I recently had an inquiry from a friend who’s a student at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia regarding a “haunted road trip” he and his friends want to take next month. After consulting my resources, I’ve devised a suitable tour of the area’s numerous haunts.
This tour makes a circle through the Shenandoah Valley, beginning and ending in Winchester. It heads south on I-81 towards Staunton with a few stops along the way. After Staunton the tour heads east to include the famous Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville before returning to Winchester. The tour includes a range of haunted places from historic homes to government buildings, churches, battlefields, commercial buildings, cemeteries, a train depot, a former mental hospital and a cave. Some of these locations are open to the public while a few are private and should only be viewed from the street.
N.B. This article has been reworked a bit and I have begun separating these cities into their own distinct articles.
The Winchester section of this article has been broken off into its own, separate article, “The Wraiths of Winchester.”
1797 WAYSIDE INN (7783 Main Street) This building sits at the core of history of this small town. The motley of old buildings forming the tavern were built over a period ranging from the 18th century through to the late 19th century. The oldest portion of the building, containing Larrick’s Tavern, may have been constructed around 1750. The road in front was once part of the Great Wagon Road—the road used by settlers pouring into the American “backcountry.” In this area, the Great Wagon Road was originally a Native American trail called the Great Indian Warpath and used by a multitude of Native American tribes including the Cherokee.
In 1797, this collection of buildings became an inn for the many travelers passing on the road. Leo Bernstein, the garrulous personality who took over the inn the latter half of the 20th century, would always claim that this inn was the oldest continuously operating inn in the nation. There does seem to be a good deal of truth behind his claim. It is known that this inn was in operation as war raged up and down the valley during the Civil War and that the inn served both sides.
Like most buildings in the area, the inn has a number of Civil War related spirits, though there is the possibility that the inn may have been haunted before that time. Lord Fairfax, who had been given much the land in the area, did live nearby and died in Winchester (he’s buried at Christ Episcopal Church) is claimed as the spirit that moans on a nightly basis in the oldest portion of the inn. Bernstein describes the space in Sheila Turnage’s Haunted Inns of the Southeast, “Upstairs is about a three foot space. There was a set of steps going up there. The straw is still there.” The loft is located just above one of the bars and Turnage mentions that people gather to listen for the moan at 11:30 PM nightly.
Besides odd moans, the inn is home to numerous other spirits and employees and guests have witnessed much activity. Objects have moved on their own accord, a dishwasher had his apron untied repeatedly by unseen hands, and full apparitions have been seen including those of Civil War soldiers. Paranormal investigations have captured much evidence including EVPs of horses whinnying and photographs featuring specters.
WAYSIDE THEATRE (7853 Main Street, now closed) The sad fate of the Wayside Theatre echoes the fate of so many theatres throughout the country. The company was established in 1961, by Leo Bernstein, the owner of the Wayside Inn just down the street. The summer stock theatre provided training for actors such as Susan Sarandon, Peter Boyle, Kathy Bates and Donna McKechnie. After a precipitous drop in revenue, the theatre closed its doors in 2013.
The building was originally constructed as a cinema and it is from this period that the theatre’s ghost may come from. “George,” is supposedly the spirit of an African-American man who either worked in the theatre or was a caretaker at some point. His spirit is said to haunt the stage, balcony and basement of the building.
CEDAR CREEK AND BELLE GROVE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK (Belle Grove, 336 Belle Grove Road) Historically and architecturally, Belle Grove is one of the most important houses in the region and listed as a National Historic Landmark. It is currently owned and operated by the National Trust and most sources state that the docents are discouraged from talking about the spirits which still reside here.
The history of Belle Grove begins in the late 18th century with the land being acquired by Isaac Hite, the grandson of Jost Hite, a German immigrant and one of the early pioneers in this area. Construction of the house began in 1794 and ended in 1797. The house remained in the Hite family until just before the beginning of the Civil War when it was bought by John and Benjamin Cooley. The first of two ghost stories begin with this family. Not long after acquiring the house, Benjamin Cooley married a local woman named Hetty. Not long after her arrival in the home, Hetty became the subject of ire from one of the slave woman working there.
Though the details are unclear, Hetty was attacked by the slave and her beaten body was thrown either into the smokehouse or the icehouse on the property. Hetty’s spirit reportedly returns frequently and has been seen throughout the house. According to two sources, she actually let a deliveryman into the house one afternoon after the home had been closed for the day. The deliveryman was returning the antique carpets which had been removed for cleaning. After arriving late, he was let into the house by a woman in a period dress who did not speak but only gestured to where the carpets should be placed. When the staff discovered the carpets had been returned and put in place, they called the cleaning company who put the driver on the phone. They were shocked to hear about the woman who let him in.
A few years after Mrs. Cooley’s death, the estate became the scene of the Battle of Cedar Creek. During that battle, Major General Stephen Ramseur of North Carolina was gravely wounded. He was taken to a room at Belle Grove where he passed away the following morning surrounded by some of his former classmates from West Point from both armies including George Custer. This scene was witnessed by a gentleman some years ago. While idly passing through the house, he glanced into a room to see a group of Civil War soldiers in both blue and grey standing around someone in a bed. Later, when he asked who had been presenting the tableaux that day, he was informed that nothing of the sort was taking place in the house.
Employees have told various paranormal writers that voices and other odd noises are regularly heard in the house, while singing is heard in the slave cemetery on the property.
Early on the morning of October 19, 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early launched an attack upon Union forces camping in the area. These forces under General Sheridan (who was headquartered at the Lloyd Logan House in Winchester, see stop #3H) had spent their time clearing the Shenandoah Valley of Confederates. Known as “The Burning,” this period included the destruction of much of the area. Early’s early morning attack was one of the last chances for Confederates to stop the decimation of the valley.
While Early’s attack was initially successful in beginning to route the Federals, Sheridan, hearing the sounds of battle from Winchester, jumped upon his horse and made a triumphant ride to Middletown to rally his troops to victory. At the end of the day, Early’s forces had been driven from the field.
The stories of spirits on this battlefield began not long after the battle ended. These stories included spectral soldiers on the battlefield both singly and in groups and even stories of headless horsemen. Michael Varhola notes, however, that the gentlemen he met working in the visitor’s center, refused to answer his questions about the battlefield being haunted.
GRAND CAVERNS (5 Grand Caverns Drive) From the oldest continuously operating inn in the country to the oldest operating show cave, Grand Caverns has been open for tourists since 1806. I’ve covered this cave and its ghosts in a blog entry here.
PIEDMONT BATTLEFIELD (Battlefield Road) Outside of New Hope, near the community of Piedmont, is an open field that was the scene of a battle, the 5th of June 1864.
Around 5 AM, June 5, 1996, a group of reenactors camping on the southern edge of the battlefield were awakened by an unusual ruckus: the sounds of wagons approaching. In an effort to greet the approaching wagons, a few of the reenactors stepped towards a nearby fence. The sounds, the creak of wagon wheels, the tinkle of chains, the clop of horses hooves and their whinnies, increased for a moment as they apparently neared the awed witnesses then they suddenly ceased. Some of those present later discovered an overgrown trace or wagon road in the woods near the spot where they’d heard the sounds. It is believed that this road may have been in existence at the time of the battle.
Of course, there’s no way to know if the sounds were related to battle or simply spiritual residue from the road’s history. Either way, the reenactors will likely tell this story for years to come.
Like Winchester, Staunton has a myriad of haunted locales and a ghost tour. Black Raven Paranormal presents a handful of different tours; see their website for further information.
MRS. ROWE’S FAMILY RESTAURANT (74 Rowe Road) This popular restaurant has been investigated twice in the past few years after employees and guests have had run-ins with spirits. In addition to activity in the building’s attic and basement, the back dining room and men’s room have reportedly had activity. Two local news articles describe the activity as ranging from full apparitions to employees being touched.
DeJARNETTE CENTER (located behind the Frontier Culture Museum, 1290 Richmond Avenue, the center is closed and private property though one of the tours offered by the Ghosts of Staunton tours the grounds, don’t ask for further information at the Frontier Culture Museum, they can’t tell you much of anything) There’s a good deal of misinformation about this location. Of course, mental and psychiatric hospitals tend to be haunted, along with other medical facilities. Among those with a paranormal bent, there is a tendency to exploit these types of places and often repeat misinformation.
With the DeJarnette Center, there is a tendency to confuse it with Western State Hospital, which also may be haunted. Though their histories are intertwined, these are two separate facilities. Western State was founded early in the 19th century to handle the overflow from the Williamsburg Hospital which handled the insane and mental cases. The complex that once house Western State has recently been converted into condominiums called The Villages at Staunton.
During the first half of the 19th century, Western State was under the aegis of Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, a revolutionary figure in the field of mental health. His controversial legacy included institutionalizing a eugenics program that forcibly sterilized numerous patients throughout the state.
This facility opened in 1932 originally as the DeJarnette State Sanitarium, a private pay unit of Western State. The state assumed control of this facility in 1975 and renamed it the DeJarnette Center for Human Development. The facility experienced severe budget cuts starting in the mid-70s and continuing until the patients were moved into a newer, smaller facility adjacent to Western State in 1996. Since 1996, the site has been abandoned and waiting for the wrecking ball. Countless ghost stories have been told about the facility, though few have actually been published.
DOWNTOWN STAUNTON Like downtown Winchester, Staunton has a number of haunted places, though the information on them is not as readily available (as opposed to Winchester with Mac Rutherford’s book on its hauntings). I imagine many of these locations will be presented on the Ghosts of Staunton tour.
STAUNTON COFFEE AND TEA (32 South New Street) This building was the scene of a homicide in August of 1951. Elmer Higgins, a heavy gambler who lived in an apartment on the building’s second floor was shot in the head, execution-style. The murder remains unsolved and it is believed his spirit remains on the premises.
AMTRAK STATION (1 Middlebrooks Avenue) There has been a train station on this site since 1854. The first station was burned during the Civil War while the second station was destroyed April 28, 1890 by train. The New York Times described the event, “This morning about 3 o’clock a railroad wreck occurred at the Staunton (Chesapeake and Ohio) Station. The vestibule train, due here from the west at 1 o’clocl was two hours late. About 3 o’clock it came whirling on at a speed of seventy miles an hour, the engine having the appearance of a sheet of fire…As the train reached the passenger station the rear sleeper careened, striking the platform covering, tearing away the iron posts, and demolishing the whole platform structure.”
The train was carrying members of a traveling operatic troupe out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The only death to occur was one of the company’s singers, Miss Myrtle Knox who was badly mangled by the accident and bled to death.
Myrtle’s sad spirit has been spotted on the platform wearing a nightgown. Women with long blonde hair have had their hair tugged and it is believed that Myrtle’s spirit may be to blame for that as well.
An old rail car at the depot once contained a restaurant. Visitors to the station have seen odd lights, shadows and heard voices around the old Pullman car. Along the tracks the apparition of a Civil War soldier has been seen. A Confederate soldier was walking these tracks after having a bit too much to drink at a local saloon. He was hit by a train and killed.
THE CLOCK TOWER BUILDING (27 West Beverly Street) This 1890 structure has been the scene of at least three deaths. Two early deaths on the premises, which was originally constructed as a YMCA facility, include a heart attack and a young woman who fell down a coal chute. Recently, someone fell to their death from the third floor in a possible suicide. These spirits are still said to linger in this old building.
MARY BALDWIN COLLEGE (Intersection of Frederick Street and New Street) According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for this college’s main building, Mary Baldwin is the oldest women’s institution of higher learning associated with the Presbyterian Church. The school was opened in 1842 as the Augusta Female Seminary. In the midst of the Civil War, Mary Baldwin and Agnes McClung, former students of the seminary were appointed as principals. They would serve the school through the latter half of the 19th century and Mary Baldwin’s contribution would be recognized in 1895 when the school was renamed for her. The spirits of Mary Baldwin and Agnes McClung may remain on campus along with a few other assorted spirits.
In the old Main Building, one of the first buildings constructed on campus, a male spirit named Richard likes to occasionally cause trouble. McClung Residence Hall, just behind the Main Building includes the rooms where Baldwin and McClung lived during their tenure here. Students living there have reported the spirits of both women, with one student even waking up to find a white figure hovering over her as she slept. The Collins Theatre, located inside the Deming Fine Arts Center, also features a spirit, possibly that of one of Mary Baldwin’s most illustrious alums, the actress Tallulah Bankhead. The spirit in the theatre is known to mess with the stage lights.
CIVIL WAR MUSEUM AND EXCHANGE HOTEL (400 South Main Street) The Exchange Hotel has, in recent years, become one of the Southern meccas for ghost hunters. Opened on the eve of the Civil War, this hotel became one of the premier hospitals for the wounded during the Civil War. With so many deaths here, it’s no wonder that the place is crawling with ghosts. In one of my early blog entries, I’ve covered this location. At one time, the museum offered ghost walks, but I can currently find no information about these. This haunting was also covered on the Biography Channel show, My Ghost Story, first season, episode six.
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