Letter of Recommendation: Fort Collins Ghost Tours
February 5, 2019
Are you a teenager with a few spare hours and a love of history of the supernatural who wants to support a local business? If so, then we have the place for you: the Fort Collins Ghost Tour.
Despite living in Fort Collins, many do not know the fascinating and often morbid history of the city’s early years. Full of bootleggers and gamblers, Fort Collins was teeming with drama from tragic to downright gruesome.
The Fort Collins Ghost Tour retells that history, bringing it to life by exploring the now-forgotten sites of Old Town and discussing the ghosts that may or may not still haunt the area.
We journeyed to Old Town for fellow writer Liam H. Flake’s birthday with a large group of friends. It was a perfect and exciting way to celebrate and certainly was a night that would not soon be forgotten. As we waited for a tour guide, the air was crisp with excitement and the last rays of light were quickly retreating as night progressed. When our tour guide came, he was a stark contrast to everyone else on the street. He donned an old suit and hat and appeared to have stepped right out of a historical photograph. He gestured for us to follow him, his shoes clicking against the pavement as he lead us seemingly to nowhere. Interestingly, he didn’t say a word or look behind him to make sure we were following; he just kept walking right ahead. Initially, we began to question if he was even the guide, and it was only our intense intrigue that prompted us to follow him as he swiftly entered a Starbucks. Perhaps he was simply making a quick pit stop for some coffee? Except he did not talk to the friendly looking baristas or join the line; instead, he kept walking. He walked down a hallway and through two doors and only once we had arrived, bewildered and full of doubt, at a wide marble-entranced room did he finally acknowledge our existence. Instructing us to gather around in a circle he began, in a well-practiced but slightly corny English accent, to tell us about the different types of ghosts we might encounter: poltergeists, spirits, apparitions, and the like. By the end of his monologue, even those of us who had entered as strong skeptics were enthralled and eager to search for the paranormal.
And so we spent the better half of the night trekking through Old Town and entering shops seemingly at random. But it seemed inside every shop that had once appeared completely ordinary lay a story just beneath its floorboards. Leading us through Happy Lucky’s, the guide cheerfully pointed out a red pole and informed us that the store had once been a fire station. Descending into the cold and murky basement, he added that prior to that the store had been a prison and the cells had been in the basement, which were now used as a storage room for the shop. Entering the brick and plaster room, we breathed in the relaxing smells of herbal blends, soon becoming acutely aware of how different the basement had been in its past life. After giving us a moment to peek around and explore the crammed shelves, the odd tunnel that seemingly went nowhere, and the even more peculiar cramped and vacant room, our guide gathered us. In a hushed voice that seemed to draw us in he recounted the tale of a misfortunate man who had wound up in this basement many years past. A prisoner who had been caught for cheating at poker, he was to stay the night. The only problem was that he had swindled nearly all the other inmates. Fearing that the man would be ripped to shreds overnight the police, despite the man’s protests, locked him into the small and vacant room that served as solitary confinement. They assumed that they were doing the man a favor and brushed their hands of the issue before turning in for the night. But, at night, it got pitch dark, and the man was scared of the dark. (At this point in the story the guide turned off the lights to demonstrate leaving us in the pitch dark. One of us screamed, but I’ll leave the guessing to the readers). As the story goes, when the police returned the next day they found the man dead. He had, at some point in the night, scared himself so badly he had died of a heart attack. However, on some nights, employees working late allegedly still hear the man calling out for help as his fear grips him. After that tale, the guide focused his attention to the collapsed tunnel which carried a story of its own—a story of an attempt to escape. According to the guide, the tunnels had once stretched out all over and formed something of a maze for those who were unfamiliar. A prisoner who had managed to leave his cell had once tried to escape through the tunnels but gotten lost. Police had gone in after him, but the tunnel collapsed, presumably leaving them all dead. Some have claimed that, when alone, they will hear footsteps and the dragging of a chain which is attributed to the ghost of the escaped convict looking for a way out of the tunnels. This was especially eerie, leaving us feeling both spooked but also fascinated over this untold history.
Under the arcade in Old Town’s Avery Building, there was yet another story; a story of a marital dispute and betrayal between two friends. William Avery and Franklin Millington had been working together at what had formerly been a bank when, after a slew of rumors that William’s wife, Mary, had been unfaithful, he suddenly fell ill and died. Mary and Frank made off like bandits, relocating to Nebraska and getting married 12 days later. After William’s body had been exhumed, it was discovered that he had ingested enough arsenic to kill fifty people. It was then that our guide told us of the mirror across the room. He said that many who took photos of the mirror would make out a woman’s face, a face that was believed to be that of Mary’s. Naturally, we all clamored over for a photoshoot and debated for the next few weeks over if any photos actually looked as if they contained a face.
After the tour was complete, it was late but we were buzzing with excitement. We had found the tour, and the lovely yet mysterious tour guide, incredibly entertaining as well as capable of answering any and all questions swiftly. More than that, we were astonished to learn that almost every building in Old Town, not just the few we had visited, had their own history and often made destinations on the tour. We were also left with a thirst to learn more about our own town’s vibrant yet overlooked history.
I recall a particular evening of a school trip I took three years ago. My eighth-grade compatriots and I shuffled around the damp streets, listening intently to the stories of Boston told to us. As the rain poured down, the tour guide imparted upon us tales of murder and betrayal, of teenagers killed by mobs and of books bound in skin.
Last year, in lieu of my sixteenth birthday, I gathered a handful of friends for a night of pizza and a ghost tour. And thus it was that we found ourselves following a man in Victorian-era clothing through the backstreets of downtown Fort Collins.
Our tour took us through old hotels, alleys, back rooms, and the unexpectedly numerous tunnels beneath Old Town (seriously: you would be surprised how much is under your feet.) In the Northern Hotel, now hosting a Colorado State University gift shop, we were told how the building served as a hospital in times of pestilence. Amongst the tea supplies stored underneath Happy Lucky’s, we learned the history of the prison that was formerly located there.
The Fort Collins Ghost Tour featured scratchy voice recordings, grainy photos, and the extensive waving around of an EMF (electromagnetic field) meter. In this way, it begins to resemble some cheesy ghost hunting television show or low budget horror movie. However, beneath all of the gadgets and suspenseful pauses, the stories that arise from the tour are those of our city. The figures that grace those tales are the ones of Fort Collins past, and the events that are retold are our history.
A ghost tour is more than an evening of superstitious amusement; it is a narrative of a place’s past. Ghost stories provide an alternative perspective of history, painting a town’s background in a grimmer light and showing a darker view of former days. In listening to them, one can approach yesteryear through the lens of folklore, and can find another facet of a place’s identity.