By: Peggy L Henderson
|Kite Hill Graveyard near Mammoth Hot Springs|
Since it’s only a few days after Halloween, I thought it wouldn’t be too far out to write about ghosts and spirits.
Several ghost stories float around about Yellowstone National Park. There is the headless bride that haunts the famous Old Faithful Inn. There is the story of the vanishing hitchhiker, several Crow and Bannock spirit legends; just to name a few.
The one story that intrigued me was the one of Mattie’s spirit. Not only is her story one of myth and mystery, but it is also a timeless love story.
There are two graveyards within Yellowstone National Park. One is the military yard at Fort Yellowstone, the other one is called Kite Hill near Mammoth Hot Springs, which holds fourteen civilian graves. Some of those graves are unidentified. Two of the graves are of people who committed suicide, one was murdered, and one died in an avalanche.
There are also eight known graves scattered throughout Yellowstone. One of these graves has been of special interest to a lot of people. It is said to contain the spirit of Martha Jane Shipley Culver. She was born on September 18, 1856. She was known as Mattie all her life.
Mattie grew up working in textile mills in Massachusetts, where tuberculosis was common. When she was seven years old, her father was killed in the Civil War, which forced her family to separate and live with various relatives. When her sister Millie married, Mattie went with them to Montana in search of a new life. The textile mills had already taken their toll on Mattie, and she might have already known that she had tuberculosis.
Mattie, her sister and brother-in-law homesteaded near Billings, Montana, and that was where she met Eugene Gillett in 1882. After a one-year marriage, Eugene died tragically of tuberculosis.
For years, she lived alone at the Park Hotel in Billings, until she met the newly appointed manager, Ellery Culver. The two shared many of the same experiences from early childhood. Ellery served in the Civil War like Mattie’s father, and later worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad like her first husband. They married in 1886. A year later, Mattie gave birth to a daughter, Theda Culver.
Ellery Culver accepted a job in Yellowstone National Park as Master of Transportation with the Yellowstone Association and set off for the park. Mattie joined him later, and the family resided at the Firehole Hotel, situated along the banks of that river. In the fall, they returned to Billings to spend the winter there. By their second year, in 1888, Mattie knew she was dying. Her husband’s job required him to travel to nearby towns, but Mattie decided to stay in the park that she’d come to love, and she even spent the winter there rather than return to Billings.
Mattie died on March 2, 1889. Her tombstone reads that she was thirty years old, but she was actually thirty-two.
|Nez Perce Creek Picnic Area along Firehole River. Near site of Maddie's grave|
When she died, the ground was too frozen, and there was too much snow to dig a grave. Soldiers stationed in the park placed Mattie’s body in two barrels laid end to end, and covered them with snow. A week later, her husband and a friend prepared a real grave for his wife’s final resting place. They used a partition from the Firehole Hotel that had been her home, and a place that she loved, and fashioned a coffin. Ellery buried his wife along the banks of the Firehole River.
Ellery took his one-year old daughter to live with Mattie’s sister Millie, who had moved west to Washington. Hearing the spirit of his wife calling him back to Yellowstone, Ellery returned to work in and around the park, drawn to the Firehole area where Mattie lived and died. In 1891, the Firehole Hotel was burned down to make way for a new hotel some miles away. This left Mattie’s grave in solitude along the river.
Tragedy once again struck Ellery, when his daughter Theda became ill, and at nineteen years old, answered her mother’s call and died.
Poor health forced Ellery to move to California, where he died in 1922. The park service would not allow his body to be buried alongside his wife in Yellowstone, and people who have visited his grave in California swear that he is not there, but has joined his beloved wife along the banks of the Firehole River.
Many people who have visited Mattie’s grave are repeatedly drawn back to the area. It is said that her spirit walks along the riverbank, and if you listen closely, you can hear her humming to the birds and animals, and beckon you to return time and again.
(all photos are my personal property)