As my car climbs the six miles of mountain to Goodsprings, hazy puffs of fog hover over the road, so thick that high beams barely cut through. There’s no moon and the sky is a clear, blue-black expanse … so where’s the fog coming from?
Everything has spooky portent tonight, since I’m on my way to visit the spirits of the Pioneer Saloon—and I don’t mean whiskey or gin. Featured in movies, video games and on TV shows such as Ghost Adventures, for the last two years, Pioneer Saloon has been hosting “Haunted Lockdowns,” where people spend several after-midnight hours attempting to contact the bar’s resident ghosts.
The ramshackle bar hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1913, with its corrugated porch roof and weathered signage. Inside, there’s still a battered oak bar, potbelly stove, a Sears & Roebuck pressed tin ceiling and a cluster of bullet holes … but more on that later.
Our guide for the evening, Jill, corrals us into the adjacent general store for backstory and gadgets—just like the ones used by ghost hunters on TV. There’s the Ghost Meter Pro, a handheld device that measures EMF, a.k.a. electromagnetic fields, which can indicate a paranormal presence. Communication is through the Spirit Box, which emits a field of static through which occasional words surface, like trying to listen to the radio while going over the Cajon Pass, or the Ovilus III, which prints trios of words on a screen.
Jill laughs and jokes and is awfully lively for a woman who communes with the dead. She considers the ghosts just another set of regulars: Paul, the cheating gambler; Mr. Butterfield, the suicidal bartender; Ruby, the murdered prostitute; and a number of others, nameless and ethereal.
The most famous is film star Carole Lombard, whose plane crashed into nearby Mount Potosi on January 16, 1942. Her husband, Clark Gable, drank at the Pioneer while waiting for her body to be found. Her spirit reportedly lingers, attempting to comfort him. “You never know when she’s going to show up,” says Jill, adding that the reason Lombard and many of the other spirits can still be perceived is because, once you’ve passed on, “a century is like a second.”
Owner Noel Sheckells tells us that he needed otherworldly approval before buying the Pioneer Saloon in 2006. He met with the family who owned it—and a curiously empty chair at which they kept smiling and nodding. After a lot of odd questions—“I thought they had all been drinking too much of their own whiskey,”’ he tells us—they accepted his offer. The empty chair was for deceased patriarch “Papa Don” Hedrick, who had to approve the buyer of his bar. After all, he still hangs out here, too.
We all move across the darkened bar into the Carole Lombard & Clark Gable Memorial Room, full of photos, news clippings and other memorabilia. Jill and Noel tell tales of the saloon’s spirits and encourage us to discuss any paranormal experiences we may have had—not only are we attempting to contact the ghosts of the Pioneer, but also any spirits that we may know personally. One man begins talking about his deceased sister and, as he does, our EMF readings flicker madly and, in the midst of white noise, the Spirit Box spits out what seriously sounds like her name. It’s creepy and strangely exhilarating.
Maybe it’s the spirits, maybe it’s the stories, but there do seem to be sudden chills and a strange sort of electricity in the air. We go back out into the main saloon and sit around a table under those bullet holes. This is where Paul Coski—“Our most prominent and most playful spirit,” says Jill—was shot dead for cheating in a poker game. As she talks about the hard-drinking Paul and the ace up his sleeve, the Ovilus’ screen reads, “money … steal … assault.” She pours a shot of whiskey and turns on the EVP. “What should I do with this shot?” she asks. Static, then we all distinctly hear, “Drink it!” Jill laughs and downs it.
Sometime before 4 a.m., we decide to call it a night. A member of our Ghostbusters team has been snapping smartphone photos: In many, glowing transparent spheres hover midair, ranging from ping-pong to beach ball in size—orbs, also considered evidence of paranormal presence.
So, are there spirits at the Pioneer Saloon? Well, if they’re anywhere, they’re here. And, even if you’re not a believer, a night hanging out at the county’s oldest bar, telling ghost stories, playing with toys and giving yourself a few scares is certainly a night worth spending.