Gone Haunting

They say Virginia City’s got ghosts. We took our wagons (and our ghost-hunting apps) up there to find ’em

“I’m not accustomed to interviewing the dead, but here goes.”

I lower myself into the bathtub, now half-full, lusciously warm and smelling of peppermint. As the antique claw-foot tub is just two feet from the iron tulip bed occupying the center of our tiny, windowless hotel room, I’ve asked my traveling companion, Jack Colton, to make himself scarce for 20 minutes while I bathe and, more importantly, commune with one of the Silver Queen Hotel’s permanent residents.


It’s said that she was a prostitute who found herself pregnant and ended her life in this very tub. I shave my legs, all the while keeping my eyes peeled for a fin de siècle lady of ill repute who has a bone to pick with the living. Hers is a sad story, but just one of many.

We arrived in Virginia City the day prior with very little planned except for our stays at the haunted Silver Queen and nearby Gold Hill hotels, both relics of the Comstock silver boom, which lasted from 1859 to 1879 and made Virginia City one of the richest cities on earth. That night, we attended a guided ghost-walking tour of the town with hosts Debbie Bender and Tomas Cruz of Bats in the Belfry (VirginiaCityGhostTours.com). We learned the history of the Comstock Lode and the wealth, greed and death it brought. And we were introduced to our new roommate, Rosie.

For all its charm, Virginia City is full of residual spirits: lovers quarreling for eternity on the stairs just outside our room, a little girl tragically run over by a carriage who hangs out on C Street’s creaky wooden sidewalks, miners trapped and killed in Gold Hill’s Yellow Jacket Mine fire. There are also happier spirits, such as the children said to frolic in the Silver Queen’s halls and at the local elementary school. Mischievous miners spook restrooms all over town, happily unseating whomever happens to be on a particular barstool at the Washoe Club. Evidently, this quaint mountain town, with its “100-mile views” and horse-drawn carriages, is something of a paranormal beehive, humming away with way more than just its 600 year-round residents.

The town’s locals come across as universally confident in the genuine haunting of Virginia City. Everyone, it seems, has had an encounter, whether it be with the cigar-smoking gent in the Piper’s Opera House balcony or the Blue Lady on the Washoe Club’s stairs. With the exception of the recently revived—and highly controversial—interest by certain companies in mining the Comstock, tourism is the town’s major industry. And, with Virginia City a finalist in the running to be named the Most Haunted Town in America by the SyFy network, ghost-hunting may bring the next boom.

“Did you like the whiskey we set out and the music I played last night?”

The Jameson nightcap and Édith Piaf album certainly did it for me. No answer. Still, it had been a restless night in Room 11. At about 3 a.m., I awoke to a discernible triple knock at the door that sounded like it came from inside the room, as well as footstep vibrations emanating from the floor below and recorded evidence that I snore delicately. With nothing but the whir of the ceiling fan 20 feet above, I heard the very pulse of the ancient building, the water in the pipes, the air moving through the transoms like the building was one giant lung. It was the collective stirring of life and, perhaps here and there, un-life.

Without windows, dawn never comes to Room 11, adding a heaviness to the already thick air. Washed and dressed, we check out and shuffle off in search of caffeine before meeting up with locals Ron and Angela Zelasko.

Friday night’s ghost tour had concluded at the storied Washoe Club, where winter’s dead were stored until the ground thawed enough for burial. Here Colton captured a fantastic “orb” in a photo, something Las Vegas photographer Al Powers later said is “certainly not normal” to have show up in a single shot and not in the rest of the series. Colton also had a piece of gravel fly at him from seemingly nowhere. Following the tour, we met a tall, stern-looking fellow with a very interesting profession.

Ron Zelasko’s first job in Virginia City was to guard the city’s many cemeteries. Today, he and Angela, both former Las Vegans, live at the former St. Mary Louise Hospital, a stately brick building that served Virginia City from 1876 till a fire in 1942 resulted in its abandonment. Since the ’60s, it has functioned as an arts center and retreat where, the Zelaskos report, paranormal is actually the norm. Overall, the building has a positive energy, says Angela, “though there may be a few spirits up in the attic who might be a little grumpy.”

“One of our original jobs was to chase off the ghost-hunters,” says Ron as he tours us around the four-story property, pointing out the original fixtures, the spooky servant’s stairwell and the divot in the floor where surgeons stood for nearly 80 years. Ron and Angela already host regular guided tours, but they plan soon to allow guests to book overnight stays and conduct their own research, an opportunity rarely seen outside of TV’s Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. “And we find they are some of the most respectful people who come through here.” Returning that evening, on a moonless night, Colton and I would be among them. The only real preparation we did for this moment was to have coffee with Billy Tolley, an equipment tech and evidence reviewer for Ghost Adventures who had just returned from filming in Virginia City. “We actually captured on film a spirit answering our yes-and-no questions for six minutes straight using what’s called a K-II EMF detector,” he’d told us.

Tonight we have with us a camcorder, a voice recorder, a digital camera and two of the Zelaskos’ electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, but for good measure, we download iOvilus, an iPad app that allows spirits to communicate by selecting words from a dictionary, as well as Ghost Radar, another app that shows nearby electromagnetic fields. But it’s iOvilus that captivates. Words such as “Attic” and “Blaze” pop up on the fourth floor, where evidence of the fire is still visible.

When Ron and Angela turn us loose, I suggest starting on the ground level, where carriages would pull under the stairs to drop off the injured, a mining-era emergency room. At the doors—finally!—the EMF detector goes off like a siren, the light exploding from serene green to threatening red in the pitch darkness. It happens again in Room 8 after iOvilus spits out a name.

Monica?” I call out. Instant blaring and red.

No longer self-conscious, Colton and I dive right into conversation with the intangible, offering a bottle of Jameson to the miners, toasting grumpy Dan in Room 4. “The anticipation and fear just become acceptance,” Colton says. We pour another shot of whiskey in the room where the nurses, the Sisters of Charity, are said to have stayed.

Liquid. Supply. Stay,” says the iOvilus.

My kind of girls.

It’s when I get a little too familiar in a room on the men’s floor that I have my genuine encounter. “Seat. Human. Leave,” says iOvilus the second I sit down on the bed.

The hairs on my arms rocket to attention and I feel instantly, terribly ill—something not unheard of when ladies encounter the more bawdy miner spirits. When I am alone in the restroom moments later, an unseen hand carefully smoothes down my bangs. I actually feel the individual hairs bending under the invisible force. Walking down the hallway just moments ago, Colton, too, felt his head being patted.

Like so many of Virginia City’s residents and visitors, I now have my own ghost story to tell.

Our investigations continue until after 2:30 a.m., when finally we head back to the Gold Hill Hotel. But if the Gold Hill’s also haunted, I wouldn’t know: We slept like the dead.

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