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In the early 1900s, when Billings was still a whistle-stop, the Billings Depot was a gateway for travelers riding the rails, and while many hopped back onto the cars for other parts, some settled and eventually died here.

Billings' rough and tumble beginnings make it a hot spot for paranormal activity, said Karen Stevens, author of "Haunted Montana," "More Haunted Montana" and "Glacier Ghost Stories."

"A lot of strong-willed people came out west to try and make their fortunes, and a lot of them died without fulfilling their dreams," she said.

Reid Pyburn, the laid-back manager of The Rex restaurant, is familiar with one of those lingering spirits.

The building, once home to a hotel, has been across Montana Avenue from the depot since 1910.

"It was the Wild West down here then," Pyburn said.

Paranormal activity is well known to those who work in offices on the building's second floor and restaurant employees working on the first floor.

They affectionately refer to a mischievous ghost called Buck, said Pyburn, who began working at the Rex at age 15 in 1994.

Buck has been blamed for shifting barstools after customers are gone, moving and knocking down Christmas decorations and knocking a copy of a book titled "Rex," off of its perch above the bar in what used to be the hotel's old entrance. 

Buck reportedly tended bar at The Rex and died during Prohibition, though it cannot be confirmed, according to Stevens' "More Haunted Montana."

Whether it's Buck or not, Pyburn doubts only one spirit is responsible for all the encounters he's heard over the years. "From the reports that I've heard, there’ve been multiple (ghosts)."

One afternoon, Pyburn was sitting in his office working when he kept hearing a shuffling sound. He searched high and low until he spotted the source — a box of envelopes.

"The envelopes were moving from front to back, like someone was fingering through them," he said. He quickly ran to find another manager, and when the two returned, the envelopes were still being leafed by an invisible hand. 

While he's never seen an apparition, Pyburn has heard firsthand accounts of people who have seen ghostly figures, including the unfortunate diners at table 13. 

A woman, who was accompanied by her male companion, asked Pyburn if the place was haunted. "Of course," he said as he delved into his prepared speech about what others had seen in the past. 

"She goes, 'I believe you,'" Pyburn said. "He’s standing right in front of me, and I can’t enjoy my meal."

She described the man as a small librarian-type wearing glasses and pants with suspenders. 

On another night, one of Pyburn's bartenders was having trouble with the blender. It just wouldn't turn on, no matter what they did.

As the two were locking up and headed out the door, the blender began running.

"We look at each other, and he said, 'I’m pretty sure it’s not even plugged in,'" Pyburn said.

The two just turned their key in the lock and left. He also bought a new blender.  

Not too serious

"I think most people take their hauntings in stride," said Stevens, who also is a member of the Montana Paranormal Society. 

After writing about ghosts at the Alberta Bair Theater, Losekamp Hall at Rocky Mountain College and the depot, among other places, she has determined that most encounters with the paranormal are not frightening.

"They’re rather pleasant," she said. "You’re not going to hear stories about slime dripping down the wall and things jumping out at you. It’s just not going to happen."

The hauntings appear in a range of forms, including apparitions, a feeling of not being alone, being touched, an unexplained odor, disembodied voices and orbs of light the size of a cantaloupe. 

Andrea "Andy" Williams, a housekeeper at The Dude Rancher Lodge since the early 1970s, has had a range of paranormal instances, including an apparition of a man in a blue shirt.

"He just heads toward the kitchen and then is gone," she said. He was first seen about a year ago. 

Williams, an energetic woman in her early 60s, gets excited when describing some of the reported happenings. 

The Dude, as it's referred to by the employees and regular diners at the lodge's Stirrup Coffee Shop, was built by Annabel and Percival Goan in the early 1950s. It was built from the salvaged bricks of several Billings buildings, including a demolished elementary school and the old St. Vincent hospital, which used to sit where Central High School is now located. 

Williams took care of Annabel, who lived at the hotel after Percival died in a car accident in the early 1960s, until her death in the early 1990s.

"She’s watching over this place," Williams said. "This was her baby."

An apparition of Goan is seldom seen, but she makes herself known in other ways to Williams and other staff members.

"I had a door that was locked in the south wing, and I couldn't get it unlocked for the life of me," Williams said. "I said, 'Annabelle, can you please let me in?' And my key worked right away."

She said many unexplained events happen in the basement tunnel, which runs the length of the hotel and used to house hot water pipes and a nest of cables for the phone system's switchboard.

Dark shapes have have been spotted flying down the long hall, and Williams has felt the hair on the back of her neck stand while passing a dark corridor that leads to the boiler room.  

"Some girls wouldn’t even come here; they would walk around," she said. 

But it doesn't bother Williams, she said, shrugging her shoulders. "It just feels like home to me."

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Chris Cioffi covers city news for The Billings Gazette in Montana.