A cupola seaman—Louisville, Kentucky

This is the third entry of my Encounter Countdown to Halloween. There are only 28 more days until All Hallows Eve!

United States Marine Hospital
2215 Portland Avenue
Louisville, Kentucky

There’s something quite jaunty about the cupola atop the old U.S. Marine Hospital in Louisville. The rest of the building is stately and noble and almost bows to travelers as they cross the Ohio river into Kentucky; perhaps it’s a gracious bow of warm Southern welcome. But the little cupola adds a certain joyful flair to this staid structure, almost like a hotel bellman’s pillbox cap.

US Marine Hospital Louisville Kentucky ghosts haunted
The U.S. Marine Hospital with its jaunty cupola, 2007. Photograph by Censusdata, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Travelers have been passing this spot for nearly two centuries and they have been greeted by this landmark. Almost a hundred years ago, the Dixie Highway was routed across the steel lace of the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal Bridge from New Albany, Indiana into the bustle of Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. Automobile traffic over the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal Bridge ceased in 1979 and rerouted to Interstate-64 and its nearby concrete bridge. The interstate rushes past the sober hospital with its jolly cupola at Exit 3 as it hurries towards the spaghetti bowl interchange with I-65 and I-71.

Built by the Federal government to provide healthcare to boatmen operating on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and Great Lakes. This hospital was situated here on the Ohio River, for the “beneficial effect of a view of the water, and the impressions and associations it would naturally awake in the minds of men whose occupation were so intimately connected with it.” After the decline of the Marine Health Service in the late 19th century, the facility continued to operate as a hospital and later as quarters for medical professionals until 1975.

The now ancient building saw a multi-million-dollar restoration of its exterior some years ago, though the interior remains unusable, except for a few ground-floor rooms. Efforts to restore the entire structure have yet to succeed.

During the restoration in 2004, a painter working inside heard someone whistling down one of the hallways. When the painter realized that he was alone in the building he grew more curious. A few days later he was working with another painter and the two decided to take a smoke break on one of the building’s galleries. As they walked into the unrestored portion of the building, painter’s co-worker accused him of staring at him and making him uncomfortable. The painter denied that he was staring at him and said he was only concentrating on his work.

“So, we stepped out onto the gallery and lit up our cigarettes, and it just weird all of a sudden. The hair stood up on our necks and the whole place just felt all staticky and like it was charged with energy or something. It got real cold, too, just like an icy wind blew in, and when that happened, my buddy just sort of looked at me as if to ask what was going on.”

The two men were standing facing one another, the painter standing against the railing his back to the railing, while his co-worker was looking out towards the river. Suddenly, the co-worker appeared to see something, and his eyes got big. When the painter turned to see what his companion was looking at, there was a man standing next to him.

Staring at the man in disbelief, the pair was aghast when he simply vanished before their eyes. “He just sort of appeared for a moment or two, and then he was gone. It was almost like we were seeing an old-fashioned picture.” The painter described the man as appearing like “an old-time sailor.” He was wearing “tight, striped pants and a short jacket and a straw hat.”

George Caleb Bingham Jolly Flatboatmen in Port 1857
George Caleb Bingham’s “Jolly Flatboatmen in Port,” 1857. Dating to the period when the Marine Hospital opened, it depicts men who might have been patients here. The description of the seaman seen by the two painters resembles some of the men in this work. This painting hangs in the St, Louis Museum of Art.

After the spectral vision vanished, the co-worker fled back inside the building and refused to talk about what had just happened. The painter, however, told his story to Louisville author and tour guide David Domine, who included it in his 2006 Phantoms of Old Louisville. Hopefully, this magnificent building with the jaunty cupola can be fully restored as old mariners continue “blurring the fine line between the Here and Now and the There and Then.”

Sources

  • Brooks, Carolyn. National Historic Landmark Nomination Form for the United States Marine Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky. 15 March 1994.
  • Domine, David. Phantoms of Old Louisville: Ghostly Tales from America’s Most Haunted Neighborhood. Kuttawa, KY: McClanahan Publishing, 2006.
  • United States Marine Hospital of Louisville. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 3 October 2019.
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