BAKER CITY — I sat cross-legged on a cold concrete floor in the dark basement of the Geiser Grand Hotel, my breathing shallow, my senses heightened.
A shadow appeared to flit from behind some cardboard boxes stacked against one wall. “My god!" Shane Anderson, who sat beside me, whispered. “Did you see something there?"
Anderson is a lead investigator for the International Paranormal Reporting Group. Based in Boise, Idaho, his agency is affiliated with The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), which investigates reports of ghosts and other unexplained activity throughout the world. Perhaps best known for the television series “Ghost Hunters," regularly shown on the Syfy cable channel, the society supports research groups in cities around the world.
Quietly, Anderson handed me a headset. “These amplify any sounds," he assured me. I slipped them on. “Let me know if you hear anything unusual."
He cleared his throat and clearly addressed the spirit of a young girl he speculated might be wandering the room — on another plane of consciousness. “We’d like to speak with you," he said. “Are you alone here? Can you give us some sign that you can hear us?"
“What do you think I might expect to hear?" I asked Anderson. “Electronic voice phenomena," he replied. “We’re looking for intelligent responses."
Perhaps it was the power of suggestion. Perhaps it was the frequent reports of paranormal activity in the Geiser Grand, a circa-1889 hotel that welcomes the ghost hunters to come monthly for public “investigations." But at that moment, I could have sworn that I heard a child’s voice rise above the breathing and mumbled conversations of a handful of other skeptics who joined me on the midnight tour.
The Queen City
In its heyday, Baker City — 230 miles (a five-hour drive) northeast of Bend, most of it on U.S. Highway 26 through Prineville — was known as the “Queen City of the Mines."
Homesteaded by a handful of Oregon Trail travelers, it was properly settled during the Civil War era and boomed with major gold strikes in the Elkhorn Mountains shortly thereafter. When the transcontinental railroad arrived in the 1880s, Baker City quickly became the richest community in Oregon.
Built in the midst of this halcyon era, the Geiser Grand was quickly labeled the finest hotel between Salt Lake City and Seattle. It boasted electricity and an elevator, only the third such device west of the Mississippi River at the time. Miners, cattle barons, politicians and world travelers mingled beneath the clock-tower cupola and under the stained-glass ceiling of the three-story Italianate building.
Baker City’s boom lasted until about 1910. The city persisted as a ranching center with a population that has hovered around 10,000 for decades. Little emphasis was placed on local history until 1977, when a student intern for a state agency documented the extent of its historical district.
Suddenly, the city had a new treasure: more than 100 significant buildings, many of them built of brick, others of locally quarried volcanic tuff.
Identified and organized into a national historic district, they are now readily explored on walking tours offered by the Historic Baker City organization.
The Geiser Grand, however, had already been abandoned and written off as beyond repair. As soon as the cast of “Paint Your Wagon," filmed in the Baker City area in 1968, had vacated their rooms at the hotel, it was boarded up and scheduled for demolition to make room for a parking lot.
That never happened, of course. The Geiser stood derelict until 1993, when it was purchased by historic preservationist Barbara Sidway and her husband, Dwight, already known nationally for their restoration of south Florida’s Biltmore Hotel and Venetian Pool.
A painstaking $7 million renewal took more than four years to complete. When the Geiser reopened in 1998 — a 30-room hotel with every modern amenity — it received special recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The story of Baker City is told in many places around town, including two fine museums.
The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is eight miles east of Baker City atop Flagstaff Hill and beside the tracks that brought hundreds of wagon trains through the Baker Valley in the 1840s and 1850s. The impressive facility displays full-scale dioramas of life on the trail, complete with sound bites of passages from travelers’ journals.
The Baker Heritage Museum is housed in a spacious building that once held a public swimming pool. Its highlights include a re-creation of Main Street, circa 1900, and one of the finest collections of rocks, minerals and fossils you’re likely to see anywhere. It also features a diorama of No Name City from “Paint Your Wagon," the 1968 movie that starred Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.
But perhaps a better way to capture a sense of Baker City’s heritage is simply to walk around downtown and through the adjacent residential neighborhoods — looking at historic residences like the Adler House, built in 1889 and the lifetime home of longtime local businessman Leo Adler. It is now a museum, open summers and by appointment.
Even more telling are conversations with local residents, some of whom can trace their local roots back to the 19th century.
One of them is Davey Peterson, who owns Peterson’s Gallery and Chocolatier with his wife, Alyssa. Peterson told me that his great-grandfather staked a claim in an Elkhorn Range mine well over 100 years ago. Today, his Main Street gallery features monthly-changing shows by local artists and Alyssa’s own artisan chocolate candies.
Another resident is Cody Cook, who is often found making espresso drinks behind the coffee bar at the Bella Main Street Market. When Cody’s older brother, Travis, came back from Oregon State University five years ago with a horticulture degree and a passion for winemaking, her parents and grandparents helped him turn two acres of the longtime family farm into vineyards. Today MotherLode Cellars — located, of course, on Cook Road — is making four different wines and establishing a presence in the Eastern Oregon marketplace.
And then there’s saddle maker Bill Huston, who has worked in his industry for a full half-century, since 1962. He still operates a tiny shop on First Street in downtown Baker City, where he continues to develop the perfect saddle — that is, a soft, tree-less saddle that is nevertheless true to Western tradition. “You can’t make a rigid structure, like a saddle tree, fit a horse that moves around all the time, without hurting it," he explained.
With their deep family roots, one must wonder if the spirits of any Petersons, Cooks or Hustons might still be dancing the nights away at the Geiser Grand.
Barbara Sidway believes her hotel, the Geiser Grand, is the only one in the country that offers paranormal tours. There’s a reason for that: “Not a week goes by that I don’t get some kind of report," she said. “The fabulous thing about our ghosts is they really don’t frighten anybody. They just want to have fun."
Ghost hunters concur. “There is nothing in this hotel that is negative," Shane Anderson tells those on his tour. “Please try not to scream and please don’t run. Just don’t freak out."
The Sidways, who lived in the hotel as they renovated, became acquainted with their ghosts early on. Several times, Barbara said, they were awakened in the early-morning hours by the sound of a party.
“I heard the conversation, the laughter, the clinking of glasses, the soft music," she told me. “I know a party when I hear one. I put my ear to the wall and I could feel the vibration of the music. Later, I heard reports of the same thing from guests, employees, even bartenders who worked here in the years before the closures."
Since that time, partygoers have been seen laughing and sipping champagne, standing on a balcony above the Palm Court dining room, dressed in the fashions of the Roaring Twenties. More often, just a single dark-haired woman is seen there, wearing a flowing blue Victorian dress. “She apparently hung herself after her cowboy boyfriend was shot," a server nonchalantly explained.
Dennise “Denny" Grosse, 81, leads historic property tours of the Geiser, invariably outfitted in the garb of the hotel’s early heyday. When I joined her, she described the condition of the hotel before — plywood covering holes left where bricks had fallen, pigeon droppings covering the floors — and after it was purchased by the Sidways, whose restoration included an illuminated stained-glass ceiling and a rebuilt clock tower.
In the basement, after passing through a wide room with displays of historical photographs and century-old stock certificates, she led me into a meeting space that, in a different property, might have been a wine cellar. The walls of volcanic tuff exhibit high-water lines from pre-renovation flooding — but more intriguing were subterranean windows on a far well that were used for more than hotel deliveries.
“Baker City was the brothel capital of the West," Grosse said with a shrug. “These windows were the entrance to tunnels that extended a couple of blocks to Second Street. Young Leo Adler, who started out selling magazines on the streets, made quite a bit of money by providing a ‘cover’ for the men coming in and out of these tunnels."
The prostitutes’ rooms were on the third floor of the hotel. Its early owner, Maybelle Geiser, lived in Room 302 beneath the clock tower — a room that has had more associated reports of hauntings than any other. Jewelry is rearranged. Snacks are stolen. Strange knocking sounds are heard from the outside wall.
“Maybelle had her own chair in the bar downstairs," Grosse said. “No one else could sit there. After she died, anyone who sat in that chair would still find themselves getting pinched."
‘Energy never dies’
I entered Room 302 sometime between 10 and 11 at night, accompanied by eight other ghost “tourists" and paranormal investigator Anderson, as well as Marie Cuff, executive director of the International Paranormal Reporting Group, and trainee Katie Garrett. Claiming more than 26 years of experience between them, the team took photos and digital recordings in an effort to find video and audio evidence.
I sensed nothing out of the ordinary.
“This is a full-fledged scientific investigation," Anderson had assured us. “Our goal is to provide evidence and educate the public."
Beginning at 9 p.m., we changed locations within the hotel every hour or so, until after 1 in the morning. The basement storage chamber was the only place where I had any perception of something out of the ordinary. Then again, it might have been my mind playing tricks.
“There are believers, there are skeptics and there are cynics," Anderson acknowledged. “I am a skeptic. I believe there’s something going on, but I do not believe in ghosts. I have not seen an entity or a ghost."
But that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to look.
“Einstein theorized that energy never dies," he said. “A ghost is just a collection of unexplainable energy that manifests. And after four years working in this hotel, we know there is a high level of energy here."
On Saturday, the TAPS crew will return for its monthly hotel “research" tour, beginning at 9 p.m. The following weekend, Nov. 2-4, the Geiser will host its third annual Paranormal Weekend with investigators from all over Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
It’s a fine way to indulge the spirit of Halloween. And, who knows: You might see a real ghost.