Touching the fantastic: How local ghost stories captivate the imagination

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Stephen Graham Jones said he believes in ghosts for one interesting reason.

“I think it is safest to believe in them because if I don’t they might have to come prove themselves to me. That would be pretty scary,” said Jones, a horror fiction author and Ivena Baldwin Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Steamboat Springs and the surrounding areas play host to a myriad of ghost stories and curious happenings. From the Royal Hotel in Yampa to the legends and hauntings at Perry-Mansfield Arts and Performing Arts School, throughout the years, ghost stories persist to captivate the area.

Local historian Marianne Capra said local stories have both the supernatural and the paranormal.

“I think they are both equally fascinating,” Capra said. “I think the existence of supernatural beings in places like Butcherknife Creek or the Sulfur Cave, it is interesting. I think it is a breakdown in human beings — that is all some people really want to hear about.”

Before it burned down in 2015, it was said that a man named Rufus haunted the Royal Hotel in Yampa. Some versions of the tale say Rufus died in 1918 during the Spanish Flu Pandemic and others say he was a gambler that was shot or stabbed after he was caught cheating at the poker table.

Kris and Bill Ager, who purchased the hotel in 2000 heard the footsteps before they learned about the folklore behind them. But after the hotel’s supposed oldest guest would push furniture, turn lights on and off and flush toilets, Kris Ager said she was a believer.

“I’m not a believer until it happens to me,” Kris Ager told the Steamboat Pilot and Today in 2002. “This made me a believer.”

Jones said he has two suspicions as to why ghost stories are so popular. The first is more practical, meant to deter children from going places their parents may not want them to go, similar to the reason for Brothers Grimm tales like Little Red Riding Hood.

“If you put a monster out in the trees or a ghost out on the path than kids are going to think twice before they go out there into the possibly dangerous space,” Jones said.

But his second suspicion is more philosophical.

“We want to live in an enchanted world. We want to live somewhere where there is possibility. We want to live in a space that is bigger than we think it is,” Jones said. “It makes the world feel bigger if we can enchant it.”

Jones said because we have learned so much about our world and we can map every inch of it, ghost stories allow us to live in a place that is bigger.

“Stories about things that are probably physically impossible, or pretty unlikely anyways, they make the world bigger,” Jones said. “We feel like we know the natural world, but the supernatural world is something that we can never measure and quantify. If we keep insisting that there is a supernatural possibility, there are still frontiers.”

Capra said she has had local homeowners reach out to her to help them with paranormal happenings in their home, thinking that she has a particular expertise on the paranormal. Capra says she doesn’t.

Still, Capra said she tries to help them by connecting the history of their home to the history of the town. But she said they often turn to churches for help when she can’t satisfy them.

Old Town Hot Springs has its own tale. It is located near where it is believed the last local Native American battle took place in 1818 between the Arapahoe the Utes, Capra said.

“That battle that raged was for the territorial use of those springs,” Capra said.

She said longtime Steamboat resident George Tolls, who died in 2019, used to talk about bodies buried in the hillside behind the Hot Springs. Capra said that cleaning crews at the Hot Springs used to see chalky footprints across the floor.

Another local fable surrounds the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which was the subject of an episode of “Ghost Hunters” earlier this year.

Capra worked with the “Ghost Hunters” crew that brought in a lot of equipment to try to scientifically prove or disprove reported paranormal activity in the area.

Capra said that Grant Wilson, who is part of the “Ghost Hunters” team, said that Perry Mansfield is super haunted.

“He said that because they would send the team out night after night while they were filming and they were able to duplicate paranormal experiences over and over at particular sites,” Capra said. “That was a unique feature of filming at Perry-Mansfield.”

She said that there was no evidence in their paranormal monitoring of anything diabolical. But they did find unexplained voices, pianos that play by themselves and the mysterious presence of disembodied legs, all things that Capra said have been reported by the faculty over the years.

Capra recalled that Wilson told her places that have a lot of paranormal activity, what a lay person may call haunted, have two key components: passion and some kind of geological anomaly.

“There is something about that human energy of passion, whether it’s ‘I’m a psychopathic killer and I’m passionate about using this sharp blade on you,’ or the passion of, presumably, campers who sit up all night and perfect their dance move to put on the performance of their life the next day,” Capra said.

Capra said that Wilson was convinced that kind of passion was present at Perry-Mansfield, but he wasn’t sure about the geological anomaly.

But after doing a little research, Capra said she is convinced. Historically there were more than 150 mineral springs in the area, many of which are no longer around. While not all of them are hot, the ones that are tend to be along the earthquake fault line that runs north to south from the Strawberry Park Hot Springs to the Old Town Hot Springs. Perry-Mansfield is right in between them.

“Can I tell you that absolutely exists underneath the campus, I can not,” Capra said. “But I can tell you historically, because I have read about it, that there were springs on that campus.”

These tales, happenings or ghost stories are part of the area, and likely always will because people are attracted to these stories.

“I think it attracts people because they want to touch the fantastic,” Jones said. “I think we prefer those old places. We prefer the way it used to be. We prefer houses and places with stories.”

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