by playing tricks on guests and hotel employees alike, stealing room keys and spooking guests, Lucke said.
On one occasion, a horrified woman complained to the lobby clerk that her husband, while showering, had turned around and encountered a young girl standing in the shower. He left a short while later, his suitcase packed in a hurry and his hair still wet.
Lucke can’t explain the stories, but he believes them to be true.
“In my lifetime, enough strange things have happened that I think there’s something to it,” he said. “It’s not just that we have vivid imaginations. There have been so many experiences that I cannot explain, other than there really are things that go bump in the night, and not all of them are bad.”
A few years ago, author and paranormal investigator Karen Stevens made Lucke’s stories available to the greater public when she published “Glacier Ghost Stories: Eerie Tales, Legends and Mysteries of Glacier National Park.”
Stevens, a retired librarian living in Billings, began investigating and collecting ghost stories from her adoptive state beginning in 1978, while she worked as a librarian at Montana State University-Billings, and after that for 22 years at the Parmly Billings Library, which has its own haunted history.
She has also written “Haunted Montana: A Ghosthunter’s Guide to Haunted Places You Can Visit – If You Dare!” and “More Haunted Montana.”
Her own foray into the frightening encounters dates back to her childhood growing up in a haunted house in Minneapolis, whose invisible occupants set even her hard-headed skeptic of a father on edge.
“Dad was an honest enough scientist that he didn’t believe in ghosts, but something happened that he couldn’t explain,” Stevens said of the other-worldly occurrences. “That is the attitude that I have tried to adopt — maintaining some skepticism, and trying not to swallow without chewing, so to speak. But I would say that my skepticism has pretty well been worn away.”
As a 7-year-old girl, Stevens’ father transformed the family’s basement into a playroom for the children, a disturbance that didn’t sit well with the resident ghosts. Footsteps would plod up the stairs from the basement and stop at the kitchen door, doorbells would ring, doorknobs would turn, and lights would flick on and off. But despite consulting electricians about faulty wiring, an explanation eluded the family.
It sparked a deep curiosity in Stevens, however, which has persisted throughout her entire adult life.
When it came time to investigate Glacier’s haunted history, she dove into the project headfirst, booking rooms at lodges and cabins from one side of the park to the other, interviewing witnesses firsthand, and bearing witness to accounts of her own.
On one journey to Glacier National Park to investigate the Lake McDonald Lodge, there were no vacancies in the lodge, so Stevens booked a room at one of the cabins near the lake. When she arrived at her cabin, 2A, a “ghastly smell” permeated the room, and in the middle of the night she heard what sounded like a gunshot.
In the morning, all of the books she had arranged on the table had been knocked to the floor.
“I have been fascinated by ghosts my entire life, and I still don’t fully understand how something that doesn’t have a body can turn a door knob, flip on a light switch, or make audible foot steps,” she said.
“I do believe these events. Anyone can make up stories. But I talk to people who actually believe that they have had an unexplained experience,” Stevens added. “You learn after a while to determine whether someone is embellishing a story, and I have no reason not to believe a lot of the stories they tell me. I had plenty of experiences myself while growing up, so I can kind of pick up when something doesn’t fit the pattern.”
At the Many Glacier Hotel, Stevens interviewed a longtime former winter caretaker named Steve Lautenbach, who spent winters overseeing the old hotel before he died in Florida in 2008, at the age of 37.
Lautenbach was full of stories about suspected hauntings, and on one occasion he explained to Stevens that he’d been making his rounds when he discovered an empty wine bottle in the hallway, then noticed that the glass doors of the wine case were wide open, and one of the slots sat empty.
No guests had stayed at the hotel for months, and there were no footprints in the fresh snow outside.
“When reporters asked him if there really were ghosts, he replied, ‘If I say yes, then I’m crazy, but if I say no, then I am a liar,’” Stevens said.
So, does Stevens believe the accounts that she publishes?
“Most reported hauntings are due to faulty observation. I would say 90 percent of the cases are faulty observation. People mistake a bush’s rustling at a window for tapping fingers,” she said. “But occasionally you get something that I really believe to be genuine. And in Glacier Park, there’s certainly no shortage of genuine ghost encounters.”