Finding History in Ghost Stories

From the Washington County Historical Society:

As historians, should we distance ourselves from the paranormal? Can the Warden’s House Museum host the current warden of the Minnesota State Prison as a guest speaker and extend the same hospitality to a group of ghost hunters a few short months later?

According to a Harris Poll from last year, 42% of Americans believe in ghosts; I am not one of them. I’ve never seen pots and pans unexplainably crash to the floor nor doors fling themselves open. I’ve always said that if I see a ghost floating from room to room in the museum – I’d be more concerned with my own mental health before imagining I was a witness to the supernatural. And yet, I defend the coupling of hauntings with WCHS’ goals of preservation and dissemination because at the heart of every good ghost story is at least a kernel of history.

In a Pioneer Press article from 1995, Prof. Elizabeth Bird, of the University of Minnesota Duluth, recounted the tale of a spectral lantern carrier who supposedly haunts the Arcola High Bridge just north of Stillwater. Apparently, during World War I, an oncoming ammunition train forced the unfortunate railroad worker to leap from the side of the bridge only to perish in the waters below. Now, “on the midsummer anniversary of his death”, a mysterious light can be seen shining on the tracks.

Although a relatively simple legend on its surface, as author Paul Auster once wrote – the truth of the story lies in the details. What kind of train? An ammunition train. When does he appear? On the anniversary of his demise, naturally. And by placing the story in the historical context of the First World War, the haunting gains further credibility.

A proper investigation of this story would begin by confirming these all-important details. A truly interested party would seek out cargo manifests, military orders, train schedules, etc., etc., and suddenly the paranormal researcher has become a researcher of history.

Of course, the researcher must be prepared to discover contradictions.

According to the “Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations”, the Water Street Inn in downtown Stillwater is haunted by the spirit of an alcoholic Confederate officer. Employees have reported smelling a strange musk in the air and even seeing a young man in the grey uniform of the Confederacy. There is even a review of the hotel on from as recent as June of 2013 entitled, “Haunted!” The hotel guest reported that she “woke up to something crazy! I swear it was like someone got in my bed with me. I couldn’t move, then I found a picture taken on my phone of me sleeping. I stayed there alone with the dead bolt locked. I can’t explain it but I also smelled body odor randomly after I woke up at4 am.”

Like the story of the haunted bridge, this ghost story clearly isn’t lacking in details. The peculiar odor is even seemingly corroborated by multiple sources. But the historical facts highlight some major issues.

The building that now houses the Water Street Inn was built in 1890 and after the Confederacy was dissolved at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there just weren’t a whole lot of folks wearing Confederate uniforms – especially in the staunchly Union Minnesota. Furthermore, the building didn’t become a hotel until the current owners renovated the property in the 1990s. The building originally housed business offices and there are simply no reports of anyone passing away at the site. Whatever is going on at the Water Street Inn – it seems highly unlikely Johnny Reb is to blame.

The big question we in the world of history must constantly ask ourselves is, “How do we stay relevant?” Tales of ghosts and the paranormal can be exciting introductions to elements of local history that are unfortunately often overlooked. So for now, here at the historical society we’ll continue to occasionally delve into the realm of the supernatural with the hopes that although people might come for the ghosts – they’ll stay for the history.