My Haunted Library

All things spooky. Your source for paranormal and supernatural book and movie reviews, strangeography, Halloween crafts and a little cozy fall baking.


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The Haunted Stanley Hotel: A Ghostly Tour and a Night in Room 418

The Stanley Hotel.  Majestic.  Historic.  Haunted.  We got to spend the night there.  Here’s what happened, some history, and lots of photos.

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The Stanley Hotel

We could not check in to the Stanley until 4:00 pm, so we started our day in Estes Park early with a great morning hike following the Black Canyon Trail to its connection with the Cow Creek and MacGregor trails.  The route is picturesque, winding through beautiful meadows with towering rock formations to the right and a stunning view of the back range to the left, before entering tree cover and starting a long and strenuous uphill.  We covered eight miles out and back and were ready to go into town for a little while.

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View from the Black Canyon Trail

In downtown Estes we played tourist, popping into gift shops and picking up some delicious taffy and a sea salt caramel ice cream cone and then finally drove up to the Stanley Hotel.

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Downtown Estes Park: The historic Park Theater

It is hard to imagine a more imposing sight than the grand old Stanley, high on a hill above town, stark white and red against the sepia brown and pine green backdrop of the Lumpy Ridge Mountains.  Although the Colonial Revival style is uncommon here in the west, the Stanley strangely fits in, crowning a glorious view.

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Front entrance of the Stanley

Inventor Freelan Oscar Stanley (F.O.) built the hotel in 1909.  With his brother, F.O. co-founded the Stanley Motor Company and co-invented the Stanley Steamer auto.  He suffered from consumption (tuberculosis) and in 1903, doctors only gave him a short time to live.  F.O. had heard about the restorative properties of the western mountain air and he traveled to Estes Park in 1903 where he actually regained his health.  Estes was too rustic for F.O. and his wife Flora, however, so they created the hotel as a destination spot where they could visit each summer.  Work began on the Stanley in 1907 and the hotel opened on the Fourth of July, 1909.  The Stanley was high class: there were bathrooms in the guest rooms, electric lights, telephones, and uniformed workers.

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View of the Stanley with the recently-built (2015) hedge maze

Stanley wanted Estes Park to become a resort town, and he invested a lot to make that happen.  He built a hydro plant on the Fall River, generating electricity for the city.  He built the road from Lyons up to Estes Park which enabled people to drive to the Stanley, instead of having to take an excursion train.  He also helped create Rocky Mountain National Park.

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We ascended the front stairs to the main hotel promptly at the 4:00 check in time and entered to a spacious lobby graced with polished wooden floors and accents.

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No, not a ghost: a fellow tourist who walked by just as I took the picture. You can see him coming from the left in the picture above.

A gleaming Stanley Steamer auto stood by the front picture windows in honor of F.O.  In a glass case behind the reception desk, shining gold door keys hung in rows, reminiscent of an older time.

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Front reception desk

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A genuine Stanley Steamer automobile!

The elevator was also a throwback to a different age.  Its old-fashioned key hung on display next to the door.  We watched the little gold arrow move silently from floor number to floor number as the elevator descended to the lobby.  With a capacity of six, the elevator was like a gilt cage.  A window set in the elevator door let you get an unsettling glimpse of your journey in darkness between floors.

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The original 1909 elevator.  Soon to be our nemesis.

 

Awe of the antique elevator quickly turned to fear.  Pushing the up and down buttons gave off a static charge the likes of which I have never experienced before.  Static electricity generally makes you think of mild things like rubbing your hair with a balloon and having it stand on end.  This was a whole different version of static electricity.  We got popped with ½-inch visible sparks arcing between our fingers and the buttons. I am completely serious.  It was not just us: everyone who touched the buttons recoiled in literal shock and alarm.  Maybe the carpet was a factor, who knows?  The Stanley had a makeover of new carpet, wallpaper, and lots of mirrors when The Shining miniseries was filmed there in 1997.  (King did not like the original Stanley Kubrick version of his book.) Was the carpet a wool blend that generated this massive electrical charge?  Who knows?  We do know those elevator buttons packed a punch.

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Old-fashioned elevator operating mechanism

At any rate, we arrived at the 4th floor, the most haunted floor in the hotel.  Our room, 418, was located down the “children’s hallway.”  Supposedly, the spirits of children play in this hallway at night.  Guests complain about the noise, only to find that no children are staying in that wing at the time.  Historically, the fourth floor is where the children of wealthier families and their nannies stayed.  Our room also has the reputation of being haunted by a little boy ghost.  Sometimes there are impressions of a body left on the bed.  Hotel staff have reported strange noises coming from inside the room when it is empty.

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The never-ending hallway…

 

Later on our Ghost Tour, we learned that our hall is also the “never-ending hallway.”  When the exit door at the far end is closed, the lighting creates an optical illusion that the hallway goes on forever.  Midway down our hallway are two couches.  These are where the ghosts of two little girls appear: ghosts Stephen King saw – maybe – when he and his wife made their fateful visit in 1974: more on that later.

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Couches where the spirits of children may hang out

Our room was small: the king bed and a chair and dresser just barely fit, but everything was scrupulously clean, and the view past a pine tree to northeast was stunning.  We opened the windows immediately because even though it was cool outside, the room was stuffy, and there is no air conditioning in the Stanley because of its protected historic status (it is on the National Register of Historic Places).

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Room 418

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The tiny bathroom of room 418

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View from 418: you can see other hotel buildings and Lake Estes in the distance

We went back down the grand staircase taking some pictures along the way and found the lobby full of beautifully dressed teenagers.  It is a long-standing tradition for local high school students to take their prom photos in the Stanley and on the grounds of the magnificent old hotel.  It seemed a perfect tribute to F.O. and Flora Stanley, as it turned out this day was the anniversary of their wedding.

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The grand staircase looking up from the lobby

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Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere

After a fabulous dinner at the Rock Inn Tavern (off the beaten path, but worth the short drive), following some photogenic elk around at a safe distance, and people-watching by the fireplace in the lobby, it was at last time for our nighttime ghost tour.

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An unafraid elk

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Lobby of the Stanley after dark

Our tour guide, Travis, prefaced the tour by saying he was a skeptic when he first started at the Stanley as a night guard, but quickly became a believer in the paranormal after working there only a short time.  He recommended downloading the Ghost Radar app which can use your smartphone as an EMF detector.  It seems to be a little debatable whether cell phones can pick up electromagnetic fields (Only specific frequencies?  Using the magnetometers?), but he was excited about it.

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Night is coming on

He passed out a handful of lollipops for some of us to use as lures for the children’s spirits on the fourth floor.  I was a lollipop holder!

Our group of twenty or so trooped up to the first floor and started in the Music Room where we gathered around Flora Stanley’s piano.  Flora loved to play the piano, and apparently still does, as piano music is occasionally heard coming from the music room.  One story relates how Flora was angered at someone audacious enough to play her piano and retaliated by slamming the keyboard cover down on him.

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Flora’s piano in the Music Room

The Music Room is also home to a large mirror.  Travis explained that the Victorians were fascinated with the occult and spiritualism, and that mirrors played a large role in those beliefs.  Mirrors set up to reflect each other might offer a glimpse of the spirit world.  Or show you a spirit.

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Mirror in the music room.  Again, no ghosts: fellow tour members, and me taking a picture of myself in the mirror.

Worked into the woodwork above the mirror, one can see the letter “S” for Stanley. This is a recurring motif throughout the hotel.  Travis advised us to take lots of photos of the many mirrors we would come across, and to remember who was in our group so we would know if we captured a spirit on film, or one of our fellow tourists!

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Odd old photograph capturing reflections in room 418

Our next stop was on the grand staircase.  Mirrors and framed pictures of former owners of the Stanley cover the walls on either side.  A portrait of F.O. Stanley hangs at an angle next to a mirror of almost the same size so that F.O.’s picture is reflected perfectly, creating two images.  This is a little creepy because F.O. had an exact twin brother, Francis Edgar.  Together the brothers are both represented on the wall; one in portraiture, the other in a reflection.

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F.O. Stanley’s portrait on the left, reflected in the mirror on the right.

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An angle change eliminates F.O.’s reflection.

Worked into the balustrade is another example of Victorian symbolism.  The four posts represent the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall.  The corkscrew design of one post is supposed to mimic a Victorian ghost-catcher.

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Winter, spring, summer, and fall represented in the white posts.

We continued up the stairs and stopped in front of the infamous room 217.  Stephen King stayed in this room with his wife Tabitha at the end of September in 1974.  The two had been on a tour of the Rocky Mountains, headed to Grand Lake.  A blizzard shut down Trail Ridge Road and they had to turn back.  They came to the Stanley, which was closing for the season the following day.   The Stanley did not have heat until 1983, so it closed every winter.  Somehow, the Kings convinced the two remaining staff – housekeeper and bartender – to let them stay the night. The four of them were the only people in the echoing, empty hotel.

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Infamous room 217

Travis theorized that the Kings might have had to sign a caretaker’s waiver, allowing them to be there as temporary caretakers of the hotel, possibly removing the hotel from liability if they had stayed as guests.  Together Stephen King and his wife Tabitha ate alone in the cavernous dining room.  All the other tables already had their chairs put up for the winter.  A number of strange things then happened to King over the course of the evening.

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Another view of the mirrors on the grand staircase

According to Travis, while exploring on the fourth floor, King saw twin girls who seemed so well behaved the author later complimented the housekeeper on them, thinking they were her children, only to be told that she had no children.  Other versions state that King was on the second floor and saw a single boy.  Either way, the author saw some child that really wasn’t there!

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Beautifully ominous in the evening

Later that night, King went down to the bar by himself and met the barkeep Lloyd, who became a key character in The Shining.  King was not even sure if the man was real, because the whole situation was so eerily surreal.  Travis assured us that there had been a bartender named Lloyd at the hotel who possibly gave King the famous line from the book “Your money’s no good here.”

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Looking from the back entrance to the fourth floor down the dark never-ending hallway

King was in the process of writing a book about a berserk roller coaster that jumped off its tracks and attacked people…but apparently, it wasn’t going so great.  His stay at the Stanley certainly fixed his writer’s block.  According to King:

“That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

He abandoned the rabid roller coaster tale and his dream vision became the horror classic The Shining, published in 1977.

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“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”   Great tribute to The Shining on this old-fashioned typewriter downstairs in the hotel.

Room 217 is also where a massive explosion occurred back in June of 1911.  The generally accepted version goes like this:  A storm knocked out power to the hotel.  Guests were taken down to the lobby, while chambermaids went from room to room lighting the backup acetylene lamps.  Chambermaid Elizabeth Wilson entered 217 with her candle, not realizing that the gas had leaked.  The resulting explosion blew her through the floor into the dining room below.  She suffered two broken ankles but miraculously survived.  F.O. Stanley paid her medical expenses and made her head chambermaid of the hotel.  She continued to work at the Stanley until she passed in the 1950s.  Although her story ended happily, supposedly Elizabeth continues to haunt the hotel, tucking guests into their beds – even getting in the bed between unmarried couples – and folding their shirts.

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Bell-tower in the evening

News stories about the explosion differed wildly: There were seven injuries.  Multiple different names of the maid.  No storm.  The acetylene gas lamps were being tested.  One maid died.  Another maid was blown onto porch and put out fire from the explosion with an extinguisher.  Guests in the dining room below suffered injuries.  The victim – or victims – went to Longmont Hospital.  (Colorado Springs Gazette, Rocky Mountain News, Fort Collins Weekly Courier, Denver Post.)

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Whatever the exact details, the detonation was real enough and decimated 10% of the hotel – most of the west wing.  Fortunately, it was a “compression explosion” so it put out its own fire or the damage could have been much greater.   I am not exactly sure what a compression explosion is, but it may be similar to the idea of using explosives to stop wildfires: the shock wave of a blast knocks the fire off its fuel source.

Interestingly, in 2014, pieces of wallpapered drywall and carpet from room 217 turned up in the employee tunnel down in the basement.  One-hundred and three years after explosion!  This discovery seems to lend some credence to the backstory of the ghostly chambermaid.

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The grand staircase 

Actor Jim Carrey requested room 217 when he was filming Dumb and Dumber at the Stanley in 1994.  He stayed only three hours before fleeing in terror and refusing to come back to the hotel. According to Travis, he also refused to ever speak about what happened to him in that room.

As we stood outside room 217, Travis said we were in the center of a vortex.  We stood still and felt a light breeze.  At this point, Travis extracted a volunteer from our group and attempted some pencil dowsing.  They each held up two pencils with the ends lightly touching each other.  When Travis asked a person’s name, the pencils swerved to point to that person. I was pretty skeptical about this one.

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The vortex outside room 217.  This shot is looking up to the fourth floor.

At last!  Up to the 4th floor.  There is a plethora of haunted rooms on this floor, including ours. We stood outside room 401 and learned that it was formerly the maids’ break room, and is now frequented by the ghost of Lord Dunraven.  Dunraven was an Irish Earl who came to Estes Park in 1872, loved the land, and wanted to build his own hunting preserve.  Thanks to some shady business dealings, he acquired thousands of acres of land – much of which is now Rocky Mountain National Park – and eventually ended up selling F.O. Stanley the land for the Stanley Hotel.  Dunraven must have been something of a ladies’ man, if he was still looking for the maids in the afterlife.   Dunraven also reportedly stands around in a corner of room 407.  People have also claimed to see a face in the window of 407 when the room was empty of guests.  A shadowy figure wearing a cowboy hat has startled visitors in room 428.

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Nighttime at the Stanley

We tried our lollipop experiment in the children’s hallway.  Making sure the lollipop wrapper was twisted tightly around the candy; we set the lollipops upright in the center of our palms.  Walking slowly down the hallway, we hoped a spirit child would push the lollipop or yank it out of our hands.  Alas, that did not happen while our group was there.  It was amusing later to watch other tour groups coming through and seeing folks staring intently at the lollipops in their hands as they walked up and down in front of our room.

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No spirits wanted my lollipop!

Next, we moved into one of the empty rooms (405) and Travis turned off all of the lights.  He wanted us to sing to build up some energy to invoke any spirits that might be around.   This became easily the most awkward three minutes of my life: cramped in a small, dark room with twenty people I didn’t know and couldn’t see (tho’ that was probably all for the best) all reluctantly singing the chorus of “You Are My Sunshine.”  Needless to say, we did not generate the positive energy needed. Travis clearly sensed this, as he did not suggest a second verse, and we left quickly for the next stop.

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Lobby with a view of the front entrance

Which was the Billiard room back down on the first floor, next to the Music Room.  This was F.O.’s favorite room, where he spent a great deal of time.  And possibly still does.  Travis turned out the lights here and urged us to look at an American flag hung over the fireplace.  In the upper corner of the flag, a strange image of a face stood out.  Travis told us this was an image of F.O., which appeared after the flag was given to the hotel.  There was a noticeable image there!  The darkness was too much for my camera, but my husband got a nice shot.

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Look for the face in the upper right corner of the photo…it is hard to see in this light, but really was evident when you were in front of it.

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The face highlighted.  I almost think you can see it better in the previous photo, but this one shows you where to look.

Finally, tired, we returned to the basement and the employee tunnel.  Travis shared his personal story of seeing a green mist there one evening.  He thought it might have been ectoplasm.  By this time it was getting late and I was fading.  We took lots of pictures of the tunnel where employees and guests have reported seeing orbs: I did not get any in my images.

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A side branch off of the employee tunnel

The night in our room 418 was discouragingly unremarkable.  Maybe we were just too tired from a busy day, but nothing out of the ordinary happened.  The only marginally abnormal thing that occurred was that while lying in bed with my eyes closed but not yet asleep, I noticed a flashing, like a light had passed over them.  We did look out over a parking area at a distance, but then again, our room was up very high, and we hadn’t had any other reflections or lights shine in our window.  Who knows?

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Room 418 viewed from outside: the top center red dormer windows

Why is there so much paranormal activity at the Stanley?  Many believe it is because of the unique geology of the location, claiming that the Stanley sits on top of oddly electric or magnetic mineral deposits. Travis had mentioned the abundance of quartz in the land.  The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society investigated the Stanley and included a soil survey as part of their report.  Working with U.S.D.A. soil scientists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the RMPRS discovered that there are not, in fact, large deposits of quartz or magnetite in the soil under the Stanley.  The soil is primarily schist, a metamorphic rock formed from high temperatures and high strain – and is the same as the soil found all around Estes Park.  The RMPRS also debunked the second floor vortex, noting that there was a power main nearby which may have been causing EMF fluctuations.

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View of the Stanley on Easter morning

Despite our lack of ghostly experiences, we had a glorious visit.  The Stanley is a gracious, beautiful old hotel.  The staff was welcoming and we felt like VIPs.  You can look out any window of the Stanley for a magnificent view.  On our walk to breakfast at the Notchtop Bakery (delicious!) we saw elk grazing on the Stanley’s lawn, with the mountains towering in the distance.

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Elk grazing on the Stanley’s lawn

Estes Park itself is a great little town with wonderful shops and restaurants.  There are countless outdoor adventures – from gentle to extreme – available all around Estes for people of all physical abilities. Rocky Mountain National Park is just minutes away.  All of these are great reasons to visit.  And of course, there is always the opportunity to see a ghost at the Stanley: maybe you’ll have better luck catching one than we did!

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Statue of F.O.

Sources

Haunted Places in America – The Stanley Hotel

Thought Catalog: 17 Unsettling Staff and Guest Stories of Hauntings at the Hotel “The Shining” is Based On

 

Mirrors in Spiritual and Metaphysical Beliefs

Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society Investigation of the Stanley Hotel accessed 4/8/17

Stephen King’s Inspiration for The Shining

Stanley Hotel Ghost Story Supported by Evidence of Room 217 Event – Estes Park Trail Gazette, 3/10/2014

Smartphones as EMF Readers?

Using Explosives to Put Out Wildfires Is Actually a Great Idea

The Stanley Hotel – Haunted History – accessed 4/8/17

The Tale of Lord Dunraven and the Stanley Hotel

Ghost Hunters: The Stanley Hotel Season 2, Episode 22

Rock Inn Tavern

Notchtop Bakery and Café


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Review: Keep Out!

Keep Out!  Nick Redfern, 2012.

If you’re not yet paranoid about government conspiracies and cover ups, you will be, just a little bit, after taking Redfern’s lively tour of ominous secret bases and clandestine projects.

Devoting a chapter to each locale, Redfern begins our journey into the weird by exploring two landmark UFO sites: Area 51, where in 1989 Bob Lazar claimed to have worked with alien technology; and Hangar 18 at the Wright-Patterson AFB, which is allegedly both home and detainment center to live aliens.

Redfern’s hush-hush locations then run the gamut from moon bases to the London Underground (which may populated by subhumans and massive black panthers).  Noah’s Ark, supposedly recovered from the Nazis, could very well be stored in a secret Smithsonian vault.  Aliens quite possibly control a U.S. underground establishment in Dulce, New Mexico.

These scenarios all seem to be the fantasies of reclusive, tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy freaks, and waaay out of the realm of rational possibility.  That is, until Redfern produces a tantalizing snippet of information: a quote, interview, document, or reference that corroborates a part of the story.  This teasing bit of truth creates just the shadow of a doubt in the reader’s mind.  Could chupacabras and underwater UFO bases in Puerto Rico be possible?  Redfern clearly takes some pleasure seeding that uncertainty.

Keep Out!  is good fun.  It makes for fascinating, if potentially alarming reading.  Redfern takes the far-out rumors and stories with a grain of salt; agreeing with the reader that yes, this does sound crazy, but…allowing for the possibility of some truth in there.

We delve into time travel, teleportation and invisibility at Camp Hero in Montauk, the Long Island source of the Philadelphia Experiment rumors.   We learn about the bizarrely connected deaths of microbiologists attached to Britain’s Porton Down laboratory, the equivalent of our Fort Detrick, which used to (used to…or does still…?) house the U.S. bioweapons program.

Redfern even examines HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska, which arguably does positive scientific things like working to enhance technology for radio communication and analyzing variations in the ozone layer.  But is there a sinister side to HAARP?  It may be testing mind-bending EM fields.  It may be creating earthquakes or tsunamis in order for the United States to gain access to countries with natural resources that we covet.

Keep Out! Is entertaining as all heck.  And it isn’t all just crazy conspiracy theory stuff. Redfern clearly put some serious research into each location.   His bibliography is extensive and includes FBI records, US Army and Air Force reports, DOD briefings, and articles from mainstream news publications: Not just a handful of wackadoo websites. That makes the reader take a little pause.  Redfern probes – oooh, I went there! – each location with roguish enthusiasm, fanning the flames of paranoia.  Raising lots of unlikely questions.  What if...?  A highly engaging read!


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Bloody Good Cherry Pie

No real blood here: just a ruby beauty of pie that you can pull off in under an hour if you have some piecrust already on hand.

This is the best cherry pie I have ever had, and that’s saying a lot.  I like pie.  This gem is not too sweet, is packed with lots of cherries, and just touched with a wisp of cinnamon and an undertone of almond…perfect.  It is also about the easiest pie you can make.

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Ingredients:

1 cup sugar

¼ cup flour

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon almond extract

1-2 tablespoons butter, cut into little pieces

2 cans (14.5 ounces) pitted tart red cherries.  Alert: Don’t use pie filling!  You want pitted red tart cherries packed in water.  And…you are only going to use half of the second can.  Put the rest of the cherries in the fridge and spoon them into yogurt or over ice cream later for a lovely treat.

2 tablespoons milk or cream

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Pastry for a double-crust 9-inch pie.  Use your favorite.

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How to Make It:

Preheat your oven to 425F.

Fit your bottom crust into your 9-inch pie plate.

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and one can of undrained cherries.  Yes, use all that liquid.  Open the second can, and add half of the cherries and a spoonful or two of the liquid.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and boils.  This will take about 7 minutes.   It thickens beautifully!  Remove from the heat, and stir in the almond extract.

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You will know when it is thickened: the filling has come to a boil and a spoon is nicely coated.  

Pour the cherry mixture into your pie shell.  Dot with the butter.  Cover with the top pie crust.

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I pinch the crusts together the way my mom showed me long ago.  Tuck the top crust in with the edges behind the bottom crust.  Using both hands, pinch and seal the dough with your pointer fingers and thumbs, giving a tiny twist.  Your right hand angles away, left hand angles toward you just a tiny bit.   Do this all around the pie.  Sorry there’s no picture: I needed both hands!

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Brush the top with your milk or cream.  Sprinkle lightly with sugar.  Cut a few slits in the top of the crust with a sharp knife to help release the steam as it bakes.    No milk or cream?  Use a beaten egg white for a nice deeper browning and still sprinkle the top with sugar.

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Bake at 425F for 30 to 35 minutes or until the crust is brown.  You don’t really need to put piecrust shields or foil over the edges in this case, it won’t over-brown.

Let it cool to room temperature before slicing.   You did it!

Sadly (well, for you), we ate the entire pie before I could get a nice picture of a slice to put at the end, here.  That’s how good it is.  Try it!


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Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter  Blake Crouch, 2017.

Jason Dessen is an unambitious quantum physics professor at a decent if unremarkable college.   Contentedly if not happily married to his wife.  He could have been brilliant in his field.  In a parallel universe, he is.

On the way home from celebrating his old roommate’s stellar Pavia Prize – a coveted sciences award he himself potentially should have won – Jason is abducted at gunpoint.  Forcibly injected with an unknown substance.

He awakens in a tightly-guarded research facility hospital.  He is decontaminated and lauded by people who know him, but whom he has no memory of.

Is he losing his mind? Which is his real world?

The Jason Dessen he is in this universe is colder.  Ruthless.  Driven.  As he learns about the powerful invention the other Jason created, he knows he must find his way back to his version of Chicago and the love of his life.

What follows is a suspenseful, blistering-fast read.  Jason travels across parallel universes; some heart-achingly close to his old life, some hellishly or marvelously different.  There is a terrible pathos in Jason’s predicament, and readers identify with him on a profound level.  Crouch touches an enduring existential fear in all of us.  Where does one fit?  What is the meaning of one’s life?  Is there, in fact, meaning?

Dark Matter is foremost a thriller, but it resonates deeper; leaving readers contemplating their own paths not taken and the results of their own choices made or not made.

Some plot revelations you’ll see coming.  Some you won’t.  Guaranteed, you will not want to put this book down.


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Grave Robbers & Ghosts: Haunted Cheesman Park

Cheesman Park.  Spacious.  Green.  Relaxing.  Former cemetery.

Probably still a cemetery.

You read that correctly.  The history of Denver’s Cheesman Park is unsettling.  Potentially thousands of bodies remain buried below the park’s pretty lawns.

We visited on a warm-for-winter late afternoon and found a pastoral setting. A stunning white marble pavilion graced the hill above the park, framing wide expanses of gently rolling green grass, people jogging or sunning themselves, a view to die for…

Ouch.

And stories of ghosts.

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View of Denver from the pavilion in Cheesman Park

The History

The land that became Cheesman Park originally belonged to the Arapahoe Indians and was possibly a sacred burial ground.

General William Larimer didn’t care much about that when he jumped a claim and founded the city of Denver.  In 1858 he created the 320-acre Mount Prospect Cemetery. This would later become Congress Park, Cheesman Park, and the Denver Botanic Gardens.

There is some debate about who had the dubious honor of being buried first in Mount Prospect.

One story claims that a gentleman named Abraham Kay, who died from a sudden lung infection in 1859, was the first buried in Mount Prospect.

Another, more colorful story, declares that the first person interred in the new cemetery was Hungarian immigrant John Stoefel.  He was accused of murdering his brother-in-law and was hanged at the crossroads of 10th and Cherry Street (or Wazee Street, depending on source you read). Both he and his victim were buried in the same grave. Not an auspicious start for a new cemetery.

This second version, being a little more gruesome, has become the popular story and really did set the stage for Mount Prospect’s sketchy reputation.

Handsome gambler Jack O’ Neal (alternately found spelled “O’Neil”) is buried there as well.  Some sources say he was Stoefel’s victim, others say O’Neal got into a gambling dispute with a man named Rooker who later ambushed O’Neal and shot him to death. Regardless, O’Neal was buried in Mount Prospect and the cemetery earned the infamous nickname “Jack O’Neal’s Ranch.”

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Looking west from inside the pavilion

The cemetery was segregated by religion and ethnicity.  Paupers and criminals took up the southwest corner.  There was a section for Chinese immigrants, Catholics and Jewish people.  The wealthy were interred up on top of the hill.

Unfortunately, the increasing number of criminals, undesirables, and paupers being buried in Mount Prospect helped it earn some other nicknames as well such as “Old Boneyard” and “Boot Hill.”

The U.S. Government discovered that the cemetery was actually on federal land based on an 1860 treaty with the Arapahoe Indians, and sold the land back to the City of Denver for $200 in 1872.  Mount Prospect changed its name to City Cemetery.

By this time, the cemetery was in disrepair: headstones were toppled in places and cattle grazed among the graves.  Some families and groups maintained their sections of the cemetery, but other parts became increasingly dilapidated.

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Headstones in disarray at the former cemetery in Cheesman Park.  Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections.

In 1881, a hospital for small pox victims – nicknamed the “Pest House” – went up where the community gardens section of the Denver Botanic Gardens now stands. This hospital also housed elderly and handicapped people who essentially went there to die.  A section of the graveyard behind the building held mass graves for these unfortunates.

By 1890 the City Cemetery was an eyesore and Denver received permission from Congress to use land as a park.  City Cemetery was promptly renamed Congress Park. Families had just 90 days to move their loved one’s remains to another cemetery; usually Riverside (see my Riverside post) or Fairmount.   There were so many Roman Catholic folks buried in the Catholic section, however, that the mayor sold that land to the Denver Diocese. It became Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and later the Denver Botanic Gardens.

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Former Mount Calvary Cemetery.  Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections.

Because so many bodies were left unclaimed in City Cemetery – probably due to the fact that many were criminals, vagrants, and unknowns – Denver hired an undertaker to start digging them up and moving them to Riverside.  E.P McGovern would earn $1.90 for each body he boxed.  In 1893 McGovern started removing the corpses.  And tales of hauntings began.  People living in the palatial houses nearby reported seeing ghostly figures that would knock on their windows and doors and then vanish. Moaning sounds rose up from the excavated cemetery at night.  One gravedigger, who was also allegedly looting the graves, felt a hand touch him on the shoulder while he was working. He ran away in fright and never came back to the job.

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The pavilion in Cheesman Park

The worst was yet to come.  McGovern realized he could make a bigger profit by using child-sized caskets instead of full-sized adult ones.  He hacked up the bodies, often mixing the bones of multiple bodies together and using as many as three caskets for one body.  Onlookers watching the exhumation swooped in for a little discreet – or not so discreet – grave robbing.  Body parts lay everywhere.

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Mount Calvary Cemetery.  Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections.

Fortunately, a local newspaper, the Denver Republican, got wind of the story and its headline of March 19, 1893 ran “The Work of Ghouls!”  An excerpt from the story reads:

“The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody … Around their edges were piled broken coffins, rent and tattered shrouds and fragments of clothing that had been torn from the dead bodies …  All were trampled into the ground by the footsteps of the gravediggers like rejected junk.”

Denver Mayor Rogers quickly terminated McGovern’s contract after the Health Commissioner investigated the debacle, and the city put up a wooden fence around the cemetery.  In 1894, grading started for the park even though the rest of the bodies hadn’t been removed and some graves still stood open; left that way from McGovern’s hack job.  The park was finally finished in 1907, leaving as many as 2,000 corpses still buried beneath its grounds.

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Cheesman Park’s rolling lawns. What lies beneath?

And how did Cheesman Park get its name?  In 1909 Mrs. Cheesman and her daughter offered to donate funds for a show-stopping marble pavilion if the city agreed to rename part of the park after her late husband.  Walter Cheesman had been prominent in Denver’s history as a railroad entrepreneur and a water baron.  The city agreed, and the pavilion, designed by Willis A. Marean and Albert Julius Norton, was finished in 1910.

In the meantime, the Roman Catholic cemetery, Mount Cavalry, was sold back to the city and its bodies moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in nearby Wheat Ridge.

The Ghosts

Despite its gruesome history, on our sunny afternoon visit it was hard to believe that Cheesman Park is haunted.  But unclaimed graves and spooky stories abound.

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Within the pavilion

I personally only felt a sense of calm at Cheesman Park, but some visitors report feeling either a sense of terrible sadness or anxiety there.  Small wonder, given the desecration of so many graves and displacement of so many bodies.

Others claim that when they lay down on the park-like grounds, they feel as if they are being held down by an unseen force, and are almost unable to get up.

At night, apparitions of a singing woman and those of small children playing are said to wander the park, vanishing on approach.  The outlines of old gravestones eerily appear to frighten other nighttime visitors.  Some people say they heard a terrifying susurration of ghostly voices coming from the fields where graves once stood open.

Cheesman Park was apparently also the inspiration of the 1980 movie The Changeling. (Great film!) Writer Russell Hunter lived in a haunted house at the northern end of Cheesman Park in the 1960’s. There he claims he experienced bizarre paranormal phenomena including doors opening and closing by themselves, pictures falling off walls, and contact from the spirit of a little boy.  Whether his story is true or not, the home in the movie is in fact called the Cheesman House.

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The pavilion 

If any place meets criteria for being haunted, Cheesman Park certainly does.  Native American land.  A cemetery filled with many who died alone and unknown.  Bodies disrespectfully disinterred helter-skelter.  Graves desecrated.  It is no wonder that shadowy figures are reported walking the grassy fields after dark.

And the story doesn’t quite end there.  As recently as November 2010, irrigation work around the pavilion in the park unearthed four skeletons (actually five skeletons; the bones had been mixed together) that were over 100 years old.

In 2008, construction on a new, below-ground parking structure across the street from the Botanic gardens came to an abrupt halt when bones were discovered, to no one’s surprise.

Cheesman Park during the day is an expansive park with a sobering background.  It is a beautiful place to walk and reflect.  Take a seat on the pavilion steps.  Relax and look at the mountains soaring up miles away and contemplate the history – haunted or not – that still remains beneath your feet.

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Sources

Ferri, Jessica. “The Haunting History Buried Beneath Colorado’s Cheesman Park.” The Line Up.

Four Preserved Skeletons Unearthed at Denver’s Cheesman Park Once a Cemetery.” Denver Post, 1 November 2010. Web 1 April 2017.

Pankratz, Howard. “Old Grave Halts Work at Denver Botanic Gardens.”  Denver Post 7 Nov. 2008. Web. 1 April 2017.

Riccio, Dolores and Bingham, Joan. More Haunted Houses. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. Google Books. Web 1 April 2017.

Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society. “Cheesman Park: The History of the Park that Was Once a Cemetery.”

Rudolph, Katie. “A Denver House that Inspired a Horror Film.” Denver Public Library, 22 October 2013. Web 1 April 2017.

Skeletons from Old Cemetery Unearthed in Cheesman Park.” The Denver Channel, 2 November 2010. Web. 1 April 2017.

Taylor, Troy. “Rest in Peace? Colorado’s Haunted Cheesman Park.” Prairie Ghosts, 2002.

Weiser, Kathy.  “Colorado Legends: Ghosts of Cheesman Park in Denver.” Legends of America. 2016

Zimmer, Amy B. Denver’s Capitol Hill Neighborhood. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009. Google Books Web 1 April 2017.

Historic photographs included with permission from the Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections.