written by Lee Lewis Husk
Spirits of the past are present everywhere. They dwell in our lands, haunt our historic buildings and cemeteries, and inhabit our songs, literature, films and holy texts. From ancient Egypt to today’s pop culture, stories of ghosts, apparitions and spirits— whatever you call them—are found in nearly every society and every religion.
“Ghosts are a desire to believe in the afterlife,” says Sharon Sherman, a folklorist and professor at University of Oregon. “None of us can conceptualize nothingness after death. We want to think that our spirit or life force will continue or go on in one form or another.” About one-fourth of Americans believe they’ve had contact with the dead, whether seeing an apparition or sensing the deceased through anomalous phenomena such as a clock stopping or an object falling, says Daniel Wojcik, professor and director of U of O’s Folklore Program. “These sorts of experiences reinforce widely held folk beliefs about ghosts, souls and life after death,” he explains.
“Everyone’s a skeptic until it hap pens to them,” says Jeff Davis, ghost hunter, archeologist, author of several books on ghosts of the Pacific Northwest and co-author of Weird Oregon: Your Travel Guide to Oregon’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Although paranormal activities have been reported throughout the state, in wild landscapes, small towns and even state parks, he advises recreational ghost hunters to visit Oregon’s larger cities, where spirits are easily unearthed.
Shanghai Tunnels, Portland Underground
Explore the dark side of Portland’s past: the opium dens, brothels, secret passages, shanghaied sailors and maybe a ghost or two beneath Old Town Chinatown. The most famous spirit is Nina, a young American Indian sold into prostitution, says Michael Jones, curator for the Cascade Geographic Society and a history buff who’s been exploring Portland’s underground since 1958. His research indicates that Nina, who many have been called “Ni Mu” in Sahaptin— a language of Columbia River tribes—agreed to give information to Christian missionaries trying to clean up Portland’s north end in the 1880s. No one knows for sure, but someone—maybe the police or her captors—got wind of this and pushed her down an elevator shaft. Today she makes ghostly appearances wearing black Victorian garb near the elevator where she died, and occasionally makes the scene at Hobo’s restaurant.
Lynnette Braillard of Bend says she has had supernatural experiences all her life. Last November, she and friends went into the underground with Shanghai Tunnel Tours—operated by Jones’s society (shanghaitunnels.info)—and encountered a spirit that whispered in her ear, although she couldn’t understand what it said. “I thought it was the tour assistant standing behind me, but when I turned around, nobody was there,” she recalls. “It didn’t bother me, but it creeped out my friends.”
Curator Jones says Braillard’s experience isn’t unique, and that other apparitions include a lady in white and a woman who sings a Scottish lullaby. He says the Shanghai Tunnels are the tenth most haunted place in North America and the most haunted place in Portland. (How these rankings are made, perhaps, is a ghost story itself.)
For those who want to do their own ghost hunting, go subterranean with the Portland Walking Tours’ “Beyond Bizarre” (portlandwalkingtours.com). Starting above ground at Old Town Pizza (another place that claims Nina as one of its transcendent residents), participants learn the science of ghost hunting, including hands-on practice with such ghost-detecting equipment as electromagnetic field meters and high-tech laser thermometers. The tour doesn’t guarantee a spiritual encounter, “But people have strange experiences on our tours,” says general manager Bob Fisher, noting that tours sell out quickly, especially around Halloween.
McMenamins’ White Eagle
White Eagle Café and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel in Portland and Edgefield (mcmenamins.com) in Troutdale have tales aplenty. Edgefield Manor, originally a poor farm, keeps a ghost log for spectral sightings. In the log, a janitor noted that he saw a man in a wheelchair holding a cue stick by one of the pool tables. “I looked back … and he was gone.” The incident happened when the janitor was disarming the security alarm for Lucky Staehly’s Pool Hall, which is named for a gentleman who lived at the former retirement home. He was wheelchair-bound, yet excellent at running the tables, as well as the ladies. Another entry reads: “Stayed in Rm. 215—could hear bagpipes rather loud. My husband couldn’t sleep—he said it felt like someone was holding his eyes open. Should probably consider discontinuing use of the room.” Coincidentally, it was in that particular room that a group of bagpipers “exorcised” any ill will or bad vibes from Edgefield in 1990.
White Eagle shows up so often in ghost lore that either the stories must be true or the tellers have all knocked back a few too many. Either way, the legends of White Eagle have drawn psychics, ghost hunters and curiosity seekers who want to experience this rough-and-tumble 1905 neighborhood watering hole. It allegedly housed a brothel, an opium den and maybe a tunnel leading to the waterfront for shanghaiing drunk or dopey publicans. White Eagle’s website lists a litany of legends behind the century-old tavern: “A prostitute killed upstairs by a jealous lover, drunken patrons shanghaied through a basement tunnel, and a waitress halfpushed, half-carried down the basement steps by an invisible, but persistent force.”
Other Haunts in Portland
Portland is said to be one of the most haunted cities in the nation. Stories of paranormal activity wallow in each of these historic landmarks.
The Heathman Hotel
Each room that makes up the “03” column from top to bottom floors has been cited for paranormal activity of the mysteriously-moved-object sort.
At least three friendly ghosts are said to roam the historic hotel, performing random acts of kindness.
Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetary
Alongside many of Portland’s most prominent grave sites lie 10,000 unmarked graves. Spooky tours are available monthly.
Inexplicable noises, apparitions and a portrait with a mind of its own of original owner, Henry Pittock, put this beautifully restored Portland icon in the mix.
Witches Castle in Forest Park
A Romeo and Juliet story that culminated in a brutal murder, and the subsequent hanging of the murderer (the first in Oregon after it became a territory), is a reasonable basis for ghosts. Spirits of those involved in the family feud are said to still occupy this piece of land, formerly their personal property.
South Eugene High School Auditorium
In 1958, Robert Turnbull Grankey, a student at South Eugene High School, fell through the ceiling of the auditorium, landing in row G, seats 10 and 11, breaking his neck and dying in front of thirty students. “As a child, I would go to rehearsals with my father in the auditorium,” recalls Sioux Boston, whose father was the school’s music teacher at the time of the incident. “The seats where the student fell were left in their bent state, and every time I went into the auditorium, even years later as a student, I felt an eerie presence,” she recalls. A story in the school’s newspaper, The Oregon Daily Emerald (Oct. 28, 1997), reported that people have heard mysterious noises, piano music after hours, eerie voices and a number of students and faculty have seen someone sitting in the old balcony. It must be a benevolent spirit because, during the 1994 renovations, a workman fell through the ceiling, landing on the seats and suffered only a broken foot. Some claimed the ghost saved his life.
Black Burial Canoe
Oregon’s ghostly spirits predate the arrival of Europeans by thousands of years. Native inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest had a spiritual connection with nature and all life around them, including the belief that plants and animals talk to people. The Creator gave the knowledge of life’s ways to each tribe, and those gifts were passed along through language, song and sacred rites.
“A very important part of our belief system is that the spirit leaves the body at death,” says Wilson Wewa, an elder of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, a Northern Paiute on his father’s side and a Palouse-Nez Perce on his mother’s. “We are honoring the life of the deceased and helping ourselves to mourn with our funerary ceremonies.
“We believe that both good and bad spirits continue to roam the lands,” says Wewa. “These spirits are a part of everyday life and sometimes are found in favorite places, such as fishing holes, caves, buttes and mountains, where they make themselves known to people.
“Long ago, Indian children were taught not to be afraid of nature, or fear the dark or unknown voices; or songs they may hear in the dark or in a lonely or sacred place,” he says. When a bad spirit leads someone astray or makes the person sick, they seek help from healers. Through sometimes complex ceremonies, healers put malevolent spirits to rest, allowing peace and health to be restored.
Burial customs varied from tribe to tribe, ranging from cremation and ground interment to tree or forest “burial” in a canoe. A fascinating story comes from the Chinook Indians of the lower Columbia River Basin near Astoria, where canoes played a vital role in their daily lives and conveyed the dead into the spirit life.
Chief Comcomly is noted in historical records for trading with late eighteenth and early nineteenth century explorers, including Lewis and Clark. An account in Native Peoples of the Northwest says that when he died in 1830 at 66, his family placed his body in a raised war canoe and later moved it to a burial site in a nearby forest to keep it from grave robbers. A physician of the Hudson’s Bay Co. soon found the body and decapitated it. The head spent more than one hundred years in the Royal Naval Hospital Museum in Gosport, England.
The chief’s skull finally made its way back to Astoria, where the historical society displayed it as a curiosity in the Flavel House Museum for more than twenty years. In 1972, Chinook pleas for the return of the chief’s skull were finally honored, and the chief was buried in an Ilwaco, Washington graveyard north of his old village. Visitors can see the black burial canoe, now cast in concrete, that the city of Astoria built in 1961 as a memorial to the late Chief Comcomly.
Preservation of the body is important in many religions, says folklorist Sherman. “There’s a belief that the body will someday be resurrected, therefore no cremation or desecration of the body is allowed.” In folklore, she says, ghosts are often people who weren’t buried properly, died a horrific death or became attached to certain places. Sometimes they’re the dead seeking vengeance or are stuck on earth for bad behavior while alive.
Heceta Head Lighthouse
Located on lonely islands or headlands, lighthouses are rich in ghostly traditions. The Heceta Head Lighthouse (hecetalighthouse.com), built between 1892 and 1894, stands just off U.S. Highway 101 near Yachats. The historic lightkeepers’ quarters, adjacent to the lighthouse, still seem to be home to Rue, a grief-stricken mother who took her own life after her daughter drowned in the waters below.
Steven Bursey, owner and innkeeper of the bed & breakfast located on site, says there’s no early record of Rue, sometimes called the “Lady in Gray,” but she came out of her eternal rest in the 1970s, when Lane Community College leased the house. “She either didn’t like the kids or didn’t like the renovations the college did,” he says. After that, Rue’s shenanigans began to circulate in newspapers and magazines, and she became well known. Housekeepers report seeing depressions on freshly made beds as if someone had recently sat on them, and guests often say they feel someone sitting on their legs. Lights go on by themselves or door knobs turn in empty rooms. The lighthouse is currently being restored but the bed & breakfast is open.
Jacksonville Historic Cemetery
The dead come alive two nights every year in October at the Jacksonville Cemetery in Southern Oregon. Friends of Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery (friendsjvillecemetery.org) offer an award-winning “Meet the Pioneers” torch-lit night where “spirits” in period costumes stand graveside and tell sad, funny and fascinating stories of life in the 1800s. Visitors can also join one of the monthly tours and learn about how the dead were assigned to certain sections: six for well-off members of fraternal and religious organizations and a seventh for souls who couldn’t afford a grave.
Meet the Pioneers tours (October 12-13) draw as many as 700 people, so buy tickets early, advises Dirk Siedlecki, president of the Friends organization.
The Oregon Vortex
It may or may not be haunted, but it qualifies as one place in Oregon where strange phenomena resist satisfactory scientific explanation. A hurricane of unnatural forces swirls about in Southern Oregon at the Oregon Vortex and House of Mystery (open March through October). The laws of gravity seem temporarily suspended: a broom stands upright without support, objects appear to flow uphill and the crooked, off-tilt house makes visitors dizzy just standing near it. According to tour guide Brian DeBunce, the Takelma and Latgawa Indians called it a forbidden ground because horses and other animals wouldn’t come near the place—except cold-blooded creatures such as snakes and lizards.
A roadside attraction four miles up Sardine Creek near Gold Hill, this mysterious spot opened to the public in 1930. The Vortex (oregonvortex.com) has been subjected to all sorts of probing by eminent scientists, including Albert Einstein. Short people appear taller and tall people shorter, depending on where they stand in the Vortex. Skeptics say it’s all an optical illusion; others aren’t so sure.