My Favorite Haunted Hotels
Long before I could read, I was scared. I have not one speck of memory that explains why I was scared, but when I was scared as a youngster I wanted to know why. Fright did not happen regularly, but when it did, I had lots of questions. Mother had answers for all my questions, so when I ask her what scares people, she suggested that I saw a ghost. Or dreamed of one.
Everyone called me an instigator. Some of my friends thought “instigator” meant troublemaker. I on the other hand, decided that “instigator” should mean, mastermind.
One night during my Normal School days when sleep was impossible and exams were scheduled for what seemed like dawn tomorrow, I lay in bed listening to the clock’s tick-tock-tick-tock and masterminded a tour. It would be a multi-state railroad tour that would take three of my teaching colleagues to three states, for three days in three different hotels. Haunted hotels!
The first opportunity came in the summer of 1958, between my first two years of teaching. Then, classes ended just before Decoration Day and did not resume until the last week in August.
I really did not care how I identified the cause of my scary times but if I really had seen a ghost, I thought it would help if I visited someplace known to be haunted. If I could persuade three friends to go on tour with me, at least I wouldn’t have to learn alone!
Our first stop was the Grand Hotel, on Mackinac Island in Upper Michigan. After a grueling twenty-one-hour train ride from Philadelphia, and three hours on a bus, and an hour-long ferry passage my friends and I stepped off a fringed surrey onto the front porch of the Grand Hotel. Aside: it’s the longest hotel porch in the world.
There we were, my best friend Lola, my sister Vesta, my sister’s friend Martha and me, Edith. I was the mother-hen.
In the 1950s, planning a trip was as complicated as earning a college degree. There were no toll-free telephone reservation services, train tickets had to be purchased with cash, and oh, the list goes on. You can imagine my sense of accomplishment when the four of us walked to the registration desk and announced ourselves, ready to pick-up the keys to the two rooms I reserved by letter dated February 28, 1958.
Without fanfare, the clerk, middle-aged man with a three-inch cowlick, (Egad! I have no idea why I remember such things.) asked for one signature for each room and a confirmation of billing addresses. He handed each of us a key and hailed the bellboy. The “boy” was at least double our ages, but he greeted us by asking, “Please, Misses, will you follow me?” What a joy it was!
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Michigan’s most prized tourist destination is the island of Mackinac. By legend it is the most haunted island in Lake Huron, just east of the narrowest passage between Upper and Lower Michigan.
Before the Europeans began exploring Michigan’s Upper peninsula in the early years of the 17th century, there was plenty of proof that the island served as a Native American cemetery used exclusively by the Odawa Tribe. Fur trading on the Great Lakes was making the British richer by scores and to protect the future wealth of their citizen investors, a fort was built on the island – almost wholly without consent of the natives.
Michigan became a state a dozen years earlier (1837), and at the mid-point of the 1800s, fishing replaced trapping as the island’s most profitable industry. The island became a state park in 1895 and the tourists came. With such history – Mackinac Island was a prime candidate for hauntings. It was no surprise that workmen found bones when they dug the foundation of the Grand Hotel.
The Grand’s first after-opening paranormal event occurred when an “evil entity” showed itself in the form of a black-mass with red eyes, to a maintenance man behind the hotel’s theater stage. The mass knocked him off his feet. He never returned to work.
One staff member reported seeing a man wearing a top-hat, playing the piano at three in the morning. Women in Victorian gowns were frequently seen in the upstairs halls.
I am sad to report that during our stay at the Grand, we saw nothing unusual.
Our second “ghost search expedition” came in December 1959. I did not manage to convince my traveling companions that ghosts haunted Michigan and for sure, I would have no better luck in Florida, but even though each was skeptical, Lola, Vesta, and Martha were ready to go when I called.
The train trip the second time was much less stressful, but the bus we rode from Jacksonville station to St. Augustine went down in history as a definition for agony.
The hotel was so beautiful; it was perhaps the most iconic of Henry Flagler’s Florida endeavors. The Ponce de Leon Hotel was a magnificent Spanish Renaissance-style resort that drew upscale guests from across the country. And best of all, its reputation for being a haunted hotel much predated our visit, so we suspected that our disappointment in Michigan would be salved with great success in Florida.
We had three beautiful days on that trip. Lola got a sunburn and Martha ate conch for the first time. I drank my first Old-Fashioned cocktail, but that was as close as we came to seeing anything unusual.
The hotel now exists as part of Flagler College (named for Henry himself). Staff and students are quick to affirm that the structure has plenty of paranormal activity.
The Ponce de Leon may be haunted by at least three individual spirits. A prominent legend confirms that Flagler’s mistress lived in a room on the fourth floor. She is known as the Woman in Black. It is fair to say that she is one of only a few spirits who haunt their own realms after a suicide. She killed herself in a fit of despair, but she haunts the old hotel in prescribed ways, by appearing as a dark figure in the halls, by flashing the lights at night and stomping up and down the stairs at unreasonable hours.
Another spirit thought to occupy the old hotel is that of Ida Alice, Flagler’s second wife. Ida Alice was benign compared to the Woman in Black and she is only an infrequent visitor. Then there is old Henry Flagler himself. Most people believe that old Henry was so in love with his own success that he simply cannot stand to leave his much beloved Ponce de Leon hotel.
I saved a great deal of money by living at home during my first years of teaching, and in 1960 I spent a good part of my savings on a brand-new two-color green Chevrolet Impala.
Up until then, my father always owned Plymouth cars. They were fine, but I never knew how fast or how much fun driving could be. The next trip would be by car.
The gang was back together for the last time in December 1960. We packed the trunk of the Impala on the day after Christmas and left Philadelphia in the wee hours headed south on U. S. Route One. There were a few places where the new Interstate Highway No. 95 was complete, and we used every inch of it. You could actually drive for hours or more at sixty miles per hour – without stopping. I drove the first leg of the trip to a breakfast stop in Maryland, then Lola took a turn although she would have preferred to stay in the back seat, and I drove the rest of the way.
When one traveled through Rockbridge County, Virginia, before April 24, 1963, you certainly would encounter Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Hotel. Any hotel of its size was mostly unexpected and quite a sight. It sat on a hill high above the bridge and from the highway it was hard to decide if the hotel was beautiful or creepy.
In 1890 the original hotel, the Appledore, opened nearby. The name soon changed and it became a vacation center for motorists up and down the east coast. The Natural Bridge Hotel earned several distinctive reputations; the rooms were well priced and filled with unexpected amenities, the recreation staff was amenable to everything from bingo to square dancing, the food was exquisite, and the hotel was haunted. Everyone agreed.
Lola and I walked down to the bridge for the light show on our second evening. It was so beautiful and there was music – Christmas carols in the form of Bing Crosby on records over the public-address system. We never saw them, but when we returned, Martha and Vesta regaled us with stories of having danced the night through with two guys from Washington, D. C.
The ghost stories that circulate around the Natural Bridge Hotel involve only two troubled spirits: an early hotel owner, Colonel Henry Parson, and a later owner who it is rumored killed his wife, child, and himself in the hotel. Reported sightings have been made claiming that members of a family run about the grounds at night.
Sadly, in 1963 a mysterious fire broke out and the entire building burned. The origin of the fire was never determined but many believe it began in the kitchen. The hotel was rebuilt in 1964 and thrived for many years, but in general agreement the majority of us who were hotel ghost hunters concluded that the fire was an eviction notice to all resident spirits. Not one sighting has been reported since the night of the fire.
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This wonderful group of friends moved on to other things after 1960. Lola married. Martha moved to the mid-west. My sister still lives in Philadelphia in our family’s homestead. And I, I’m the only one still searching for ghosts. I have yet to see one.