Halloween is quickly approaching, and I want to tell you a few Alaska ghost stories. Considering Alaska’s violent past as a frontier territory, it’s not surprising to find restless spirits roaming the state.
This first story is a tragic tale about a father and his five-year-old daughter. It is unclear when the event occurred, but it happened on Badarka Road in the woods of South Birchwood near Chugiak, Alaska.
According to the story, a man let his young daughter accompany him into the woods to collect firewood for their cabin. When the father grew tired from chopping wood, he sat down to rest. Meanwhile, the little girl decided to help her father with the chore. When she pulled the axe from the tree where her father had left it, the tree fell on her, killing her instantly. The grief-stricken father picked up his child’s limp body and cradled her, sitting in the snow for several days until he succumbed to hypothermia.
Badarka Road is a narrow, gravel road not listed on any maps, but some who have traveled down it say they have had unsettling encounters with supernatural entities. They see the specter of a man cradling a bloody little girl as the wind whispers through the trees. The grieving father is forever bound to the spot where his daughter died, and he refuses to let her go.
If you make it to Badarka Road, be sure to check out the Birchwood Saloon in Chugiak, where the unexplainable seems normal. Patrons and staff of the saloon have reported many strange occurrences during the years this historic establishment has been in business, including the sounds of voices when the saloon is nearly empty. The jukebox sometimes plays haunting melodies without any prompting, and ghostly apparitions manifest before terrified witnesses. Ethereal figures float through the bar area, and items vanish or end up in another part of the saloon without explanation. Some think the spirit of a young man who was electrocuted nearby haunts the bar. They believe his restless spirit lingers within the saloon’s walls.
No place in Alaska produces more reports of paranormal activity than the old railroad that serviced the Kennecott copper mines in the Valdez and Chitina mining districts in what is now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
At the turn of the 20th century, the richest concentration of copper ever unearthed was found in the mountains above Kennicott. The town of Kennicott was developed as a place for the miners to live, while nearby McCarthy was developed as a place for the miners to play. By the 1930s, most of the ore was gone, and Kennicott and McCarthy became ghost towns.
The railroad track was built to carry the ore from Kennnicott south to Cordova on Prince William Sound, where it was shipped to smelters in Tacoma, Washington. The tracks stretched two hundred miles through some of the most challenging terrain in the world and were built between 1907 and 1911. They spanned a massive, moving glacier, and workers had to continually move them as the glacier shifted and settled. The railroad crossed deep canyons and hugged the rock walls above the turbulent Copper River. During its construction, thousands of workers had to dig through snow and avalanche danger, while others used dynamite to blast through miles of rock. Many died working under these conditions, but the deaths were often not reported.
After the mines closed, the railroad track used to transport the ore soon fell into disrepair and became the McCarthy Road. This road begins where the pavement ends in Chitina, sixty-one miles (98.2 km) west of McCarthy. McCarthy and the Kennecott Mines are now tourist attractions, and tourists can drive or board shuttle buses for the long, rough ride over the McCarthy Road.
Over the years, travelers on the road heading to the Kennecott Historical Landmark claim they’ve seen tombstones near the dirt path in places where it parallels the railroad. However, the tombstones are no longer there when they return to civilization. They have vanished into thin air.
In the late 1990s, the state of Alaska began developing a government housing track near the Old Copper Railroad. At first, workers reported seeing phantoms and hearing the disembodied voices of both children and adults. As the work progressed, things got worse. Construction workers saw tombstones and heard the wails of long-dead miners and railroad builders. Then, the workers began losing their tools right out of their tool belts and boxes. Before long, the construction workers refused to work in the area, and the state canceled the project.
The Van Gilder Hotel in Seward, Alaska, has graced Adams Street for over a century. The hotel sits between the Liberty Theater and the First National Bank of Alaska. Built in 1916, this charming hotel offers a look back at Seward’s early days. Victorian fixtures light the lobby, and the front desk resembles an old oak salon-style bar with a brass footrail. Photos and mementos around the hotel share the history of Seward and some of its famous and quirky residents. However, beware if you stay in one of the hotel’s twenty-three rooms. You might have an unexpected guest in the middle of the night.
For years, the staff and visitors to the hotel have reported seeing a mysterious lady walking the halls, inspecting the rooms, and gazing longingly out the windows. Who is this ghostly apparition, and why has she chosen to haunt the Van Gilder?
Many believe the ghost is Fannie Baehm. Fannie was murdered on the hotel's second floor between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5, 1950. Fannie was a waitress at a Seward restaurant across the street from the Van Gilder, and she was reportedly staying in room twelve on the second floor of the hotel while she awaited an upcoming surgery in two days at the Seward General Hospital.
Fannie’s husband, Joe, who had been in Anchorage, flew down to Seward to visit Fannie in her room at the hotel. After he left the hotel for a while, Fannie told the staff she was afraid of Joe because he had been drinking all day and had gone in search of more alcohol. Since Joe often became violent when he drank, Fannie feared for her safety and hid in another hotel room for the rest of the day.
In the early evening, Fannie received the news that Joe had been picked up by the police for being drunk and disorderly. A friend escorted Fannie down the hotel's stairs to a phone so she could call the police and learn more about her husband’s situation.
Suddenly, Joe called to Fannie from the top of the stairs and said, “Fannie, I need to speak with you in private.”
Fannie could not see the .22 caliber rifle concealed in Joe’s clothes when she accompanied him back to her room. A few minutes later, a gunshot rang through the halls of the Van Gilder. The hotel staff raced to room twelve, where they found Joe Baehm kneeling beside his dead wife, who sat in a rocking chair.
Did Fannie’s violent death cause her spirit to remain forever trapped in the Van Gilder, or does another ghost haunt the hotel? Perhaps more than one apparition wanders the halls and rooms of the historic hotel. Some visitors who claim they have seen the ghost describe her as wearing apparel predating the clothes Fannie would have worn in the 1950s.
In an article in the Seward Journal, reporter Sam McDavid interviewed an anonymous source who described her encounter with a ghostly spirit in the hotel when she was in high school. The teenager approached the hotel to request donations for a school project. She walked into the hotel but saw no one at the counter in the main lobby. She wandered into the room to the left of the lobby and saw a woman standing next to a piano. The beautiful woman wore her dark hair pinned up. Her hands were clasped in front of her, and she wore a long-sleeved white blouse layered with ruffles. A thin, black belt encircled her waist, and her long burgundy skirt ended above a pair of button-up black boots.
The high school girl assumed the woman worked at the hotel and wore period clothes to match the Van Gilder’s interior design. The girl began her memorized spiel to solicit a donation to the school, and the woman listened patiently. She cocked her head as her lips curled into a slight smile. The girl said the woman did not look like she imagined a ghost would look, but she remained silent as the girl talked.
Suddenly, another woman entered the room and said, “Hello, hello.”
The girl turned to face the newcomer. This woman was dressed in contemporary clothes. “Can I help you?” she asked the girl.
The girl explained that she was speaking with the other lady and asking if the hotel would be interested in donating money to the school.
The color drained from the second woman’s face as she stared at the girl. When the girl turned around, the room was empty, and no other doors led from the room. This apparition was not Fannie Baehm, but who was she?
For several decades, a lady in white has haunted the auditorium of Anchorage’s West High School. Sometimes, she stands among the empty seats like a spectator waiting for the show to begin. Other times, she runs through the halls as if someone is chasing her. Students and teachers have also seen her in the creepy, dimly lit basement halls beneath the theater. Descriptions of the apparition remain consistent. She is a female dressed in wispy white clothes, and she always vanishes when the witness tries to approach her.
The lady in white is not the only ghost haunting West High School. Several people have reported seeing a long-dead school janitor sweeping the lobby when no one should have been present. Lights flick on and off, and doors slam at the school for no reason. Even toilets mysteriously flush when no one is in the bathroom stalls.
One of the scariest incidents was reported by a female student. She walked into the basement vault, formerly a rifle range but now used as a storage area for props and costumes for plays. She opened the door into a side room and was startled by a strange man who glared at her. By the time others came to investigate, the man had disappeared.
West High School is not the only haunted high school in the state. In 1946, a student at Ketchikan High School died when he fell from a catwalk above the stage in the theater. No one knows if he fell accidentally, was pushed, or committed suicide, but according to students and faculty, the boy’s restless spirit still occupies the school. Students call the ghost “Boochie.” The school has undergone renovations and remodels, but Boochie did not leave. Instead, his presence has reportedly only grown stronger over the years. When Boochie chooses to appear, he is most visible from the stage, standing on the catwalk. Many have heard his screams and cries.
In the far northwest corner of the state, the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue, Alaska, reportedly has the ghost of a young boy trapped in its auditorium. According to legend, the boy was playing basketball near the center when the ball rolled underneath the building. He climbed under the building to retrieve his ball and was swept away by melting snow runoff and drowned. It is now said that if you take a ball into the center and yell, “Alex, come get your ball,” you can hear the faint sound of a bouncing basketball.
Unexplained events frequently occur at the Wendy Williamson Theater in Anchorage. Even the building itself is spooky. Construction began on the auditorium in 1973, but when the allocated funds ran out, the building sat dormant for eighteen months until more funds became available. During this time, developers must have decided to alter the building plans. The completed building has doors that lead to walls, an empty elevator shaft, apparently constructed to lead to a second floor that was never built, and a spotlight room angled to make it impossible to spotlight the stage.
The theater was named after John Wendell Williamson (nicknamed Wendy), the music professor at UAA from 1971 until his death in 1988. Shane Mitchell, a UAA graduate, manages the auditorium. In a recent article about the theater, Mitchell said, “When I started here in 1982, the place had a reputation for being haunted, and it hadn’t even been open for a decade yet.”
Mitchell said that during rehearsals for a production of “The Monkey’s Paw, he was backstage and opened the coffin to be used as a prop in the play. When he lifted the lid, several other props for the show flew off a table and slammed against the wall ten feet away. After performing the Monkey’s Paw before an audience of three hundred and fifty school-aged children, the play's director opened a question-and-answer session for the young audience. One boy raised his hand and asked, “At the end of the play, how did you make the lady in the white dress float above your heads?” When the director asked the child what he meant, his teacher explained that he wanted to know how the special effect worked. The director quickly asked for the next question because there was no special effect.
At one time, an FBI profiler and self-proclaimed psychic toured the auditorium and later sent a document detailing the energy and presences she believed were inhabiting the building. She said she sensed five beings – one of a little girl who died in an automobile accident on Lake Otis Parkway, the ghost of a teen boy, a young woman, and two men, one kindly and one violent.”
Mitchell said he tried to hang a portrait of the theater’s namesake, Wendy Williamson, on the wall in the foyer of the lobby, but the next morning, the painting lay on the floor. He tried to hang the painting numerous times, but each time, the painting ended up on the floor the following morning. Mitchell finally gave up and put the painting in storage. Mitchell said, “It’s not the most flattering portrait. Maybe Wendy hates it.”
Mitchell believes Williamson is one of the ghosts inhabiting the auditorium. He says he sometimes hears someone playing the piano in the lobby during classes or rehearsals, but no one is there when he runs out to the lobby to see who is playing.
These are just a few of the reported hauntings in Alaska. Wherever you live, have a happy Halloween, and don’t forget to watch out for ghosts.
Robin Barefield is an Alaska wilderness mystery author. For more stories about murder and mystery in Alaska, sign up for her Murder and Mystery in Alaska monthly newsletter, listen to her podcast, Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier podcast, or check out her book: Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier.