If you’re ever around a campfire and want to hear a good ghost story, Chet Caskey is the person to tell it. But be warned, Chet’s tales of things that go bump in the night are all true—at least as far as he knows.
“I don’t make up anything. It’s not fiction. These are things that people have talked about for sometimes 150 years,” says Chet, who with his wife and partner Cathy, has been leading the paranormal-curious on ghost tours of Spokane’s most haunted neighborhoods and cemeteries.
“The academic approach to history, especially around Spokane, is very, very dry and leaves out quite a lot,” says Chet. Before retiring here from New Orleans in 2006, he had been an attorney whose practice took him to many corners of the globe and exposed him to the spiritual beliefs and practices of diverse people on five continents.
While serving as the historian for the Fairmount Association, founded in 1888 and now operates seven memorial parks and cemeteries in the county, Chet authored Guide to Spokane’s Historic Cemeteries, and because of demands for ghost stories during historic tours of the cemeteries, he followed up his first book with Haunted Spokane: Ghosts & Dark Places in the Lilac City.
Chet draws many of the local legends from Native American lore that goes back 350 years in the oral tradition. When settlers moved into the Spokane River Valley in the 1860s, they discovered a large Indian burial ground with thousands of unmarked graves at the confluence of the Spokane River and Latah Creek. Also known as Hangman’s Creek, the small body of water adjacent to Downtown Spokane, is said to be cursed—as progress has impeded on sacred grounds—and very alive with unsettled spirits of the deceased.
The Great Fire of Spokane in 1880 is another source of spooky tales. For many years afterward, the city council notoriously claimed that only three or four people had died in the disaster, but as Chet details, there were ten hotels that collapsed in the fire and who knows how many lives lost.
One of the most infamous haunts in Downtown Spokane is the Saranac Building on West Main Street. In its previous life, the Saranac, built in 1909, was a single-room occupancy hotel, and during its heyday—a popular brothel. The ghost often seen in the building is that of “Isabella,” the bawdyhouse matron. Witnesses who’ve glimpsed Isabella’s ghost say there’s nothing sinister about her presence and that she just seems to be keeping an eye on her old haunt.
Whoever or whatever inhabited the Monaghan Mansion on the Gonzaga campus was quite the opposite. The magnificent victorian home, that today houses the school’s music conservatory, was constructed in 1889 by James “Spokane Jim” Monaghan, one of the Lilac City’s most beloved early citizens. He died in his bed in the mansion in 1916. All was peaceful until many years later when strange disturbances began taking place inside.
You’d expect to hear music in a music building—but not when there isn’t anyone around to play it. Security guards witnessed floating and flashing lights, a blackboard in the attic flying across the room, and felt a hostile force holding and trying to strangle them. A 1974 newspaper interview with Father Walter Leedle, quoted the Gonzaga music professor as observing unexplained sounds that were “too frightening to describe.” In one instance, Father Leedle heard growling and snarling from behind a locked basement door. “Honest to God,” reported the priest, “I don’t know what that was … but I can say that Christians pray to God to protect us from ‘them.’”
“The spirit world is just like the living world,” Chet points out. “You have the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Browne’s Addition, Chet says, is, without a doubt, the most haunted spot in Spokane. Not because it’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, but because its development namesake JJ Browne plowed over Chinese cemeteries. Since then, skeletons and coffins have been unearthed by crews building apartments and putting in sewer lines.
“The implications of the movie Poltergeist are inescapable,” Chet says.
The grim reaper comes in many forms. In the early 1920s, it appeared as an infectious disease known as tuberculosis. Those infected with respiratory disease often suffered bloody, excruciating deaths, as there would be no real cure for tuberculosis, known as the white plague, until streptomycin was invented in 1943. Because of TB’s violently infectious nature, the inflicted were shuttered away in sanatariums where there would be no public contact. Spokane had two sanatariums—Edgecliff, a 12-acre complex on South Park Road, east of city limits, and the Hillyard Sanatarium, a smallish building, which according to a 1928 map, was located at Diamond Avenue and Cook Street.
In his book, Haunted Hillyard: The History & Folklore of Spokane’s Oldest Suburb, Chet recounts that for many years after the Hilllyard Sanitarium was closed in the 1970s, its sole resident was a woman by the name of Twyla. She frequently heard voices and whispers in the building, as well as other strange happenings like doors slamming shut and locking on their own. A visit by Dr. Candess Campbell, Spokane’s most noteworthy psychic medium revealed that Twyla may not hot been the only remaining occupant.
“There is grief here … there is sadness and hopelessness coming from a woman,” Campbell reported. “She is trying to cope with crises upon crisis—seemingly endless crisis.”
Still, it seems that graveyards have people’s senses most on edge. Greenwood Memorial Terrace is where many of Spokane’s first high society people are buried. What history records, says Chet are mostly, “Subscription Biographies,” in which the rich and famous sponsored their own versions of their accomplishments and left out the darker details. Like that of James Glover, who had his estranged wife, Susan Tabitha Crump, locked away in Eastern State Hospital for the Insane, in Medical Lake, where she spent the last 22 years of her life, and was buried in the patient cemetery, in a grave marked only with a number: 734, while he is memorialized at Greenwood with a monument inscribed, “The father of Spokane.”
At the entrance to the second terrace at Greenwood is the final resting place of Anthony Cannon, Spokane’s second mayor, who amassed millions of dollars through banking, milling and real estate development, but died broke in New York City in 1895. His body was brought back to Spokane aboard a train, and was entombed at the park-like cemetery he owned and designed.
Cannon’s original plan for the Greenwood property was as the starting point for his own railroad—he even began building a depot before the railroad went under in 1889. Ironically, after Cannon’s death, the Northern Pacific—his chief competitor, built a 2,200 feet tunnel beneath the cemetery, and trains regularly passed—and blew their whistles—within yards of his final resting place, until the tunnel was closed in the 1970s.
“Were these taunts sufficient to disquiet the dead?” asked Chet in his book, Haunted Spokane. “In short, ‘yes, they were,’ and even after the tracks were removed and the tunnel sealed … the occasional metaphysically ignorant Greenwood Cemetery visitor at night reported seeing a heavily bearded ghost appear as if emerging from the rock encasing the sealed tunnel to the west of Cannon’s grave and monument.”
On a visit to the property with Chet, he leans down to point out a small white headstone barely two feet tall marking the grave of Lillie May Plumber who died in 1891. She was just three years old. Groundskeepers at the cemetery all have stories of seeing Lillie, who appears in the form of an adult woman, demanding that the grounds be kept just so.
Greenwood is also the location of a crumbling stone staircase, dubbed “The Thousand Steps” that ascend to a plot of land reserved for members of Spokane’s Elks Lodge, founded in 1892. The story goes that those brave enough to reach the top at night will hear the shrieks and cries of the dead and feel something akin to rain on their skin.
But Chet prophesies that the key to the identity of spirits—usually cast in glowing green hues on the steps, is the abandoned remains of the Elks Place Mausoleum, once crowned with a majestic bronze elk statue and protected by bronze gates. Sometime around 1980, the lodge was in financial crisis, and in a last effort to stave off creditors, pillaged their own memorial of its ornamental pieces to sell as scrap metal. The only thing left was a clock over the entrance with its hands frozen at the 11th hour—significant as the lodge historically conducts a charming ceremonial known as the “Eleven O’clock Toast” at meetings and social functions in remembrance of their brothers who have passed.
“Perhaps it was an oversight. Perhaps it was something more spiritual and intentional. Now the hands droop down … what a reminder of the failure of their brother Elk to honor the spirits of their dead,” Chet writes. “It is for their own dishonorable brother Elks the ghosts of Elks Place search—and with a vengeance.”
“Ghost hunters say that what makes a ghost is a surge of electromagnetic energy right at the point of death that leaves behind a shadow. It could be great love or a young woman tortured by a serial killer,” Chet says. “But most often it’s some injustice.”
As for Chet’s own belief in the existence of ghosts, he likes to keep an open mind. There was however, one time when he was leading a cemetery tour and suddenly the cell phones of everyone in the group went wild with static—you have to wonder if somebody was trying to welcome with the living or warn them that this realm belongs to the dead.
“Human beings see and hear things that are both there and not there. When we have tours and I talk about the ghost stories, it’s like a coming out for people to relate their own experiences,” Chet says. “Ninety percent of people in this country believe in ghosts, and I’m suspicious that the 10 percent who say they don’t, are carrying around some ghostly baggage.”