As the country begins to reopen, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
Construction on the St. James Hotel was delayed twice, but it’s the second time that counts: it was then that the Red Wing, Minnesota hotel’s 11 builders—businessmen who pooled $60,000 to construct the building in 1875, largely to accommodate the frontier town’s rail- and river-trade traffic—were made aware of a Sioux burial ground beneath the plot. Presumably, in part, to avoid scaring away the guests before there even were any, building ceased until the remains could be moved. (It seems to me that forcing the dead to relocate is more likely to irritate them into haunting than simply letting them be, but it’s much too late to argue about how to handle what the men found.)
In that way, the St. James Hotel fulfills the two most basic requirements for a modern-day haunting: proximity to a Native American burial ground, and construction in a year that would someday sound very old.
The hotel was sold to a young man named Charles Lillyblad just after the turn of the century, a few years before he’d meet and marry a waitress named Clara who worked in the building’s restaurant. Charles died in 1931, and Clara ran the St. James until she passed in 1972. It was her husband who purchased it, but the hotel was Clara’s—for her renowned cooking and her affable, generous spirit, the St. James was frequently called “Clara’s Place” by people in town.
When guests and employees talk about seeing a ghost here, it’s usually hers. They see her sitting in the chairs in their rooms. One poor man left the hotel at 2:00 a.m. one night after reporting seeing her floating above his bed. (What was she wearing, I wonder? In If Walls Could Talk: A Story of the Old St. James, Clara is described as a “snazzy” dresser. I suppose it isn’t fair to expect the guest to have noticed.) Others have reported meeting ghostly resistance upon trying to move her favorite dining room table—anal-retentiveness even in the afterlife being something I can pretty easily imagine as a future problem of my own.
Clara has now been the star of the St. James for over 80 years. When Rylee and I book a night in the hotel, it’s her who we’ll be looking for.
WHEN SCOTT, THE HOTEL’S patient and good-humored rooms manager, describes Clara and the establishment’s history to us, I find myself inexplicably disappointed by how lovely she sounds, as if the only worthy ghost is a bitter one—as though seeing the ghost of a formerly adored person would be any less terrifying than seeing one who in life was despised, one whose death was much darker. So when Scott goes on to say that other guests and housekeepers report seeing (and hearing) the ghost of a little girl who, years and years ago, fell into the hotel’s basement well and drowned, I feel a small thrill. Which is obviously terrible. It’s just that little-girl ghosts (the laughing! The hair bows! The singing!) are the spookiest kind there is. They are the real deal.
Scott tells us these stories with the help of a three-ring binder of documents—witness accounts, results of previous investigations—he put together for guests interested in the St. James’ haunted history. Scott is my favorite kind of self-proclaimed skeptic, which is to say he really isn’t one. I’ve met so many people who label themselves this way, who also, as though they see no contradiction, fervently watch Ghost Hunters marathons and refuse to linger in dark, drafty spaces. When Scott says he doesn’t believe, I don’t believe him—especially when he produces a K-II meter just like the ones they use on TV.
We had planned to supplement our senses with a ghost-hunting app we downloaded onto our iPhones, but we take the proffered K-II for the night as well. While I wholeheartedly believe in spooks, I’m not sure I buy the idea that they can be evidenced by battery-operated tools (much less cell phones). Still, holding the K-II makes me feel official.
When we walk out of the hotel for a dinner that is 70 percent Wisconsin cheese curd, it’s snowing: the big, glittery, fake-looking kind. It can’t be more than three or four degrees out: a joke temperature—too cold to seem fair and too warm to seem deliberate. On the somewhat treacherous walk back, it is colder (and windier) still. It is perfect ghost weather—precipitation, and a chilled un-forgivingness that forces you into the nearest grand and haunted shelter.
To start, Rylee and I walk downstairs (along a line of portraits of the original owners, five of whom, given their high EMF readings, are apparently ghosts, while the other six have either moved on, or are good liars) into the historic lobby, off of which sit a small, gorgeous library and Clara’s pristine dining room. The dining room is the darkest and creepiest, so it’s there we sit: in the middle, at Clara’s favorite table.
Before my butt even touches the seat, I’m flattering her out of self-defense. They do this on the shows: talk to the ghosts; let them know you’re there. “Hello Clara, thank you for having us. You have a terrific hotel. I hear you were a really good cook. Everyone loved you. And ... I think it’s cool that you were a woman running your own business.” I ask her to greet us if she wants, but not in a scary way, and especially not in our room later on. Rylee takes a less conciliatory approach, scratching the tablecloth lightly with her fingernail. It makes the EMF light up and I hiss at her, “Stop it! Oh my God, stop.” I might have spoken to Clara, provoking her in my own way, but that doesn’t mean I want her to respond.
And she doesn’t, really. Our ghost hunting apps do chirp a number of times, a minute or two apart each time—this being the phone version of EVP, supposedly using the phone’s magnometer to measure fluctuations in the electromagnetic spectrum and converting them into words in a process that seems arbitrary at best—uttering a string of meaningless (I think?) words: “car, Calvin, your, cough, finish, Florine, point, able, tend, face, sun, Elwood.” If Clara’s trying to tell us something, she is not especially well spoken, and possibly a little crazy.
Were we filmed in night vision, this would have been enough for a whole show. In person, without the dramatic score, it feels anticlimactic.
That’s how it is on TV, too, for the most part: mostly they find nothing. But we still watch, just in case. We still sleep in these buildings, just to see. I use “sleep” loosely—not for lack of comfort, which the hotel is brimming with, but because, despite myself, I’m scared. The red TV off-light frightens me for a second, and so does the chandelier, which, at 2:00 a.m., with my terrible vision, looks a lot like something black floating over my bed. I wonder how, if at all, ghost sightings correspond to corrective eye prescriptions as strong as mine. But that’s another question I don’t really want the answer to.
In the morning, when we do a last sweep of the room, the K-II flashes wildly when held over the spot on the bed in front of Rylee’s laptop. In my head, this is because Clara is checking her email. And with ghosts I think that’s how it goes: the in-the-head version might as well be the version that counts.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.