On fourth floor of the stairway, the ghost meter went wild. This is where a little girl fell to her death in the 1930s.
Keith Scales, ghost tour manager of Eureka Springs, Arizona’s 1886 Crescent Hotel, told our group, “Guests near the stairwell often report being awakened by an attention-getting poke in the stomach and they see a little girl standing by their beds.”
Great. I have a benign-sounding – but horrifying to me – recurring nightmare: being poked hard in the stomach. And I was in room 406.
Not that the other ghosts of Eureka Springs’ 1886 Crescent sounded less scary. Michael, an Irish stonemason who died during the hotel’s construction, haunts 218. He prefers harassing women guests by grabbing their behinds or getting atop them when they sleep. Then there’s the ghost gurneys with squeaky wheels that roll dead bodies from what was once the “pain ward” on the third floor. The hotel was a cancer hospital for a few years in the ‘30s, run by the famous and charismatic quack Norman Baker. It also accounts for the notoriously haunted former morgue in the basement.
According to paranormal experts, the Crescent Hotel is the best known haunted building in this Arkansas town of 2,073. But it’s not the only one. For such a small, charming town, Eureka Springs has a lot of ghosts.
“I don’t know if it’s just the marketer in me, but we’ve made hundreds of thousands of people happy since 1886, so I think they’re coming back to enjoy themselves,” says Bill Ott, the Crescent’s marketing director. “We refer to the ghosts as our guests who checked out, but never left.”
Ott, who is also a Lutheran minister, Elvis impersonator and lifelong friend of Bill Clinton, describes the Crescent ghosts as Casparesque. He insists these friendly ghosts are “not out to get you.”
I try to remind myself of that at 1:00 a.m., post-ghost tour, as I sit on the old four poster bed. A dark wood wardrobe is in one corner, just the kind of place a ghost would dwell. I’m fully clothed, my feet tucked up under me so ghosts can’t grab my ankles. I cannot imagine turning out the lights, crawling under the covers and closing my eyes.
History of Eureka Springs
As one might guess from the name, mineral springs put Eureka Springs on the map. The Osage Indians regarded the valley as sacred because of the healing waters. In the 1850s, a white hunter used the water to heal his son from an inflammation called “granulated eyelids.” Soon the water was being sold around the country as Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water. Powell Clayton, Arkansas’ first post-Civil War governor, saw the area’s possibilities. The railroads built track at a cost of $25,000 per mile to get through the hilly terrain. At the end of the line, the Eureka Springs Improvement Company built the Crescent Hotel.
Standing in front of the vast, five-story building, it’s hard to believe it was originally an invitation-only hotel built for Clayton’s wealthy friends. When it opened in 1886, the Crescent was the grandest hotel west of the Mississippi River, boasting bowling lanes, stables for 100 horses, and a house orchestra.
But by the turn of the century, possibly due to advances in medicine and scientific thought, fewer people visited Eureka Springs to partake of the healing waters. The railroad pulled its money, and the Crescent floundered.
In the early 1900s, the building served as a conservatory for young ladies. During the Depression, it closed completely.
Enter Norman Baker, the man responsible for most of the Crescent’s ghosts. In 1937 he took over the Crescent, dubbing it Baker Cancer Curable Hospital. Best known as a radio broadcaster, Baker lacked a medical degree. But he had plenty of ideas about health, including a cancer “cure” made from cornsilk, clove, and watermelon seed.
My ghost-watching group pondered Baker’s legacy as we descended into the basement of the Crescent, also known as the morgue. There we watched a short video segment about when TAPS, the Atlanta Paranormal Society, visited in 2005. Those TV ghost hunters caught what appears to be a ghostly human image on their thermoimaging camera, which reads heat, right here in the morgue.
Our guide showed us the “parts room,” which contained preserved organs from Baker’s patients. These still sat in jars of formaldehyde when the current owner and her late husband bought the Crescent in 1997. It made me wonder about the hotel’s in-between owners.
Our ghost tour finished with a brief séance in Baker’s former autopsy room. We stood in a circle, the ghost meter pulsing rhythmically in the center. Scales asked the spirits to give us a sign of their presence. Nothing happened. The séance seemed a little silly, but I suspected that later, alone in our rooms, we wouldn’t be laughing.
The Crescent Today
By 1997, the Crescent had fallen into ruin when historic preservationists Elise and Marty Roenigk bought the building. They revitalized the Crescent and several other Eureka Springs properties, which made the couple local heroes. Marty Roenigk died in a car accident in 2009, but Elise still lives on the hotel’s fifth floor.
In addition to ghosts, today’s Crescent is known for the New Moon Spa and fine dining in the 1886 Steakhouse. I ate at the steakhouse, a Wine Spectator award-winner. The chef happily accommodated my vegetarianism, making me zucchini and squash boats stuffed with eggplant, sautéed spinach, peppers and mushrooms.
I also visited the Sky Bar, which has won local awards for best pizza in town. But I wasn’t there for the gourmet pizza and calzones. I closed the bar down after the ghost tour, chatting with my fellow ghost-seekers and avoiding the gut-poking spirit who almost certainly was planning a visit to room 406. Scales had warned us that the peak ghost time was 3:00 to 3:30 a.m., just three hours away.
Eventually the bar closed. I trudged to my room and sat on my bed. Tried calling home. My phone failed. Great. No cell service, but plenty of ghosts.
My mind wandered to sociable, brightly-lit places. Like the enormous hotel lobby, loaded with Victorian furniture in keeping with its Golden Age of Railroad Travel theme.
Grabbing my book, phone and room key, I dashed back out the door, hurrying down the haunted stairwell. No way was I chancing being stuck in an elevator with a ghost.
In the lobby, I approached the night clerk and asked him if a nervous guest would be rousted from the Victorian sofa.
He smiled. “Nah. Happens about once a month.”
With bright lights shining and ‘30s swing music blaring, sleeping on the lobby sofa didn’t make for the most restful night. I dozed, then woke with the eerie feeling that something was watching me. I forced myself to open my eyes. I was staring into the bulging yellow eyes of a black and white cat. Later I found out the hotel has two cats, Caspar and Jasper.
In the morning, I asked other guests how they’d slept. Several were disappointed at not encountering a ghost. Two stayed awake until three, then slept with the lights on. One young woman seemed utterly freaked out, saying a ghost had been pulling on her legs all night. Was it Michael, the Irish stone mason? Or was she just pulling my leg?
The Crescent is a gorgeous property, masterfully restored. Go for a visit. Take the ghost tour. But if you’re as wimpy as me, you might want to spend the night somewhere with a less storied past. Say, a Hilton. – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor