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Ghostly heritage of Fort Lewis

Northwest Guardian Staff

Published: 01:08PM October 24th, 2013

When Joint Base Lewis-McChord children peel off their costumes after trick or treating Thursday night, the make-believe ghouls and hobgoblins will be gone until next Halloween.

But, if the stories told for decades are true, there’ll be no shortage of paranormal presences on base.

From phantom platoons singing cadences on Lewis North roads to cowboy spirits wafting through the Lewis Army Museum, tales of spectres on JBLM’s former Army side, Fort Lewis, have been told since the installation’s founding in 1917.

Apparently the McChord Field portion of the joint base is too young and modern to develop its own haunted heritage. But there are enough examples from the Army side to make up for the lack of blue ghouls.

Paranormal researcher Jefferson Davis of Vancouver, Wash., believes the base is ideally suited for the accumulation of ghost stories.

Davis, an Army Reserve major who’s written five books on paranormal activity in the Northwest, says the former Fort Lewis was once the site of pioneer homesteads and still contains the remnants of early cemeteries and monuments. He believes the area’s long history of occupancy, combined with the emotional intensity of military life, provides fertile ground for otherworldly events.

“There’s continuity — even though people and Soldiers come and go, nobody leaves all at the same time,” Davis said.

“There’s always somebody there to carry the memory on and pass it on to somebody else. Second, let’s face it, if you’re in the military, you live on the edge of a lot of life and death issues. That kind of intensity permeates the atmosphere of places.”

For example, Davis tells of a haunting in the early 1970s at the Centurion Theater, an Army playhouse once located in the logistics area of the post. The theater was believed to occupy a former pioneer site, he says.

“One of the people who was working backstage actually encountered the spirit of an older man wearing overalls and a plaid shirt,” Davis said. “The living individual was actually standing on a ladder. He looked over his shoulder and saw this guy behind him, floating in the air.”

The Fort Lewis Military Museum has long been reputed to be the hub of paranormal activity on post — so much so that almost 30 years ago, the Fort Lewis and I Corps commanding general permitted an exorcism at the facility.

According to the April 16, 1987, edition of the Fort Lewis Ranger (the post newspaper at the time) an actor in a silent western movie filmed on post was murdered in an upstairs room at the museum, which was then a guest house called the Red Shield Inn. Soon after, employees and visitors to the inn began seeing an apparition in cowboy clothing appearing in hallways.

Decades later, the inn was converted to a museum, but ghostly sightings reportedly continued. In one encounter, guards reported a cowboy leaving the building by passing through a closed, locked door. Former museum director Barbara Bower worried that the situation was getting out of hand.

“Things weren’t getting done,” Bower told The Fort Lewis Ranger in 1987. “Everybody was talking about the ghost. Something had to be done.”

History gets a bit ephemeral at this point. Corps and installation commander, Maj. Gen. Richard E. Cavazos, 1977-1980, reportedly consented to an exorcism. The story says three Catholic priests conducted the rites in the second floor room where the actor had been killed. Later, they told Bower the actor’s spirit spoke briefly with them and then vanished. The exorcism seemed to do the trick, and cowboy hauntings at the museum ended.

But no record of the exorcism exists. Current Army Museum director Myles Grant and his staff have tried to corroborate the the story with no success. The Catholic Church keeps diligent records of exorcisms, and several local organizations checked their archives on behalf of the museum. However, the Seattle Archdiocese has no record that it carried out such a ritual.

It’s possible that the event was carried out by Army chaplains, or perhaps was done informally to crush a rumor or up publicity. But so far Grant’s research has yet to confirm that such a murder ever even took place. He’s not ready to give up on confirming the historical side of the story just yet, though.

“It’s plausible,” Grant said.

The museum was the site of other strange goings-on. In “Ghosts, Critters and Sacred Places of Washington and Oregon III,” Davis reports that one night in 1999, post military policemen responded to an alarm at the museum. When they arrived, they found the building locked with no alarms tripped. They returned to the MP station, only to have the sequence repeat itself again and again.

During the same period, other MPs reported unexplained lights and feelings of dread when approaching the facility. Davis’ book also records an evening visit to the museum by two MPs and a girlfriend; the three were so overcome with anxiety they ran back to their car and left — but not before the girlfriend saw a figure peering through an upstairs window.

A military historian, Davis once worked briefly at the museum at the end of an active duty tour and had his own experience with the mysterious alarms.

“The alarm had gone off one morning when I was getting ready to go in,” he said.

“So (when the police arrived), I just asked the MPs, ‘Is it the ghost?’ They just rolled their eyes and said ‘yeah,’ but a couple of them that I talked to firmly believed there were weird things going on.”

Davis also says the museum itself may not be haunted. He says the historical exhibits could be the real focal point for spectral energy, left over from the items’ former owners.

“Some types of hauntings are not necessarily self-aware spirits,” he said. “It’s just a lot of energy that gets released in the environment, and it continues to play itself out, over and over again.”

Former museum director Alan Archambault said he heard the stories for years and even had a Soldier report a “shadowy figure” in the hallways about 17 years ago. But he added that, while the ghost stories are useful in quieting unruly children visiting the museum, he has never seen or heard a ghost. He’d like to.

“I’d have lots of questions to ask him,” Archambault said. “So I’m eagerly awaiting a ghost, but to date, no such luck.”

Dozens of websites devoted to paranormal activity cite unexplained events on Lewis North. One oft-repeated tale reports the sound of Soldiers running and singing cadences hours before sunrise, well before normal physical training times. When residents look outside to see who’s running past, no one is there.

Family housing and guest quarters are also settings for ghost stories. Davis recounts the story of members of a family who were followed by the spirit of a woman, from an off-base temporary apartment to an assigned housing unit in what is now the Beachwood area.

Another tale from the book has local billeting staffers describing supernatural experiences at Bronson Hall, the installation’s distinguished visitors’ quarters.

Even Fort Lewis’ namesake is well-known among ghost hunters. Meriwether Lewis, whose death has been the subject of controversy among historians for almost two centuries, is believed to haunt a park named in his honor near Hohenwald, Tenn. The park contains a monument marking Lewis’ burial site, about 200 yards from the former site of Grinder’s Stand, a cabin that offered shelter to travelers along the Natchez Trace. Lewis died of gunshot wounds at Grinder’s Stand under suspicious circumstances, and his ghost is reported to wander the area, crying out at night.

Closer to home, Davis — who says he’s never seen a ghost himself — might have missed his chance while living in a World War II-era building on Lewis North while on active duty.

He said he thought he heard people calling cadence at 3 or 4 a.m.

“I was just too lazy to get up and look out the window.”