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Haunted Alaska: 5 classic ghost stories and tales of terror

Alaska Dispatch staff

We Alaskans live in the dark much of the year, an enveloping darkness, many of us surrounded by mysterious forests with whispering winds and the spirits of our pioneers, frozen in place and time. Haunted remnants of old wars and the Earth-bound spirits of ancestors whose work was left incomplete or whose lives were lost in pursuit of the land's prized resources. Here's a look at some of the most famous hauntings in Alaska.

 

Haunted Halls and A Lonely Lady at Anchorage's West High School

They say there’s a lady in white who haunts the old auditorium of Anchorage's West High School, on the south bluff overlooking Westchester Lagoon. She's been spotted off and on for decades -- sometimes standing mute among darkened seats in the cavernous and echoing space, sometimes fleeing through corridors, sometimes lurking backstage or in the fluorescent-lit basement halls.

"I've never, ever seen a ghost in there -- I can't say I even believe in ghosts," West theater teacher David Block told a group of his students last week. "I haven't ever seen her, but enough people have seen her that I have to believe that something is going on."

As the teenagers in Block's stage production class listened in awed silence, Block told them that the sightings have a remarkable consistency -- always a female, elusive, wearing white clothes. A variety of people -- school officials, students, visitors -- have contributed to the unsettling reports. Some witnesses claim they have never heard of any kind of West High ghost in advance of their own weird encounters.

Another West haunting might include a former janitor, long deceased, who has been seen persistently sweeping the lobby when no one should be present, Block said. There have also been reports of footsteps tip-tapping around the corner of empty halls, slamming doors, lights switching on and off. All signs that one might not be as alone as one thinks, especially when the hour is particularly late.

But it's the unknown lady who returns most frequently. 

A few years ago, a student stage manager saw a girl open an off-limits backstage door during a dress rehearsal and jumped up in exasperation. When he opened the door into an alcove to confront her for violating the rules, no one was there.

Two assistant principals and a security guard were rattled when something in white flashed by them in the strange, narrow corridor behind the balcony.

"To this day, one of those assistant principals will not talk about what happened -- refuses to discuss it," Block said. "Even I don't like going into the passage behind the balcony."

A girl in the class raised her hand. When entering the supposedly empty theater last year with a group, she spied a young woman wearing white clothes standing above them in the balcony, looking down. When she asked her friend -- "Do you see her?" -- the figure vanished.

Did you know about this ghost before today? Block asked.

She shook her head.

Another story: Down in "Hell" -- a basement vault formerly used as the school's rifle range and now filled with costumes and props -- a girl helping with a show opened a door into a tiny side room and was shocked to see a strange man glaring at her. She screamed. Yet when others investigated, no one was there. Or so the story goes.

"I'm dropping out of your class," one boy told Block.

The students then followed Block across the courtyard and entered the theater lobby. He unlocked the door and let them in. The empty seats and rows were well lit --not creepy at all -- with partly completed sets waiting on the stage. (The school's production of the musical "Legally Blonde" opens this week.)

Who wants to check out the balcony corridor? Block asked.

Half the students raised their hands, and the other half shrieked "No!" But when the volunteers dashed to the back of the theater, yelling and laughing, the rest joined.

And so they all went: Through a narrow door. Up 23 steep steps. Around a corner -- and there it was. The haunted corridor. White walls and sinister green carpet curved relentlessly to the right. With no end in sight, no obvious exit at all, it felt … buried.

Block told them he's been alone in the theater, sometimes at night, and heard footsteps up here.

"On many occasions, I've called out, 'Hello!'" But no one is ever there.

The class walked slowly down the carpeted passageway, finally exiting onto the balcony. Nothing strange happened, but the kids seemed relieved to be out in auditorium again.

"That stairway is sketchy," one boy said.

"Everything is sketchy," Block replied.

by Doug O'Harra

 

 

USAF photo by Sr. Airman Laura Turner

Site Summit: Cold War Phantoms in Eagle River

The ghosts of a war that never came haunt the ruins atop a mountain high above the suburban community of Eagle River, just north of Alaska's largest city. Poking among the empty concrete buildings now, though technically they remain closed to the public, it's more than a little scary to think about that against which they were built to defend: 

Cataclysmic global war.

Star Wars was being contemplated here long before President Ronald Reagan in 1983 announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed space and missile-based defense system for North America quickly tagged "Star Wars." Even before the first movie in a series of movies called "Star Wars" first rocketed to international success in 1977 to change the way America thought about space.

Welcome to Alaska's Site Summit, in some ways one of the spookier places on the globe. In the now-deserted bunkers here were kept the surface-to-air missiles with which the Army hoped to destroy airplanes from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) bent on attacking the United States.

This was the late 1950s and on into the 1960s. The Second World War -- which ended with the U.S. dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan -- was not long over. The Soviet Union -- which had been nearly crushed by Nazi Germany -- had risen to become a world power. Led to victory by a ruthless dictator, wary of what it had seen in Japan, terrified by what it had discovered of German plans for a nuclear weapon, the USSR soon had it's own nuclear bombs.

Global tensions rose toward a historic peak. Americans were digging home "fall-out shelters." American school children were drilled in how to flee their classrooms for nearby ditches where they were to taught to hit the ground and curl up to survive a nuclear blast. There was "an eerie peacetime preoccupation with enemy attacks on American soil. The Soviet threat gave civil defense a new prominence. In 1950, Congress created the Civil Defense Administration, which in turn brought America public fallout shelters, the Emergency Broadcast System, food stockpiles -- and Bert the Turtle's 'duck and cover'" initiative to save students.

Be afraid, children. Be very afraid.

It all seems like ancient history now, of course. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The republics that had formed the union split into more than a dozen independent countries. The biggest and most powerful among them, Russia, became so preoccupied with its internal social and economic problems that there was no time to worry about global conflict.

Today, the nuclear threat comes mainly from unstable nations like North Korea that sometimes seem intent on going rogue. And rogues are always dangerous because they operate outside the norms of predictable, sensible behavior. Back in the 1950s, when the Army started blasting away the top of Mount Gordon Lyon to create a missile base, the whole world seemed on the verge of going rogue.

Site Summit, and more than 140 Nike-Hercules missile sites across the country, were America's answer to the craziness. If you'd been in Anchorage in the 1960s, when Nike missiles were being tested, you could have watched the program light up the sky. This wasn't, of course, the only Nike site built to protect what were then the U.S. Army's Fort Richardson and the U.S. Air Force's Elmendorf Air Base. The "bunkers" at Kincaid Park in South Anchorage once housed things far deadlier than the equipment to groom cross-country ski trails. And there were, in addition to Kincaid and Site Summit, six other Nike missile sites in the newly created state of Alaska.

You can read a whole, whole lot more about it here or here. The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service and others are now in engaged in trying to help Friends of Nike Site Summit preserve what is left atop the mountain and hopefully, one day, open it to the public for tours.

Maybe, by Halloween 2012, you will be able to walk among the ghosts of the war that most thankfully didn't happen despite the massive preparation for it. The Army built a small town above Eagle River to man Site Summit. Sixty feet had to be blown off the top of the mountain to level the ground for a "Battery Control Building." Another ridge was flattened to create a launch area. Underground bunkers were blasted into the mountain to provide for missile storage. Some 125 servicemen moved into the facilities to stand watch 24/7. Missiles were launched in November and December from 1960-1963 as part of regular base training. They rocketed over what is now Eagle River.

It was a truly spooky time to be a resident of Anchorage's first real suburb.

But the ghosts of the men who served there probably remember most the frightening Alaska weather. The temperature atop the mountain reportedly hit 49 degrees below zero in 1969, and the record winds are reported to have reached 260 kilometers per hour or 161.56 mph if you can believe that. Compared to such earthly frights, whose afraid of any old ghost?

by Craig Medred

 

TMSpencer/AHAI photo

Hungry ghouls in watery Whittier

In many ways, Whittier, that dot of a town on the western edge of Prince William Sound, is not for the faint of heart. Even getting to Whittier is ominous: the palpitations start before you get there, driving through that 2-and-a-half-mile-long tunnel, the one carved into a mountain. Signs warn of avalanches.

Eventually, you'll see that light at the end of the tunnel, reminding you of stories about those who have briefly visited the afterlife. When you reach the light, however, it's pretty clear that the angels have ceded -- for the time being, at least -- the town to another kind of army. Perhaps that's what makes Whittier the strangest, most haunted town in Alaska.

Whittier residents live with constant reminders of that other army.

First, and most obvious, there's the Buckner Building, hanging over the town like the ghost of an old warrior. The Buckner Building was named after such a warrior, General Simon Buckner, who died after commanding the defenses of Alaska early in the Second World War. He was then sent to the Pacific theater and died during the closing days of the Battle of Okinawa, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to have been killed at the hands of the enemy during World War II.

Bucker was tough, and so is his building, completed in 1953 at the height of the Cold War. The mammoth, sturdy structure was intended to withstand bombs and keep as many as 1,000 soldiers safe if a Cold War army invaded. It had in it a movie theater, a bowling alley, a jail even. Tunnels led from the building to other parts of the town. It was one of the most spectacular buildings the military ever built in Alaska and the largest at the time. But then, as these things go, the military pulled out and left the building to the spirits, many of whom were skilled at graffiti. One of them likes the movie "The Shining," displaying this fondness by painting the word "Redrum" lovingly on one of its walls.

It's fitting, said Ted Spencer, who lives in San Diego but is curator of the Whittier Museum, one of the best museums in Alaska. Once while exploring the building, he entered a room too dark to tell what it was. Finally, after the sun moved and his eyes adjusted, he realized that he was standing on the stage of a 300-person auditorium. It was, in a word, spooky -- a feeling heightened often by the strange noises in the building: animals scurrying, wind whistling through open windows.

Once Spencer even heard water running down a pipe that was crashing onto the floor. Who turned on the spigot? He still doesn't know.

The spookiness and the noise may have lured some spirits to the comfort of the living: the Begich Towers, commonly known as BTI, is the place where nearly all 160 Whittier residents live today. Stories of bumps in the night, and phantom noises abound. One of the ghosts who inhabit the building is apparently fond of whistling.

Another has a particularly heavy step. Up and down the corridors of the 14-story tower ghosts trudge. One of them is hungry. He or she once rattled around in the kitchen of the city manager Bob Prunella. By all accounts a rational man, he went as far as to reach for his gun before he realized it was just a ghost.

Dyanna Barnes, the executive assistant for the city, said she has some stories she won't talk about because they're so scary. Mostly, though, the ghosts are benign. Residents know that they share the tower with the other side, but they "just live with it."

"They haven't hurt anybody," Barnes said.

by Amanda Coyne

 

Specters and Vanishing Tombstones at Kennecott Copper Mines

Ghosts of the old territorial days are with us everywhere. Alaska is littered with abandoned Russian settlements, deserted prospecting sites and the wreckage of so many doomed expeditions into the cold, dark and mysterious Far North. Spirits of the ancients are even said to be trapped in the great animals roaming the Great Land, ferrying souls from this realm to the next.

And while there's talk of ghosts and spirits rustling in trees, haunting old lodges, moaning in the mountain passes and dwelling near shipwrecks, only one recurring premonition can be said to have scared off state government.

It's somehow fitting that perhaps the greatest concentration of paranormal activity in Alaska's vast lands has been reported near one of the world's richest-known gold and copper strikes. The old railroad that serviced the Kennecott copper mines in the Valdez and Chitina mining districts is said to be so haunted, so spooky, that to this day -- 73 years after the final lode was hauled -- phantoms plague repeated attempts by locals and even state officials to redevelop the area.

A bit of history on the mines: Kennecott's ore was mined from deep inside the Wrangell Mountains and then carried across a three-mile aerial tramway before it was conveyed 4,000 feet down the frozen mountainside to the mining town of Kennecott. And from there the ore met up with the Copper River and Northwestern Railway.

The old CR & NW is an abandoned, 200-mile stretch of track ambling from Kennicott Glacier south to Cordova on Prince William Sound. Copper was hauled there and then shipped south to smelters in Tacoma, Wash. The railroad, built by the J.P. Morgan-financed Kennecott Copper Corp. between 1907 and 1911, spanned a massive glacier (the tracks had to be moved, continually, as the glacier shifted and settled). It bridged yawning canyons. It clung tenaciously to rock walls above the madly-swirling Copper River. During construction, thousands of workers were required to dig through snow and avalanche. Others went to work to blast a way ahead, through miles and miles of rock. Many were reported to have died during construction of the CR & NW.

The rail line cost Kennecott Corp. $20 million to build at the time. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $458 million in today's dollar. The investment eventually produced some 4 million tons of copper ore that passed south over the Chitina River Bridge -- not to mention 128 other bridges -- and then on down the line. While the track eventually became a very profitable investment, during construction railroad workers and miners swore the acronym for the CR & NW stood for "Can't Run and Never Will."

Widespread and persistent stories of hauntings along the old track have been reported from the region, especially near Chitina. It is well documented that the railroad created thousands of jobs. There was a 30-year boom in nearby McCarthy, a town adjacent to Kennecott, which offered "colorful diversions" for miners, including a red light district.

But how many lives were lost during the railroad construction and the mining boom -- and the inevitable bust? Practically overnight, the once-bustling communities surrounding Kennecott mines turned to ghost towns. McCarthy almost died but hung on thanks to a hard few who continued to work other area gold mines.

Eventually, when the National Park Service showed up, after establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kennecott flourished again, albeit it in a less fashion, as a tourist attraction unnamed. The park now draws people along the McCarthy Road, which took over the old railroad grade from Chitina east into the mountains. Over the years, travelers on the road and visitors to the present-day Kennecott historical landmark have claimed they've seen tombstones just off the old dirt path that in places where it parallels the CR & NW, the Old Copper Railroad.

Thing is, on the way back from their adventures, these wayfarers have consistently reported that the grave markers are gone, vanished into the still, cool mountain air.

Back in the late 1990s, the state of Alaska is said to have begun developing a government housing tract out along the trail that once marked the CR & NW. But during construction, workers so regularly recounted phantom visions and "disembodied voices of both children and adults along the Old Copper Railroad" that keeping work up became impossible. Eventually things got even worse. Construction workers, having seen the tombstones and heard the wails of long-dead miners, then started losing their tools, right out of their tool belts and boxes. It was enough to frighten off even the boldest and bravest public servant and the whole project is said to have been canceled.

Getting out to the long-abandoned track isn't easy. Much the same can be said of many other godforsaken places in Alaska, but in some of those people manage to maintain, sometimes even flourish. Few other places are believed to have as many spirits discouraging resettlement as the abandoned ghost towns and railways of the Kennecott Copper Mines in Wrangell-St. Elias.

by Eric Christopher Adams 

 

 

Feels Like Teen Spirit and Other Phantoms in UAA's Wendy Williamson Auditorium

Visitors from a nearby psychiatric ward and youth correctional facility aren't the only uninvited guests to spook a bizarrely built Anchorage auditorium.

Multiple ghouls -- including some that don't respect personal space -- are said to stalk the Wendy Williamson auditorium at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Props have flown off furniture, stage lights have exploded, inexplicable shadows have slid across walls, and the occasional patter of ghostly footfalls have creeped out the living, according to a report in the university newspaper. One might wonder whether Hollywood magic was at work.

"On three different occasions, women have tried opening the door to exit the handicap bathroom, only to find that someone will vigorously shut it from the other side," said the reporter, Renee Dillard, after talking with auditorium personnel.

The poltergeists apparently include a man, woman, kids and a teen boy. A psychic once said the spirit's teen body was killed in a nearby car crash. Rumors suggest these chain-shakers might be ghouling around with the earth-trapped soul of late university professor John Wendell "Wendy" Williamson.

Paranormal activity surfaces throughout the auditorium, which saw its building plans change midway through construction, leaving it with a useless catwalk, elevator shaft and other curious features. The ghosts apparently get aggressive in the foyer, targeting female brunettes.

"Women with long brown hair have often felt themselves being pushed down the stairs on the lobby’s left stairway. Music also plays by itself on the lobby piano, and reflections that are unaccounted for sometimes appear in the doors of the entrance," the paper reported.

Visitors looking for an out-of-body experience won't get one.

"Most people who have come here and said they wanted an experience don’t get it," auditorium staffer Shane Mitchell says in the story. "It always happens when you're not suspecting something or when you're not wanting something to happen."

by Alex DeMarban