Editor's note: A version of this story ran in past editions of the Traveler. It seems fitting that it be resurrected in honor of All Hallows' Eve.
There is perhaps no more ethereal place than the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. There, when the night skies are thick with scudding clouds taht filter the moonlight, ghostly phantoms promenade on the geysers' drifting zephyrs. But do these wraiths truly exist, haunting the park's geyser fields, forests and lodges, or are they merely conjured by the whooshing geysers and sputtering fumaroles?
There are certainly stories that won't die -- eerie tales of macabre hauntings, such as the bride who stalks the upper reaches of the Old Faithful Inn with her head firmly tucked under her arm, a victim of a honeymoon-night decapitation decades ago. While one of the inn's caretakers, mindful of guests' appetites for the morbid, confesses to creating that gruesome scenario, there are some unexplained mysteries that confound explanation.
Not too many years ago, a woman who stayed with her husband in Room 2 at the creaky Old Faithful Inn awoke to find an apparition floating at the foot of their bed. She immediately roused her husband by digging her fingernails deeply into his shoulder. "Don't you see it?" the woman cried, pointing at a woman dressed in 1890s garb.
And, along with the usual suspect ghost stories about things that go bump in the night, is the tale of a housekeeping employee who watched a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall of the inn's "300" wing execute a 90-degree turn and then drop back to its original position.
Strolling through the majestic log inn, guests find it's easy to envision ghosts drifting along the inner balconies of the 85-foot-high lobby, or down the dimly lit hallways of the "Old House," the first portion of the gabled lodge built during the winter of 1903-04. More than a century of hands have rubbed smooth and shiny the dark log railings that run up the stairs and skirt the balconies. Too, the wooden floors are worn heavily in places where visitors have paused to gaze up at the balconies or the massive stone chimney that commands one corner of the lobby. At night, jigging shadows created by flames dancing in the fireplace dash across across the rough-hewn walls, while wailing winds send shudders through the inn.
If indeed Yellowstone is haunted by ghosts running wild at night, and not imaginations, whose shadows are they?
Could it be that Mattie Culver, who died during childbirth on March 2, 1889, at the now-gone Firehole Hotel once located several miles north of the Old Faithful Inn, fretfully stalks the geyser basin, heart-broken over not living to see her child grow up? When Mrs. Culver died, the hotel's grounds were too frozen to yield a grave, so her body was placed in two pickle barrels and buried in a snowdrift until spring thaw. Today, not far from her grave, is Dead Maiden's Spring.
According to Lee Whittlesey, the park historian and author of Death In Yellowstone, "The grave was later fenced and maintained by the wife of a park concessioner, and Mattie's 18-month-old daughter was sent to live with relatives."
Or perhaps one of the apparitions is that of L.R. Piper, a cashier from the First National Bank of St. Mary's, Ohio, who, on July 30, 1890, stepped out of the now-gone Fountain Hotel to enjoy an after-dinner cigar -- and vanished. U.S. Army troops stationed in Yellowstone at the time searched a month for Piper, and his brother-in-law spent the month of September that year looking for him. At one point, he slept under the stars hoping that coyote howls would lead him to Piper's remains. In his book, Mr. Whittlesey offers his own opinion of what befell Mr. Piper:
I believe he walked out into the night and inadvertently stumbled into one of the many hot springs that were and are located nearby. Persons who fall into hot springs disintegrate, and there is often no recovery of them. Two hot springs there, Gentian Pool and Deep Blue Geyser, are very large and very deep, and I believe that a search of them or other springs there, could it be done, would yield Piper's silicified bones perhaps covered over by years of spring deposits.
Maybe Charles Phillips is doing the haunting. He was a ranger stationed at Old Faithful during the winter of 1926-27. He died after eating water hemlock he mistook for wild parsnip. According to Death in Yellowstone, the ranger's body was found on the floor of the ranger station.
Investigators found that he had apparently come out of the bedroom into the kitchen and fell forward, striking his head above his left eye on the table. Dirt on his hands indicated he had crawled on the floor for awhile, probably in agony, and he exhibited the vomiting and frothing at the mount which are characteristic of hemlock poisoning.
On your next visit to the Old Faithful Inn, stay up late one night and test your belief in the afterlife, which seems more restless now that the mournful howling of wolves once again hangs in the air.