Category Archives: Colorado ghost stories

A Toast to the Ghosts

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Yeah I know Halloween is a long way off, but this writing has nothing to do with that sacred holiday. Rather, I’ve just recently been tracking down cemeteries in my area, and it turns out that there are lots of them. Some are still used, some are abandoned, and some have no trace left to show that they were there to begin with. For me, however, a graveyard is a sign that someone lived nearby, be it a ranch or homestead or an actual town. And often, just reading the name, date and inscription on a tombstone can tell you a lot about the occupant and how they lived.

When you are an historian, the people you fall in love with in your line of work are, unfortunately, dead. They cannot rise from the grave and tell you about their past. There is no pointing the way to where they were born or where they lived. Unless they left written record, there is no way of knowing their favorite color, or what they liked to eat, or how they felt about themselves and their lives. Thus their end is often my beginning as I look for the graves of my subjects to glean information and research for the story of their lives. Doing so brings closure for me, since a grave is literally the last place a person is seen. I find it ironic that the beginning for me starts with the end of another.

Having spent years studying old mortuary records and exploring graveyards, the frontier approach to death fascinates me. It is surprising, for instance, how many people died without socks—a standard item appearing on most mortuary forms. Death came so often in those days that caskets were given elaborate and comforting names—the “Fairy Couch” comes to mind, usually sold to widowers or the mothers of young girls. And, long after the burial, families once made day excursions to picnic at the graves of their loved ones on a regular basis.

Like those families of yesteryear, I like cemeteries. They are quiet, and peaceful. Their graves are, or were, lovingly tended by their families. When I see a flower vase on its side, or a flag that has come out of its holder, or leaves and mud covering a flat gravestone, I can’t help but tidy it up a bit. I have been known to talk to the occupants, sympathizing with their plight at the end. Sometimes I read their name out loud, because it has probably been a long time since someone did that. I like to think I am making sure they will never be forgotten.

Cemeteries also provide the proper thrills if one’s in the mood for a jolt. My mom and I once visited a wonderful graveyard in Colorado on an appropriately overcast day. I noticed that a vault door was slightly ajar, and as I moved away I swore I saw the door move. We were leaving anyway, but my heart missed a beat when the car inexplicably wouldn’t start. “Oh God, Mom!” I whimpered, grabbing her arm. She had a good laugh as she tried again and the car fired right up. Another time I accompanied the melodrama actors in Cripple Creek, Colorado on their annual “final show” jaunt to the local graveyard (sadly, they don’t do this anymore). It was late and very dark; I thought I was very clever for sneaking ahead and laying on a grave, waiting to pop up and scare someone. It was quite comfortable there, until I became aware that the voices around me had grown faint. Sitting up, I discovered everyone had headed out of the entrance far away from me. As much as I scrambled to get out of there, I never did catch up with them and felt like I was being watched as I walked very quickly towards the gate.

There are those who think cemeteries are creepy, and as someone who has heard voices and the cry of a baby while alone in one, I can certainly understand. But hearing voices, and the sounds of the living in places where nobody is alive, is normal in my line of work even if it does occasionally give me chills. These aren’t ghosts, to me anyway. It’s more like they are people lost in some sort of ethereal time warp, walking and talking as if they were still on this earth. And all of them have a story to tell. I don’t get vandals and other creepy people who think it’s ok to tip over tombstones and spray paint memorials. One day (unless you’re into cremation, which I am not), each of us will end up in a graveyard—the last sure sign we were ever on this earth to begin with. Be respectful.

That brings me to one of my favorite stories, and a good one to end with. Several years ago in California, I read of a woman who kept dreaming about a particular house. The dream was quite vivid, always ending with a strange man in a butler outfit looking horrified when he opened the front door. This went on for years, until one day the woman was forced by construction work to detour through an unfamiliar, fancy neighborhood. There, she saw the house from her dreams. Of course the woman stopped, went to the door, and rang the bell. Sure enough a butler answered. He gazed at her in horror, just like he did in the dream. Quickly she explained why she was there, ending with the question of whether the house was haunted. “Yes it is,” the butler stammered, “and YOU are the ghost.”

The Terrible Mill

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

The Terrible Mill. The sinister sounding name was what intrigued me from the git. Even before I ever saw it, I could picture it in my mind, a large skeleton of a building, looming quietly on a hillside above the long forgotten town of Ilse in which ghosts roamed and winds moaned. Such was what I pictured the first time I first went to the mill back in the 1980s. What I found was interestingly different. The town was nowhere to be found, save perhaps one home, still occupied, with another modern dwelling nearby. And the mill, oh the Terrible Mill! There it sat, a quarter of a mile away from the houses, not a skeleton so much as one large, rusty square of wood and tin. Three glorious stories of rambling corrugated steel and wood beams and scaffolding and ancient cement jutted out of the hillside, right beside the road.

We roamed discreetly around the backside of the mill, keeping a careful eye on the houses lest anyone protest our intrusion. But once we had climbed through a broken window into the dank confines of that old place, all cautions were forgotten in the wonderful splendor of a building time forgot. We rambled at our leisure up one side and down the other, exploring endless passageways, chutes, large rooms, small rooms and halls. And there were wonderful, crooked but solid stairways, one of which led to the very top of the mill and the greatest treasure of many: a small sparrow hawk, trapped in the uppermost room. Catching and exploring his sleek and refined shape, returning him to the outdoors, and watching him fly away from us was an experience like none other.

Seven years later, we returned to the mill. As it is with ghost towns, one can never know how fast they will deteriorate. We took a back way in, different from the last time, and I felt an assuring pang of excitement when I sighted the old mill from around the next bend. We passed the first of the two houses, and lo and behold, there sat a sheriff’s blazer. It wasn’t there the last time, and my heart sank at the thought of not being able to see the mill after such a long drive. But we respectfully took our chances, and stopped to ask permission. A small, affable man, not at all resembling a sheriff, gave us permission to explore and take photographs. His father once worked at the mill.

How amazing and refreshing it was to find the Terrible Mill held up well over those seven years, with virtually no change at all. There it was, all three stories still there and holding. The wind, as before, whistled through cracks in the walls and rustled the tin roof – but the building stood strong.

My first mission was to find my favorite staircase, the one leading to the top. It was still there, scaling the side of the wall up, up a good hundred feet, and so crooked that I had to half climb it, hanging precariously on to the supporting wall. Even in its dilapidated position, its steps worn and slick from the hundreds of feet that have climbed it through the years, it was strong and sturdy.

Hardly anything had been moved. The old iron bed was still in the office, complete with mattress and the old shoes looking like someone just took them off before retiring. The bedside table was still there too, although a previous visitor had spilled the bottles of vitamin B to the floor. The old lab looked almost exactly the way I last left it. Samples were scattered in small brown packets, mixed in with old bottles of acid and other mining chemicals. The old bottle of salad dressing, still half full, lay exactly where I’d swear I put it. A box of wire mesh, looking like a giant brillo pad, still leaned against the wall. Even the old empty cans of cat food lay untouched, just as I’d seen them seven years ago, and the cat, whose petrified carcass we found when we pulled a Persian rug from the rafters back then, still lay prone on an old piece of cardboard in a doorway.

We wandered back down to the bottom story, where ore once rumbled down chutes to be melted by a large drum furnace, and eventually found our way out of a large sliding door. As we climbed carefully across the barbed wire fence, I felt a sense of duty relieved. It was as if I had just been to see an elderly aunt, and was leaving with the assurance she was doing just fine. In all the hussle of influx to this state, amongst all the construction and destruction going on, all the people old and new who have no appreciation for how this state came to be and the people who toiled so hard to make their dreams come true here, there are still some quiet corners in which to take refuge. I can rest easy knowing this, and that it is still possible for time to stand still in certain spots if you know where to look.

Busting Through Snowdrifts: the Ghost Train of Marshall Pass, Colorado

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

At 10,846’ in elevation, Marshall Pass remains among one of Colorado’s most precarious roads. The pass, located in the Sawatch Range between Salida and Gunnison, was discovered by Lieutenant William Marshall in 1873 as he was making a mad dash in search of a Denver dentist for a bad toothache. But Marshall’s painful trip was nothing compared to the wild ride experienced by Denver & Rio Grande Railroad engineer Nelson Edwards, and engine fireman Charles Whitehead.

The D & RG was built over Marshall Pass during 1880-1881. Shortly after the rails reached Gunnison, however, stories began circulating of a “ghost train” on the pass, the sight of which had caused other engineers to quit out of fright. Nelson and Whitehead had paid no heed to the tales, making several trips over the pass over a two month period without incident. One evening, however, Nelson guided a passenger train towards the pass with a feeling of foreboding. Perhaps it was because of a weakened bridge and a defective rail, both of which lay ahead on this snowy night. Others would later say that Nelson’s heightened sense of danger was due to the hair-raising specter he was about to see.

The train had just passed through a snowshed when the men heard the warning whistle of another train. The signals continued as the unseen train came nearer, and when Nelson heard the conductor’s signal to stop, he brought his train to a stand-still. Next, the conductor appeared, demanding to know why Nelson stopped. “What did you pull the bell cord for?” the engineer responded. “You’re crazy,” the conductor answered, “now pull her wide open, there’s a wild train a-climbing up on us!”

Edwards opened the throttle as the wheels struggled for a purchase on the rails and Whitehead shoveled coal madly into the fire. Over the next several minutes, the men listened in terror as warning blasts came from the approaching runaway. The D & RG cars were now rocking precariously, awakening panicked passengers and breaking through icy snowdrifts as they sped down the tracks. As the runaway came into view, Edwards was horrified to see a “white figure” atop one of the cars, waving wildly. A short distance later, the engineer vainly veered onto a side track as the runaway train came up on his side. Glancing over, Edwards saw “two extremely white figures in the cab. The specter engineer turned a face to him like dough and laughed.”

Alas, Edwards was going so fast that the runaway could not pass. As he guided the train back in front, the “ghostly fireman” in the other engine maniacally sounded the whistle. Now, the D & RG train was approaching the damaged bridge, but miraculously sailed right over it. A minute later, Edwards sighted a dozen or so section workers, toiling over the broken rail ahead. There was no time to slow down; when the man applied the brakes, he felt the wheels stopping even as the train continued gliding along the icy rails. The train ran right through the workers, whose forms parted like wisps of powdery snow. Edwards looked back just in time to see the runaway hit the broken rail, jump the track, and plunge over the embankment.

When their hearts ceased pounding, Edwards and Whitehead puzzled over what they were sure was the phantom train so many had spoken of before. The men’s hearts thudded again, however, when they spotted a cryptic and badly-spelled note etched in the frost of the fireman’s window: “Yeers ago a frate train was recked as yu saw—now that yu saw it, we will never make another run. The enjine was not ounder control and four sexshun men wore killed. If you ever ran on this road again yu will be wrecked.”

To date, no documentation supports the death of four section workers on Marshall Pass, although a wreck in November of 1888 did kill two men on the train, including the fireman. As for Nelson Edwards, the engineer quit his job the minute the train reached Green River, Utah, and went to work for the safer, and ghost-free, Union Pacific Railroad out of Denver.

Pictured: A Denver & Rio Grande Train on Marshall Pass, as captured by William Henry Jackson.