Well, it’s the perfect season for ghost stories, and our region is chock-full of tales guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck and make you turn on all the lights while you read this. Find out who and where the ghosts are-and, if you dare, how you can experience these whispers and sightings for yourself.
By Matthew Bieker and Whip Villarreal
DONNER PASS TUNNELS
In 1869, Americans from coast to coast reveled in the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, meaning that a trip that once took months by wagon could be completed in a mere 10 days. But expediency doesn’t come cheap, and the railroad’s passage through the snowy Sierra was bought with silver dollars—and human lives.
The original tunnels through the mountains near Donner Pass, named for the infamous party of settlers-turned-cannibals, were a result of the painstaking work performed by over 12,000 Chinese emigrants who hammered and blasted through the solid granite walls, inch-by-inch.
In the winter of 1866, storms dropped 45 feet of snow on Donner Pass, and avalanches, freezing temperatures, inadequate housing and dangerous working conditions meant many workers were interred with the same earth and rubble they worked to move.
Visitors to the now abandoned tunnels have reported hearing strange whispers and sounds of construction echoing through the pitch black, especially in the infamous Tunnel 6. Stretching 1,655 feet from one side of the summit to the other, Tunnel 6 is as long as Lake Tahoe is deep, and because of its internal curve and elevation change, absolutely no light is visible from either side.
The tunnels are a well-known hiking destination accessible from I-80 East near Donner Lake. Apart from its history and reputation as a paranormal hotspot, the tunnels are celebrated for their impressive engineering effort. If you feel like thanking the original architects for their hard work, they might just be there listening…and maybe they’ll even answer.
On the list of “Places That Make for Good Ghost Stories,” Reno’s historic Levy House checks more than a few boxes. A wealthy, turn-of-the-century industrialist? Check. His extravagant, yet oddly constructed mansion? Bingo. A long history of ownership steeped in tragedy? You bet.
The original proprietor of the home was one William Levy, who made a fortune through his interest in the Unionville Mining Company and his mercantile business The Palace Dry Goods store. He built the house in 1906 as a tribute to his great wealth, but upon his death, bequeathed the house to his two daughters—Mildred and Fritzi.
After some bitter squabbling about the house’s future, the sisters reached a compromise: The house would be “rotated” 90 degrees to the west of the lot so Mildred and her family could continue to live in it, and Fritzi could build a gas station on the east end of the lot to fund her life in San Francisco.
Paranormal investigators visited the house a few years ago, after reports of people hearing footsteps running up and down the stairs, or experiencing mysterious chills and sudden sicknesses or dizziness. The investigators believed they made contact with several spirits, including three children and two adults, all of whom perished in the house due to various illnesses and accidents over the years.
Located right on the border of Reno’s Downtown and Midtown District, the Levy House is not only open to the public, it is currently the home of Sundance Bookstore, and—according to one estimate—is stuffed to the rafters with as many as 30 spirits residing there. Interested ghost hunters—and avid readers—can visit the Levy House/Sundance Bookstore at the intersection of California Avenue and Sierra Street from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday.
THE MIZPAH HOTEL
The Mizpah Hotel, located in Tonopah, Nevada, has historical ties to names like Wyatt Earp and Jack Dempsey, and was also known for its luxurious amenities back in its heyday a century ago.
But the hotel also has a dark history.
The Mizpah is said to house a ghost deemed “The Lady in Red.” Legend says the lady is the ghost of a prostitute named Evelyn Mae Johnston whose call name was “Rose.” As the story goes, she was beaten and murdered on the fifth floor outside her room on Jan. 2, 1914, by a jealous lover.
Her spirit is said to haunt her room (which is now 504), various other rooms, and the fifth floor hallway. Sightings have sometimes been accompanied by a single pearl left on a pillow or nightstand.
The Mizpah Hotel had been closed for some time but was recently renovated and reopened its doors to the public in 2011. Some visitors—and even investigators from the television series “Ghost Adventures”—have reported paranormal activity.
There are now rooms available to check into, and a small casino and restaurant to enjoy, for those who are seeking to connect with the ghosts that are rumored to roam the hotel’s halls.
BODIE GHOST TOWN
Bodie is a ghost town in the Bodie Hills, located east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California—and true to its title, rumors of spirits and specters abound. There have been reports of paranormal activity in the abandoned town, where more than 150 (potentially haunted) structures still stand, as well as the town cemetery up on the hill. According to folklore, the town is inhabited by ghostly spirits who guard the town against pilferers and torment visitors who dare to spend the night.
The town began as a mining hub and, like other boomtowns of its day, Bodie’s period of prosperity was brief but violent, with gunfights, fires, drownings and disease. Although much of the population moved on in search of riches elsewhere, the town maintained a population of more than 1,000 people until the 20th century. By 1940, the town’s population had shrunk to 90 people and soon after, all had moved on. It is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark and became Bodie National Historic Park in 1962.
However, there are rumors that as many as a dozen “spirit” residents still live in Bodie, as well as the ghost of a white mule that appears from time to time. But the most frightening legend: Those who remove items from the town are plagued by the “curse of Bodie,” which brings bad luck and misfortune to those in possession of the town’s artifacts.
THE WATER BABIES OF PYRAMID LAKE
Pyramid Lake, located 40 miles northeast of Reno, is home to the creepy urban legend of the “water babies.”
Centuries ago, Native Americans of the Paiute tribe who lived in the region and gave birth to deformed or premature babies discarded them into the waters of Pyramid Lake. Common folklore maintains the newborns’ angry spirits have taken hold of the lake through the past centuries.
According to the legend, underneath the deep murky waters of the lake, the water babies lie in wait for unsuspecting lake goers and snatch their victims into the water. Once taken by the water babies of Pyramid Lake, the bodies are never recovered.
Disappearances of visitors at Pyramid Lake have been reported through the years from swimmers, fishermen and scuba divers.
Anyone who plans to visit the lake to investigate for themselves should know that many people—including campers, residents and paranormal investigators—have reported hearing the cries of babies and the laughter of ghostly children at night.
THE BOTTOM OF THE LAKE
It’s summer in the Sierras, and the dead heat of the season warrants a trip to the alpine waters of Lake Tahoe. As you stake out a claim amongst the throng of beach goers, you notice a dinghy floating not far from the shore. You ditch your gear and decide to swim out to it, peering straight ahead through the pristine water.
As you paddle farther away from the beach and the laughter and bustle of the crowds, your toes no longer touch the sandy bottom of the lakebed. The monolithic boulders that dot the underwater landscape are fewer and farther between. You swim out even farther and you notice the water is colder here—much colder. Your arms are heavy now, and your chest tightens against the suddenly icy temperatures of the Sierra snowmelt, but the dinghy is within reach.
Gasping, you grab ahold of it and catch your breath. Looking back at the beach, you realize how much farther you swam than you initially thought. It’s quiet out here: You can hear the dull echo of the crowds in the distance, and the gentle lapping of the waves. You’ve been treading water, and as you look down beneath your steadily kicking feet you see—nothing.
Instead of sand, or deadfall from old trees, or granite stones, you see the steep drop-off from the shallows a dozen yards behind you—and the inky blue void that stretches over 1,600 feet to crushing depths below you. The clarity of the water is suddenly eerie, and the silence unnerving. You get the feeling that maybe you should head back, very quickly. After all…who knows what’s down there?
Because Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the country, the answer to that question has been the subject of scientific study and creepy folklore for over a century—since Lake Tahoe became known to settlers in 1844—but the native Washoe tribe has long held their own cultural beliefs about the lake. Known in the native tradition as “The Lake of the Sky,” Lake Tahoe, and especially a defining feature known as “Cave Rock,” are highly spiritual places for the Washoe.
In their own legends, these areas were home to spirits named “water babies” similar to those of the Paiute tradition surrounding Pyramid Lake. Water babies were powerful entities that could bring protection and good luck, but required appeasement, as it was believed they were responsible for mysterious drownings or illnesses. At the same time, inhabiting a great nest in the middle of the lake was the monstrous bird Ong—whose powerful wings could bend the trees below and who had an insatiable appetite for members of the local tribes.
In contemporary times, as the landscape and community around the lake changed, the legends evolved—but the monsters remained. Tourists and locals have long purported sightings of a leviathan known as “Tahoe Tessie,” in homage to her Scottish counterpart, Loch Ness (or “Nessie”). Tessie is said to elude capture or documentation via the flooded volcanic tunnels that supposedly link Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake.
In fact, it was a glimpse of Tahoe Tessie that was rumored to have so disturbed legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau as he emerged from a long-awaited expedition to the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Stepping out of his submersible, he turned to the crowd gathered there. Gaunt and trembling with horror, he whispered only the ominous phrase: “The world is not ready for what I’ve seen.” According to another version of the story, however, Cousteau may have instead seen something far more sinister—hundreds of dead bodies, drowned in the lake and suspended in time.
While it has since been proven that Jacques Cousteau never actually explored Lake Tahoe, and all other evidence of Tahoe Tessie has been debunked, Cousteau’s fabled encounter with a ghostly field of perfectly preserved corpses suspended in the midnight depths may have a basis in established science.
In 2011, the remarkably well-preserved body of a diver was discovered suspended 265 feet below the surface, where the temperature remains a few degrees above freezing year-round. The scuba gear still bore the date it was issued—1994. After 17 years adrift, preserved from decomposition by the frigid water and protected by the crushing pressure, coroners were still able to perform a full autopsy.
Due to the preservative nature of the lake’s temperature, chemistry and depth, it is unknown how long a body might survive in these unique conditions. Rumors persist of bodies recovered wearing clothing from the 1950s and bearing marks of mafia brutality—or Chinese railroad workers who built the original lines through the mountains. There’s also the infamous “Tahoe Fire Chief” who, upon responding to calls about a nighttime drowning, arrived to find the body of young Washoe girl—still wearing her ancestral dress.
Stories like these should realistically serve to remind people of the real hazards posed by Lake Tahoe and to enjoy the waters responsibly, especially around alcohol or inclement weather. The unique conditions of the lake’s location ultimately contribute to both its enduring beauty and mystery. Still though, the next time you gaze out across the glassy mirror of Lake Tahoe to the mountains beyond—don’t let your thoughts drift too far beneath its surface.
A “Ghost Town” typically refers to a town or settlement that was abandoned throughout the course of history, usually due to economic or cultural reasons. Virginia City, located in the Nevada hills east of Washoe Valley, is far from abandoned, but could still be called a ghost town in its own right—ostensibly hosting as many spirits within its borders as flesh-and-blood townspeople.
Virginia City became a bustling mining town after the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1858, which gushed silver and gold for over two decades. During this time, Nevada produced over half the precious metal in the country, even funding the North’s efforts during the Civil War, and thousands flocked to the hills to make their fortunes.
About 25,000 people would make their home in Virginia City during its peak, including an obscure reporter known to the town at the time as Samuel Clemens—who wrote under a penname: Mark Twain. Virginia City’s boom brought outrageous wealth to the town, but with it came a violent history of murder, mining accidents and numerous catastrophic fires.
Among the areas and buildings noted for paranormal activity in Virginia City: a parking lot next to the Silver Queen Hotel, The Silver Queen Hotel itself, the Silver Terrace Cemetery, The Storey County Courthouse, The Mackay Mansion, the school house, the old hospital, Piper’s Opera House, old mineshafts . . . basically, in a town of 0.8 square miles, you’d be hard pressed not to bump into a ghost or two reliving their, well, living days. And while each of these sites has their own legends and specific spirits associated with them, some are more famous than others for their particularly recognizable ghosts—or the particularly grizzly stories behind their deaths.
For example, at the Gold Hill Hotel, the ghost of a supposed prostitute, affectionately referred to as “Rosie,” is said to still reside in her old room: No. 4. Patrons have reported smelling her perfume while sleeping there, and that she enjoys flicking the lights on and off and moving small objects to entertain her guests. Next door, in room No. 5, “William” smokes his strong cigars in the dark and can sometimes be felt as a weighty presence sitting on the edge of the bed.
The most haunted structure in Virginia City is generally agreed to be the old Washoe Club, which was even featured on an episode of the Travel Channel’s hit show “Ghost Adventures.” Among the spirits in residence are Lena, the elegant lady in blue; a crotchety old prospector known for stealing unattended drinks—bourbon is his favorite; and a darkly sinister presence believed to be an elderly man who committed suicide on the third floor in the 1990s. The building also holds “The Crypt,” a cold storage cellar that would sometimes house dead bodies during the winter, as the ground was too hard to dig graves.
Today, Virginia City remains a (mostly) living and breathing relic of the Old West and is a favorite for tourists and history buffs looking for authenticity. It’s no secret, however, that one of the most densely haunted cities in the country has a healthy ghost hunting industry, and specialty tours are available for patrons to meet the “original residents” firsthand. With so much history in its antique streets, visitors to the town looking for a good ghost story might get to go home with one of their very own—you know, if they make it home at all.
GHOSTS OF THE GOLDFIELD HOTEL
Off the beaten path on Highway 95 in the small town of Goldfield, Nevada, there are several urban legends associated with the Goldfield Hotel, located in the center of town. The most famous is the story of Elizabeth.
As legend has it, Elizabeth was either a maid of the hotel or a prostitute who had an affair with the banker and mining baron George Wingfield. Elizabeth became pregnant and alleged that Wingfield was the father. Afraid that news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with his child would destroy his reputation, he chained Elizabeth to a radiator in Room 209, where she gave birth to the child.
It’s unclear from the story whether Elizabeth died in childbirth or was murdered by Wingfield himself, but after Elizabeth gave birth to the baby, Wingfield reportedly threw the newborn down an old mine shaft. Rumors swirled that after her death, Elizabeth’s spirit continued to visit Wingfield and the sound of a crying baby could sometimes be heard coming from the depths of the hotel.
When the ghost of Elizabeth has been sighted, she has been described as having long flowing hair and wearing a white gown, as she paces the hallways calling out to her child. Others have reported seeing her in the room where she died, which is often described as being intensely cold. It’s been the subject of a couple of paranormal investigation television series, including “Ghost Adventures” and “Ghost Hunters.“
Although paranormal investigators have visited the old hotel, it is closed to the public and visitors cannot enter the building unless they plan to illegally trespass on the property. However, simply touring the exterior of this closed-down hotel garners an unsettling feeling.
THE CLOWN MOTEL
While a Clown Motel that is settled steps away from old burial grounds in the middle of nowhere may seem like a fictional place conjured from a horror writer’s fevered imagination, it is definitely a real thing.
The Clown Motel, located in Tonopah, Nevada—and decorated with paintings and dolls of jesters throughout its property—is among one of the final resting stops in a seemingly endless stretch of desolate Nevada desert.
From the moment travelers enter the office to check in, they are greeted by a life-size clown figure sitting in a chair, cradling smaller clown figurines. In fact, the entire office is covered in shelves and bookcases full of clown dolls and statues.
After checking in and leaving the office with the room key in hand, visitors might notice an arch just feet away from the property showcasing the old “Tonopah Cemetery,” a century-old miners’ graveyard where wood and stone burial markers display the names of the departed.
Remarkably, no paranormal activity or wicked acts have been reported at the motel. But those traveling through the Silver State looking to have both a potentially unsettling experience and a good night’s sleep might want to make a reservation at the Clown Motel.