Some histories are cut and dry. Some are tragic and some are triumphant. Others have a past as hard to track as the spindly shapes in a kaleidescope. My favorite histories, however, are those rooted around a good, unsolved ghost story.
Pulling into the parking lot of the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel on a misty Sunday evening, I crane my neck up at the lonesome bell tower that crowns the hotel roof and shake off a shiver.
“Jackpot,” I whisper, as my fiancé pulls the key out of the ignition before giving me a concerned glance.
“Are you talking to yourself?”
I pause and take in the sculpted shrubbery on the garden grounds beneath the haze of dusk.
“I think there are some good stories waiting for us here.”
Anthony shakes his head and laughs as we step outside and pop the trunk to grab our luggage. But when I grip his arm on our way to the double front doors, he jumps just a little, at my touch.
I fight back the urge to remind him of the time he teased me for being nervous when we were hiking in rattlesnake territory and then immediately tripped at the sound of a grasshopper.
“After you,” I say, in my best haunted, yet hard to place Brittish-Russian accent hybrid while I hold the door open and wiggle my eyebrows.
Clearly, I’m having all the fun here.
It’s true – I’ve been known to imitate the choo-choo of a train whistle before boarding the Mt. Hood Railroad and to fall in love with waterfalls in ways so enduring that they sneak into my dreams and leave me heartbroken when I wake to the sound of construction near my city home. I have a penchant for the legends of things and this can cause me to lose sight of the behavioral norms that have been assigned to my age group. But I take my story subjects seriously. And I’m a writer on the beat. I’m here to get a true, solid impression of the Columbia Gorge Hotel…and if that happens to include an honest-to-goodness ghost story, well, then so be it.
Originally built in 1904 by Hood River pioneer Bobby Rand, the Columbia Gorge Hotel has seen many different phases and had four owners in its 109 years of existence. Located right off of exit 62 in Hood River, the hotel nestles itself above the 208′ Wah Gwin Gwin Falls (Rand’s original name for the space was the Wah Gwin Gwin Hotel) and peers over the wide waters of the Columbia.
The interior retains an impressive number of antiques, quaintly tucked in the corners of common spaces and brandishing the hotel’s handsome guest rooms with a sense of legacy. To top it off guests have the option of riding the Columbia Gorge’s vintage, hand operated elevator for a real step back in time.
When Simon Benson purchased the Wah Gwin Gwin Hotel from Rand in 1920, he envisioned creating a lavish getaway and his vision proved nationally successful. Shortly after opening, the hotel had already garnered a reputation among presidents Roosevelt and Coolidge as well as drawn the famous gazes of Jane Powell, Myrna Loy and Rudolph Valentino.
The hotel of modern day includes the Valentino Lounge, which features dashing framed photos of the 1920′s Italian heartthrob.
After setting our stuff down in our hotel room (a lovely corner spot with a kingsize bed overlooking the Columbia) Anthony and I make our way down to the Valentino lounge to cozy up with a drink by the fire. My secret agenda, however, is to do some sleuthing and see what the hotel staff have to say about a potentially haunted past.
It quickly becomes clear that the universe is conspiring in my favor. Not ten minutes after we’ve been sipping cocktails in front of crackling orange flames, our bartender sits down across from us and lowers her voice as she leans forward.
“Have you heard any of the hotel ghost stories?”
I glance at Anthony who keeps his eyes focused on the fire and a grin slowly stretches across my face.
“We haven’t. And we’d love to.”
The depression brought hard times to Simon Benson and he was forced to relinquish his vision and sell it to the Neighbors of Woodcraft who turned the hotel into a retirement home….and this is where we meet our ghosts.
Our bartender tells us in hushed tones about Oscar, one of the retirement residents rumored to have lived and died here. Apparently Oscar loved his cigars and their smoke still lingers enigmatically in various parts of the smoke-free establishment.
“Just the other night,” our bartender whispers, “a young girl was at dinner with her parents and she kept complaining about the smell of smoke.”
Anthony and I lean forward on the couch and our bartender puts her hands up as if to indicate she’s not confirming or denying that this was a signal of Oscar’s presence.
“The younger ones are always more sensitive,” she adds. Then she winks and giggles quickly before leaving us to ponder the ghost of an old man smoking cigars outside our room tonight.
“Have you ever seen the movie Vertigo?” I ask Anthony, as we pause in front of a locked iron gate that blocks our passage to the final set of stairs that would lead us, I’m guessing, to the top floor and the bell tower.
He takes a sip of his beer (we’ve been given permission by our new bartender friend to explore the hotel, drinks in hand) and shakes his head.
“It’s a really creepy Alfred Hitchcock movie where a women keeps dreaming about falling from – ”
Anthony cuts in immediately, his head turning side to side with the steady pace of a metronome.
“Nope, nope, nope.”
I bite my lip and try to calm my erratic breathing. My imagination is starting to run, I can feel it.
Anthony laces his free hand in mine and leads me back downstairs. We have plans to get some dinner in town, but I can’t help stopping by the front desk on our way out and asking the attendant if she could tell us more about the hotel’s history.
Kaia has thick framed glasses and a sweet smile and the first thing out of her mouth is, ”I don’t usually fall for things like ghost stories, but…”
As she closes her book and folds her hands on top of it, I pull a notepad and pen from my pocket and ready myself.
“Last night,” Kaia continues, “the paranormal people were here. You know, they walk around with their equipment and a meter reads if there is unusual paranormal activity.”
Anthony and I are her captive audience as she proceeds to tell us about what the staff call the ‘tunnel’ – a long hallway in the basement that leads to an incinerator which was installed during the retirement home days with the intention of creating a morgue. The very thought has shivers zig zagging up my back.
“We were walking down the hallway and the meter suddenly went up to three. The leader stopped and said, ‘If you’d like us to leave, let us know.’ That’s when the meter shot up to a five.”
Kaia takes her glasses off and laughs nervously.
“Like I said, I don’t usually get freaked out by that stuff, but the guy with the equipment turned us around real fast and I was glad he did.”
Before Anthony and I depart Kaia adds a quick story about another retirement home resident who has been known to barricade the room she used to reside in. Nobody can figure out how it happens, but now and then, there are chairs and pieces of furniture pressed underneath the door knob.
In the fresh bite of night air I feel my breathing relax and I squeeze my patient fiancé’s hand.
“You’re not too freaked out are you?” I ask him.
He smiles and a mischevious dimple appears on his right cheek.
“No…this is starting to get fun.”
In Hood River we satiate our palette with what we mutually agree is some of the best pizza we’ve ever had. The Double Mountain Brewery’s perfectly crisped brick oven pizza and two Hood River brewed beers ground us in the warm comfort of well made food, (salami, mozzerella and arugala) and the mellow of a light beer buzz (the Double Mountain Kolsch and the Lulu) before we return to the Columbia Gorge Hotel’s elegantly mysterious magic.
Restored and rennovated in 1977 and now corporately owned and operated, the hotel has been gracefully brought back to its beginnings, a far cry from the ghost story producing days of its retirement home era. And this edge of haunted – this is what adds to the hotel’s undeniable charm.
In the morning, we wake up to the sound of the river’s rush, enjoy complimentary dark roast coffee with handmade biscotti and begin imagining the next occasion that will lead us back down the hallways of the Columbia Gorge Hotel – a haunted adventure entirely worth risking.