Excerpt from Death in the Valley: Odd Tragedies in the Flathead Valley, Montana 1887-1917


Columbia Falls, Montana
Saturday, January 24, 1914

A most bizarre tragedy has occurred at the Soldier’s Home, one that has left William H. Gregg dead. Mr. Gregg was an early pioneer and patriarch of the Flathead Valley. He was known as Lieutenant Gregg to some and “Uncle Billy” to many more.

The particulars of his death are both worldly, yet quite otherworldly as well.

That evening, Gregg retired and went to sleep along with the other residents, as usual.

Later that night, however, Gregg awoke from his sleep. He was frantic – and suddenly jumped out the window!

Gregg fell to the ground nearly 30 feet below, breaking his leg and several ribs.

The hospital staff rushed outside to his aid. It was then discovered that Gregg had suffered internal injuries, which would soon prove too great for him to survive.

Gregg passed away within a few hours – but not before he explained his reason for jumping from the window.

Gregg explained that he woke up, and while looking out the window, he saw a deer. As a man 85 years of age, he must have longed for the days when he could hike and hunt at will, without trouble from his bones and body.

Gregg said he could not resist taking the deer, so he found his rifle, took aim, and shot it.

The deer fell dead on the ground just below the window. As he prepared to fetch the deer, Gregg said he noticed another man outside. It seemed the man was quickly approaching the deer, as though the man wanted the deer for himself.

While suffering the agony of his wounds, Gregg further explained that he did not want the man to poach his game, so in haste, he leapt from the window to make his rightful claim – and take the deer before the other man could steal it from him.

The staff summoned the doctor and did all they could to comfort Gregg as he passed.

While Gregg had painfully explained his reason for jumping from the window, those tending to his care became terribly troubled by the particulars of his death.

There was no other man.

There was no deer.

There was no rifle.

And Gregg certainly had not fired a shot – save for in the delusions and dreams in his mind.

Indeed, Gregg had taken part in many hunting excursions in his time. And it was not known whether he had conjured some delusion, or dreamed of some hunting excursion in his past.

Some had wondered beyond the obvious circumstances of his demise as to whether Gregg’s deer dream had a greater significance. His dream – about seeing a deer – seemed all the more perplexing as many cultures from the Celts to the Chickasaw regarded deer as “dream spirits.”

According to such cultures and their myths, deer reveal themselves in dreams to show an enlightened person a path they must take, or otherwise bring forth a message.

Despite the mysticism, there was indeed a real consequence for Gregg and his deer dream – he leapt from the window and died from his injuries.

Preparations were soon made for Gregg’s interment, and he was buried at the Soldier’s Home Cemetery. Although he was laid to rest, his legacy was not soon forgotten.

William H. Gregg was born at Big Creek, North Carolina on May 12, 1829. He earned his stay at the Soldier’s Home, having enlisted at Carlisle, Indiana in 1861 and having served in the Civil War as a lieutenant of Company G, of the 120th Indiana Infantry.

Gregg fortunately survived the perilous war and then moved to Kansas, and later to the Gallatin Valley of Montana. He uprooted once again in 1886 and established a homestead along the Flathead River. This would later become part of the town of Demersville, which Gregg helped found.

Gregg was approached by T.J. DeMers in 1887. DeMers was a man of enterprise. He told Gregg that he planned to establish a store and post in the Flathead Valley. DeMers explained to Gregg how he had first approached the merchants at Ashley, but they demanded the exorbitant sum of $5,000 for a building site there.

DeMers wished to avoid such collusion and the hefty sum they demanded. He soon realized that establishing a town along the Flathead River would afford the opportunities of boat transportation, which could prove far more advantageous than hauling goods over the wagon trail from Missoula, which was a long, troublesome journey at best.

Gregg took a liking to DeMers, and readily understood the rich opportunities in shipping versus hauling. Perhaps in the pursuit of kindness and the pursuit of speculation, Gregg gave DeMers a 300-square-foot block of land so he could build a store.

The parcel included what was then known as “Gregg’s Landing,” the boat dock that served as the head of navigation for boats traveling up the Flathead River.

Upon both Gregg’s kindness and insistence, DeMers received a stock of goods from Missoula, and put up a large tent on the land. It was the first store at a place that would soon become known far and wide as Demersville.

As Demersville progressed and flourished, Gregg Street – one the main thoroughfares of the town running east and west – was so named in his honor.

And like many towns in the West, Demersville flourished until the Great Northern Railway changed its route and chose Kalispell for its division point instead.

Kalispell rose to importance in an instant, and Demersville faded from existence just as fast.

Jaix Chaix’s book, “Death in the Valley: Odd Tragedies in the Flathead Valley, Montana 1887-1917,” is available at DeathInTheValley.com and locally (at select retailers).