Bring out your inner ghoul: Exploring Steamboat’s haunted history through spooky tales
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Each Halloween, people flock to local historian Marianne Capra, eager to hear Routt County’s stories of the occult and paranormal.
A freelance academic of cultural and natural history, Capra offers “Sinister Steamboat” walking tours during which she recounts reports of ghosts and beasts and tales of unexplained noises and hauntings.
On Wednesday, she shared a recent ghost story with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, one she has researched herself and only shared with a handful of people. It has the archetypes of any ghoulishly good tale: ancient folklore, evil creatures and Steamboat residents who claim they still hear the squeals of vengeful souls.
That day, Capra was visiting multiple schools in Steamboat to share kid-friendly stories with students. She dressed in all black, a Victorian-era top hat fastened to her head, smiling as if it was Christmas morning, not a holiday for the dead.
“I let my inner child out this time of year,” she said, opening her jacket to reveal an underlying costume of a plastic demon crawling its way out of a fake chest cavity.
While ghost stories in popular culture typically aim to scare audiences into sleepless nights, Capra prefers to seek kernels of truth that lie within the horror. Her walking tours scratch the fantastical, but she always reverts to historical facts and contexts.
“These stories are very layered and complicated,” she said. “If you follow me around, I’m talking as much about the landscapes and what comes out of that landscape.”
About five years ago, Capra heard about a retired couple who was renting a bungalow along Butcherknife Creek in the Old Town neighborhood.
“I promised the landlords I would never tell which house it was,” she said.
The couple had only lived in the house a few months, but they kept hearing a suspicious noise that came from a small room they used as a study.
“It was the sound of a baby crying — incessant crying,” Capra said.
The renters had tried to find a rational source for the noise, but when they found none, they asked Capra, in ghost-busting fashion, to investigate. She pored over historical documents of the area and of folklore from various cultures in an attempt to find some sort of context for mysterious crying sounds. What she found surprised her.
In the book “Ute Tales,” historian Anne Smith documents the oral tradition of the Ute Native Americans. The local tribe, known as the White River Utes though they called themselves the Yampatika, had several stories passed down from their ancestors about creatures called “water babies.”
In one account, told by tribe member Pearl Perika and translated by Mamie Alhandra, a man was near the Green River when he heard the sound of a baby crying. He looked up and saw a creature sitting on the water.
“The man was not afraid, and he threw a stick,” according to Perika’s account, after which he has terrible dreams at night and got sick. Perika believes the water baby haunted the man because he disturbed the creature.
By the time Capra returned to the bungalow to tell the couple what she found, they had moved away. The new tenants were a group of college-aged kids. To her surprise, they had heard the crying, too, but cast it off as noise from the neighbors.
Ghost stories abound in Routt County, forming like cobwebs in dark corners and abandoned buildings.
Candice Bannister, executive director of Steamboat’s Tread of Pioneer Museum, vividly remembers a strange encounter in 2004. Bannister was installing an exhibit in the second floor of the Queen Anne-style Victorian home, built in 1901, which houses the museum. It was the afternoon when she heard footsteps outside the room where she was working.
Bannister assumed visitors were walking about and thought little of the noise. As the footsteps neared, she expected someone to enter the room. No one did. Bannister asked a museum volunteer if anyone had ventured upstairs.
“Visitors had been out of the museum for more than an hour,” the volunteer told her.
In the town of Yampa, a harmless spirit known as Rufus supposedly took up residence at the Royal Hotel until it burned down in 2015. Though reports of Rufus disappeared with the building, his memory lives on, passed down from longtime residents like Rita Herold, who has lived in Yampa all her life, according to a 2008 article in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
About a decade ago, she would take children on tours of the supposedly haunted hotel. Though Herold never remembers seeing or hearing any paranormal activity, she and the kids were captivated by the possibility. To them, it did not matter if Rufus was real or not. As they wandered the narrow halls and cramped room indicative of old hotels, it felt like anything could happen.
“The kids would let their imaginations run wild,” Herold said. “They could conjure up their own resident ghost.”
Capra believes the allure of such stories and experiences represents a search for meaning, not just in the afterlife, but in the living, breathing world. The tales live on, long after reports of the ghouls have gone, warning future generations about the evil lurking beneath the surface, waiting to be disturbed.
“These stories land somewhere inside of us,” Capra said. “They tell us something we believe to be true about the darkness.”
In recent months, crews have been working on upgrades to Butcherknife Creek, which include installing bigger culverts and a mechanized stormwater treatment device. When Capra first drove by the construction, she could not help but wonder, “How are water babies going to feel about this?”
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For many, the days of riding the school bus have long passed, but watching students through the back windows of a bus that is stopped at a stop sign can bring back memories.