Chills and Thrills in Haunted Aspen
Image above: Rhonda Steele uses WavePad Audio Editor to search for sounds emanating from super-natural realms
It’s not as though anyone claims that the Roaring Fork Valley is a ski-resort version of The Amityville Horror or The Shining. Still, the area has a past colorful enough that it includes much in the way of ghost-story fodder.
Stuff like barroom murders and the kinds of accidental deaths that verily demand that the unfortunate deceased stick around to haunt a hotel or a restaurant.
What follows is a tale of modern-day ghost hunting in Aspen, as well as the stories of several sites that have a reputation for mysterious happenings. Whether or not you’re already a believer, you’re apt to find something in this local lore that will make you wonder, “What if?”
Bumps In The Barroom Night
A paranormal team investigates a local watering hole with a history of unexplained occurrences.
Ryno’s Pub and Pizzeria in downtown Aspen harbors few of the characteristics usually associated with bastions of paranormal activity. Sure, it’s located below street level and, consequently, its windowless confines are dark. But there are no dangling cobwebs, creaky staircases, or crypts. With a wall full of blinking arcade games and modest décor, it does not come across as creepy.
The edifice that houses Ryno’s—the Bidwell Building, at the corner of East Cooper Avenue and South Galena Street—was constructed in the mid-1960s. So it’s not even that old, relatively speaking. The roof of the previous building on the site, the 82-year-old Tomkins Hardware Store, collapsed in 1965 from the weight of too much snow, and the place was consequently torn down. No one had perished when the roof fell.
Yet according to Ryan Sweeney, who opened Ryno’s in 2012, almost every one of his employees has had experiences that hover somewhere between odd, inexplicable, and scary. Many have been the chills running up the spines of bartenders when they are alone after closing time, wiping down the tables and wondering who seems to be staring at them from the shadows. “I don’t think I’ve had a bartender who hasn’t reported something strange happening,” Sweeney says.
“I’ve heard bartenders say that they’ve felt like someone else was in here, even when they knew they were alone,” he continues. “One of the strangest things is we’ve got stacks of kegs in the back. A full keg weighs about 160 pounds. And those will tip over at the end of the night. You’ll hear a crash. It’s not like a breeze came through and knocked them over. They are securely stacked.”
One bartender even contends he saw an apparition out of the corner of his eye: a man walking alongside a small child. (One wonders if Sweeney mentions this to prospective employees—“the hours are long, it can get really busy on weekends, and, oh yeah, we’re haunted.”)
Displaced beer kegs aside, Sweeney does not believe that whatever supernatural presence might be occupying Ryno’s is malevolent. “It’s not like anyone feels they are in danger,” he says. “It’s more like someone is messing with you. I was a skeptic till I had this place. But, now, well.... ”
The weirdness, according to Sweeney, is not specific to his business. “I heard that the wife of the owner of a rug store that occupied the space before I did refused to come down after dark,” he says. “And a previous tenant asked me when I was renovating the place, ‘You’re in here by yourself?’—like I was crazy. He mentioned workers of previous businesses—like the Flying Dog Brewery and the Howling Wolf—being freaked out.”
Listening attentively to Sweeney as he talks are five members of the Grand Junction–based Western Slope Paranormal Team who have journeyed to Aspen to investigate the alleged otherworldly goings-on at Ryno’s. All have had direct experiences with the paranormal world. Three of the five say they have actually seen ghosts.
The team is led by Rhonda Steele, who has been an avid paranormal investigator since 2007. She says her tendency is to debunk the presence of spirits unless strong evidence to the contrary presents itself. Steele spent her earliest years in Grand Junction, but, as the child of a Navy man and a former member of the military herself, she has spent her adult life living in locales as far-flung as Ethiopia, Scotland, the Azores, Japan, and, eventually, Virginia, where she assembled a well-regarded paranormal investigation team that operated for five years. She returned to Grand Junction in 2014, at which time she began building a new team.
Steele became interested in what popular culture now calls “ghost hunting” at an early age. “My friends and I would go camping, and we all really liked ghost stories,” she recalls. Years later, when Ghost Hunters started airing on television, Steele and a group of acquaintances were inspired to do their own inquiries. “We started building equipment and knowledge,” she says, “going out and meeting people and doing investigations.
“When I was five years old, I had a ghost in my room,” she continues. “There was a woman standing by a window, and I remember distinctly she had on a long, white dress. This woman kept showing up throughout my life. Not to me—I never saw her again. But my daughter saw her in the Azores and in other places. She followed us forever. In Virginia, my granddaughter saw her. She would play with smoke detectors and throw things across the room. When my husband died, she stopped following us.”
Sweeney has agreed to close Ryno’s early to accommodate Steele’s team. By the time the last customers leave, it is midnight. A full moon sits high over Aspen. The witching hour is upon the group. The team’s investigation will be multifaceted and begins with a quiver of gear that is surprisingly high-tech.
They first sweep the bar’s interior with handheld electromagnetic-field (EMF) detectors to determine from where electrical energy is being discharged. Apparently, paranormal activity frequently takes EMF form, and the team needs to differentiate static caused by, say, a large stereo system from that emitted by a ghost trying to communicate.
Once the EMF is mapped, several team members make their way to the bar’s catacomb-like bowels—a storeroom accessed by an ill-lit corridor that is lined with the aforementioned beer kegs. This is where Sweeney says the paranormal quotient is at its highest. Ryno’s non-creepy demeanor quickly dissipates. This part of the bar is indeed a tad spooky, especially in the presence of people who are trying to call forth residents of the spirit world.
Having set up a night-vision video camera in the corridor, Steele and two other team members—Tammy Fromm and Laura Dowlen—enter the storeroom, illuminated only by a flashlight placed on a folding chair. They hold EMF detectors and digital recorders. Then they begin what amounts to a Q&A session (heavy on the Q part) with the resident spirit(s).
As Steele explained later, “We were asking if anyone was with us, what their name was. If they were with us, to turn off the flashlight or knock on some of the metal or move something. We were not able to get any response.”
When that threesome gives up the ghost, as it were, they are replaced by Annette and Trey Lewis, who have been involved in paranormal investigations for more than a decade. They have brought with them a spirit box, which uses radio frequencies to digitally record paranormal voices. The box is monitored in real time via a set of headphones. It runs through the entire FM band backward. To the untrained ear, it sounds like little more than constant static overlaid by the type of noise old car radios made when the dial was continuously turned. Every few seconds, there is a pause in the static and a listener thinks, “Hey, wait, did I just hear a ghost trying to communicate with me?” But by the time that thought is finished, the sound is gone.
Trey poses a series of simple questions, like he is talking to a shy or recalcitrant child. “What is your name?” “Do you like us being here?” “How old are you?” “Do you live here?” “Are you angry with us?” “Why don’t you come out and talk to us?”
Once again, no obvious responses come. The flashlight beam remains steady. No objects are hurled across the room. No kegs are displaced. No blood-curdling screeches are emitted nor flashing red eyes seen. All in all, it is something of a letdown for an observer who was really, really hoping to see his first ghost, preferably doing something irrefutable, unambiguous, and dramatic. Well, not too dramatic—nothing that would require a subsequent exorcism.
According to Steele, it is rare but not unheard of for spirits to show themselves during these types of middle-of-the-night interrogations. She has indeed witnessed the flashlights that her team uses blink on and off and has seen the multicolored LEDs on the EMF devices—known as “ghost meters”—go wild. One time, during an especially captivating investigation, she heard a menacing growl from a spirit who apparently did not want anyone there.
Most times, whatever communication comes from the Other Side does not reveal itself until Steele later goes through the various digital recording devices, using WavePad Audio Editor. After some previous investigations, she has distinctly heard the words, “Gentlemen, come to ground”; “Tom’s wife”; “Get out of my house”; and, most chillingly, “I am still alive” at an abandoned prison in West Virginia.
In the main bar area, Annette Lewis attaches an external speaker to the spirit box. A flashlight has been placed nearby. She repeatedly asks the resident supernatural entity to announce its presence by turning off the flashlight, which is activated by a threaded switch rather than by a button. As the team chats—with the investigation clearly winding down—the flashlight suddenly goes off. Trey Lewis walks over and turns it back on. As his wife’s questioning continues, the light turns itself off again. Irrefutable evidence of a supernatural presence? Of course not. But at 2:30 a.m. in a dimly lit watering hole on a full-moon night, it captures everyone’s undivided attention.
By 3 a.m., however, with little left to investigate, Steele’s team has packed up to begin the long drive back to Grand Junction.
Sweeney seems a bit disappointed that the group has been unable to glean anything substantive, but he says he found the experience “interesting.” He does not indicate what he will tell his employees the next night.
A couple of days later, having painstakingly examined all of her recordings, Steele says, “I listen for an odd voice or sound. When we have as many people as we had at Ryno’s [nine total], with many voices that I was unaccustomed to hearing, it is a little more difficult. I think I heard the name ‘Mary’ on an audio recording. I also heard the sound of one of the microphones sliding across the surface of a shuffleboard game upon which it had been placed.”
Her verdict? “There may be some paranormal happenings there, but I cannot rule it haunted.” She adds, “I would have liked to have seen or heard more than we did. There are very high electromagnetic fields in the building, especially by the back of the bar. High EMF can cause the feelings of being watched, and of nausea and paranoia.”
As for the beer kegs getting knocked over?
“I can’t say for sure,” says Steele, adding that she would like to return to Ryno’s to delve deeper into what may or may not be lurking inside the bar.
She had better move fast, as, according to Sweeney, the Bidwell Building will soon be razed and the site redeveloped. And then the spirit that has reportedly occupied the space for all these years will suddenly find itself out in the cold, with no beer kegs to knock over and no bartenders to bother, along with all of the other ghosts of Aspen businesses past.
Other Haunted Places
Hotel Jerome and the Red Onion
The most-famous apparition at the Hotel Jerome is known as the Waterboy, according to Aspenite Dean Weiler, who offers the Aspen DarkSide Ghost Tour through his company, Aspen Walking Tours.
“A young kid drowned in the hotel swimming pool in the 1950s,” he says. “He’s been seen wandering around the hallways. He leaves wet footprints.” Local legend says he is looking for his parents.
The Jerome is also supposedly home to a “spirit maid.” “Typically, she will mess around with other maids,” Weiler says. “When they go out into the hallway to get towels after making a bed, she’ll rip the sheets off the bed and rearrange everything in the room.”
At the Red Onion, built in 1892, the spooky goings-on may date to a more recent incident.
“About 10 or 15 years ago, a woman that cleaned the bar early in the mornings would have experiences where she would see footsteps in a freshly mopped floor,” says Weiler. “She would re-do it, and those footsteps would show up again. She would see a guy in the back of the kitchen out of the corner of her eye.”
He continues, “The main story I have heard about that is that, in the 1970s, two guys worked at the Red Onion together in the kitchen. Both lived upstairs. One night during the employee meal, they had an argument. William Doyle Dean grabbed a knife and started plunging it into Billy Joe Richards’s chest and Richards died in a pool of blood on the floor. Dean was arrested and sent to prison. Is Richards the guy the cleaning woman sees out of the corner of her eye?”
In his tours, Weiler does not simply take rumors of paranormal activity and verbally run with them. A cultural anthropology major in college, he likes to research the potential underpinnings of local otherworldly legends before he integrates them into his tours. But, of course, he fully understands the difficulty of proving the veracity of a ghost story.
A Wife’s Revenge
The Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Country Day School shared location has also had some interesting inexplicable activity.
According to Kat Berg, who works in the fundraising department of the Aspen Music Festival, the legend of a ghost named Mad Bess permeates the campus. Mad Bess, says Berg, was the wife of Col. George Newman, who constructed what is now the administration building in 1903. The building was part of the Percy LaSalle Mining and Power Company, which Newman owned. Apparently, he was having an extramarital affair and, when she died, his wife stuck around to haunt the facility as something of a spousal retaliation.
“She has never been considered a scary ghost,” Berg says. “She moves things around. I’m not sure she has ever been visible. It’s more of a feeling. There’s a feeling there’s some kind of spirit in there. It’s one reason I don’t want to be in there after dark.”
Ironically, according to Berg, the building in which Newman was alleged to have his affair was actually the old foreman’s house—which means that Mad Bess might be haunting the wrong place.
A Love Affair and a Murder
If there’s one place in the valley that might as well have a neon sign outside saying “This Place is Haunted,” it would be the Hotel Colorado, which opened for business in 1893 in Glenwood Springs.
In fact, an entire booklet has been penned on the subject, Apparition Manor: True Ghost Stories of the Hotel Colorado, by Kathy Rippy Fleming (available at the Frontier Museum).
According to Bill Kight, executive director of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society, a female ghost has allegedly roamed the hallways of the Hotel Colorado since the US Navy used it as a convalescent hospital from 1945 to 1946. “That’s when one of the nurses supposedly got involved with two fellows, had an affair, and got killed by one of the men in a fit of rage,” he says.
Staff members call her “Bobbie,” short for her given name, Roberta. According to Fleming’s book, Bobbie enjoys going to the hotel’s dining room during lunch or dinner. Guests and staff say they smell her perfume—a distinctive mix called “Gardenia,” which was only produced in the 1930s and 1940s.
Fleming catalogues many more instances of supernatural visitations in the Hotel Colorado, including doors that inexplicably open and close and one staffer’s sighting of a man sitting on the balcony near the front door, smoking a cigar and dressed in clothes “not of our time.”
All Abuzz at the Museum
T he former home of the Aspen Art Museum is also considered haunted turf. The building, according to Nina Gabianelli, vice president of education and programming for the Aspen Historical Society, was originally the Hunter Creek Hydroelectric Plant. It was built on the river by the Roaring Fork Electric Light and Power Company. These two companies consolidated in 1887, and in 1889 the new company constructed the power plant that would later house the Aspen Art Museum until 2014.
Somewhere along the line, according to Heidi Zuckerman, who was CEO of the Aspen Art Museum for 14 years, an electrical worker was zapped to death in the old building. Among the ghostly activities experienced by museum staffers, one longtime employee, whom Zuckerman describes as very level-headed, was working on a project that required him to be on-site at 2 a.m. While standing near the front desk, the phone rang twice. Both times, the phone indicated that the calls were coming from an internal line, though no one else was in the building.
The worker called the police. Officers then tip-toed to the building’s second floor, where they felt a sudden rush of cold air, despite the fact that all doors and windows were closed and the climate-control system was not turned on.
“We brought in a medium who told me the museum had a portal to another dimension,” Zuckerman says. “She offered to close the portal. We paid her I think $250 to do so. We moved out of that building five years ago.”