Is haunted historic? That’s the great question. We love haunted things – buildings, roads, lights, natural disasters, battlefields, cemeteries and many more. Ghost tours are very popular. Some folks study the paranormal and try to quantify very elusive legends. But is haunted also historic? Does a list of haunted places merit a “trail drive?”
According to one historian, the answer is unquestionably yes.
Michael Grauer, former curator of history at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, thinks haunted and historic are really a yin-yang concept that describes opposite but interconnected forces.
There’s no shortage of haunted sites in Texas. Anywhere someone has witnessed or felt something that they can’t explain can become a haunted site. Some well-known haunted sites include Caddo Lake, USS Lexington in Corpus Christi, Presidio La Bahía in Goliad, The Alamo in San Antonio, the entire town of Jefferson and the Ghost Road outside Saratoga.
Still more haunted sites are the Monkey Bridge in Athens, Goatman’s Bridge in Denton, the Devil’s Backbone Tavern in Fischer, the White Lady of the Rio Frio, Catfish Plantation Restaurant in Waxahachie and the Yorktown Memorial Hospital.
We all have personal favorites of haunted sites. Here are a few highlights from my research.
The Bivins Mansion in downtown Amarillo is one of the oldest structures in town. Built in 1905 as the “town” house of the pioneering Bivins family, it has been a private home, the public library and headquarters for the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce and other Amarillo non- profits. As the late Amarillo City Commissioner Diane Bosch told me, “This may be the most haunted building in town.” Most frequently locals tell stories of a cook still hanging around the mansion, as suggested by the smell and sound of frying bacon. The mansion’s top floor was the ballroom, site to many parties with music and dancing. Sometimes, workers hear footsteps upstairs, yet the ballroom is empty, holding the HVAC system for the building.
Historic hotels are frequent locations for haunting stories, which makes sense to Grauer, now McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, since so many people pass through hotels. With people come events, like backroom deals, notable guests, disagreements, fistfights, gunfights and robbery and murder.
The Driskill Hotel in Austin is one of the state’s most famous hotels. Always home to political and business leaders, it may have hosted more backroom deals than any other Texas building. It’s no surprise it is haunted. But don’t forget the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, the Menger in San Antonio, Miss Molly’s Hotel in Fort Worth and the Magnolia Hotel in Seguin. Big city or small town, large hotel or small, each one has a special vibe and a special place in history.
Night at the Museum was a very popular movie franchise. But the films have nothing on Canyon’s Panhandle-Plains Historic Museum, the largest history museum in Texas. Spirits abound late at night; items move in exhibits and museum employees know Sarah Jane, the spirit of a young girl who walks the hallways. Grauer worked many late nights in the museum and can personally attest to noises and spirits.
Historic cattle trails of the 1860’s and 1880’s, from Texas north to Kansas, Colorado, Montana and other places, are themselves haunted. For example, the Western Trail, active from 1874 to 1886, moved more cattle north from Texas than any other trail. Cowboys died along the way, through accidents on the job, disagreements and fights with other cowboys and very rarely, encounters with Native Americans. Most were buried in unmarked graves along the trail. Grauer believes those spirits of hard-working cowboys are still trying to complete their jobs.
Grauer’s favorite haunted site? He had the opportunity to stay overnight on a battlefield now located on private property (with the landowner’s permission) and has experienced the spiritual auras that come to life there. “Haunted does not mean spooky or bad or evil. Haunted means that there is something incomplete in someone’s life,” Grauer says.
Hauntings are one of the easiest ways to tell a story, Alex Hunt, professor of English at West Texas A&M University, believes. Maybe it’s a slice of history we don’t understand so haunted stories are a way we communicate legends. As director of the Center for the Study of the American West, one of Hunt’s favorite haunting stories is the Phantom Horse Herd of Tule Canyon.
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon (September 28, 1874) featured the capture of more than 1,400 horses from the Comanche, Apache and Kiowa people. The horses were driven south into Tule Canyon and after giving some of the horses away to friendly Native American partners, the U.S. Army destroyed the rest of the herd, maybe 1,000 horses. Without their horses the bands of Native Americans living in Palo Duro Canyon were without a key part of their livelihood and quickly moved onto reservations. But it is said that on moonlit nights, the Phantom Herd still thunders along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon, evading final capture from all who try.
Finally, the entire city of Galveston may be haunted by the great storm of 1900, according to Galveston fan Mallory Laurel, a Special Project Coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission. This hurricane, recounted in the book Isaac’s Storm, swamped the entire city and resulted in the greatest loss of life for any natural disaster in the US. What haunts Galveston – that high water mark. Every building in the city, whether it survived the storm or was washed away, is a location of great human tragedy. The city built a seawall and raised more than 2,000 surviving structures, yet more than 100 years later that city is haunted by the what if, Laurel explains.
“What haunts us is what lingers,” Laurel says. There are plenty of ways that history haunts us, and most don’t have anything to do with ghosts.