Echoes from the Past

The Winthrop

If you’re ever walking around downtown Tacoma, the Winthrop Apartment building is somehow easy to miss. Though it towers at 12 stories and looms over Tacoma’s Antique Row, the flashing lights of the Pantages Theater directly across the street almost make it blend into the background. 

But if the walls of the 94-year-old building could talk, you’d likely hear them as you walked by. 

“Sometimes on our tours, we’ll have someone talk about something weird they know about going on in the Winthrop when we pass it,” said Andrew Hansen, co-owner of Tacoma Ghost Tours. “Reportedly, the whole building is haunted. In all of its history, it’s the site of a huge number of suicides, murders, and drug overdoses.” 

The building’s beginnings were grandiose and highly anticipated by all of Tacoma. Built in 1925 as a luxury hotel, the Winthrop was one of the city’s main attractions: The place to stay for celebrities and wealthier tourists. Those early years were draped in opulence — the building had everything from a rooftop garden and penthouse to a telephone in every room and a stunning ballroom.

But early on, news headlines hinted at trouble at the Winthrop — and gave reason, perhaps, for people to believe in its haunting. In November 1924, a man fell 10 stories from the building; in 1946, a 21-year-old girl fell seven to her death. Just before Christmas in 1927, two escaped convicts tried to rob the hotel, one of whom was killed in the lobby by a detective. In 1996, a woman fell down the elevator shaft.

Hansen has a couple of stories that make the building stand out among the rest of downtown’s — all of which, he said, are pretty haunted, too. 

“There was this mysterious dual suicide in 1939,” Hansen said. “Two people, a couple, had stayed past their checkout time. When they were found, they were both dead, and there was a big jar of chloroform on the nightstand.” 

The couple had registered as Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Williams of St. Louis, Missouri, but when the police investigated their deaths, there was no missing couple by those names — and the couple had no identifiers on them. They were both buried in Tacoma as unknowns. 

Hansen’s other peculiar story? Well, it involves UFOs and one of the earliest alleged sightings of the Men in Black. 

“On June 21, 1947, (some) fishermen were in a boat on the shores of Maury Island when they saw six flying objects appear in the sky,” Hansen said, describing what later would be known as the “Maury Island Incident.” 

The men in the boat included Harold Dahl, his son, and their dog — who was allegedly killed by debris that fell from the sky after Dahl spotted the objects. The following morning, Dahl said he was taken to breakfast by a man in a black suit who warned him against talking about the incident. Dahl, however, didn’t comply. 

Dahl and his superior, Fred Crisman, who had been on the shore the day of the sighting but who doubted Dahl’s story, became looped into an investigation started by private pilot Kenneth Arnold — who said he saw nine objects flying past Mount Rainier when he was out in his plane three days after the Maury Island Incident. Arnold’s was the first widely known UFO sighting, and the one that led to the coining of the term “flying saucer.” 

Illustration by Jorgen Burt

With the help of Raymond Palmer, editor of Fate Magazine, Arnold began looking into the Maury Island Incident in an attempt to further corroborate his own story. According to Arnold’s account in the book that he and Palmer co-authored in 1952 — titled The Coming of the Saucers — he came to Tacoma on July 31, 1947, to meet with Dahl, Crisman, and another UFO witness named E.J. Smith to examine pieces of the debris that fell from the sky and discuss the incidents. They all met up in Room 502 of the Winthrop Hotel. 

During the meeting, according to the book, Arnold suggested they call Military Intelligence. So they did, and Capt. Lee Davidson and 1st Lt. Frank Brown of the U.S. Army — both intelligence specialists — immediately came to Tacoma to investigate. In the Winthrop Hotel, the group of men turned over the debris and discussed the UFO sightings until midnight, at which point the two intelligence specialists promptly decided to leave. 

A military vehicle came to collect them — along with a box of the fragments given to them from the Maury Island Incident. The men never made it back to California with the supposed UFO evidence, though. The B-25 airplane they boarded at McChord Field exploded near Kelso, killing both investigators. The Aug. 2 headline of the Tacoma Times — “Sabotage Hinted in Crash of Army Bomber at Kelso” — suggested foul play; the sub-headline, Plane May Hold Flying Disk Secret, referenced the loss of the fragments in the crash. 

The intelligence officers were all but forgotten in the midst of the many UFO stories that followed. But in 1956, a book called They Know Too Much About Flying Saucers by Gray Barker connected the dots between investigators Davidson and Brown; the “man, who wore a black suit” who took Dahl to breakfast the day after he said he saw the UFOs at Maury Island; and three other suited men who were said to have visited UFO enthusiast Albert Bender in 1953. 

It was then, in the retelling of Bender’s, Dahl’s, and Arnold’s story, that the idea of the Men in Black — mysterious men who supposedly want to silence witnesses about paranormal happenings — became a cultural phenomenon. 

And whether or not this had been the role of Davidson and Brown, the circumstances of their deaths provoke speculation. Their final place of business before boarding that fatal plane was Tacoma’s Winthrop Hotel. 

It can be interesting to speculate about the degree to which a building is haunted — and sometimes too easy to dehumanize the things that happened in a place, because they happened so long ago. But the Winthrop, which was converted into low-income housing in 1971, maintains a certain spookiness. 

Thirty-year-old Otha Adams lived in the building between 2007 and 2014: his first home after he left his parents’ house post-high school. He recalled the building’s weird quirks that sometimes gave him pause during his time as a Winthrop resident. 

“I’m a spiritual person, but I’m also pretty analytical, like, if I see it, I’m more likely to believe it,” Adams said. “But when you get a feeling, you get a feeling. I got a lot of weird feelings in there. If people want to take that as haunted, then I would say it’s haunted. I guess the place is creepy in like an American Horror Story hotel kind of creepy.”  

Adams recalled an incident that occurred a few years after he moved in: A mystery arsonist consistently set fire to trash cans in the building. Adams, determined to catch the culprit, put together a watch team to patrol the building at night. 

“When I was doing the neighborhood watch, I’d really scour all the floors,” he said. “I was doing my rounds one night and came across a door that had its doorknob completely ripped off, and the door was slightly cracked. I wanted to make sure that nobody was hiding in there, so I opened it. It was just a stairway that led to a wall. There’s a lot of weird stuff like that.”    

This includes, according to Adams, a bomb shelter and a barber shop that are tucked away somewhere underneath the building. 

Aside from the Winthrop’s mysterious happenings, the building made headlines for other reasons, too. For much of the first decade of the 2000s, the status of the Winthrop hung in a sort of liminal space. While earning itself a lot of negative attention. In 2006, the Tacoma Police Department reported the building as the No. 1 downtown location where emergency service providers responded to calls, and the community became increasingly divided over the best use for the building. Some argued that it should remain low-income housing, while others wanted it to be restored to its original grandeur and serve as a historic hotel.

As of now, the apartments have not been reverted back to hotel rooms catering, as they once did, to Tacoma’s wealthy visitors. The Winthrop, now owned by California-based Redwood Housing Partners, remains as affordable housing to approximately 200 people. 

Adams thinks the building should only be transitioned into another use if the city figures out how to make a change in the right way. 

“I would definitely feel for the tenants, because they’d be getting kicked out of their homes,” he said. “But I suppose if they were relocated and shown courtesy, I don’t see a big problem. I mean, it’s a very big landmark. You’re not going to find another building like that in that area.”  

Despite the strange feelings that Adams sometimes got when in the building, he said it was a good home for the seven years he lived there. It remains an affordable option for many Tacomans who likely wouldn’t have anywhere else to go were they to be evicted without being purposefully relocated. 

And for many, the reality that this may someday happen is perhaps more haunting than the building’s alleged ghosts.

Afterglow Vista 

The McMillin Mausoleum, also known as Afterglow Vista, is a must-see location cloaked in symbolism and spookiness. 

Illustration by Jorgen Burt

When you approach Friday Harbor’s Afterglow Vista for the first time, the first associations that come to mind might be with King Arthur or Narnia. After all, the towering structure — an open rotunda with a limestone table and six stone chairs in the center — looks either like a regal place for knights to dine or the place where a mythical creature would be sacrificed. 

Afterglow Vista, however, is a mausoleum for the remains of the McMillin family. John S. McMillin, a founding member of Roche Harbor, where the mausoleum stands, was a wealthy industrialist in the late 19th and early 20th-century who earned his money by harnessing the worth of nearby limestone deposits. A religious man and a mason, McMillin ordered the site to be built six years before he died, planning an intricate structure for the final resting place of himself and his family. Construction was completed the year of his death and cost the family $30,000. 

Tucked into the Roche Harbor cemetery, it’s not too difficult to believe that the mausoleum is reportedly haunted. According to the accounts of some visitors, weird sightings range from strange blue lights hovering over the chairs to the physical figures seated around the table on the night of a full moon. People report odd feelings when visiting, too: Sometimes they sense spirits near the table, hear voices, or feel uneasy when sitting on the chairs, each of which holds the ashes of a different family member. 

Whether or not these accounts of hauntings hold water, the Afterglow Vista has an otherworldly aura thanks to the heavy symbolism it was constructed to include. Of the seven Tuscan columns that surround the table and chairs — each of which is 30 feet tall and mirrors the size of the columns of King Solomon’s temple — one is intentionally broken to symbolize the way the work and purpose of someone’s life is interrupted by death. 

The flights of stairs that lead up to the platform with the table and chairs also hold significance. The first flight has three steps, which signify childhood, adulthood, and old age; the second, with five steps, symbolizes the five orders of classical architecture; and the seven steps of the third flight stand for the seven liberal arts and sciences. 

Haunted or not, Afterglow Vista is worth a visit to appreciate the level of detail and absolute grandeur of the mausoleum. And when you’re there, pay attention to whether you feel any cold spots or sense any spirits. You wouldn’t be the first.

Buried Treasure

We’ve all heard of the giant octopus that is said to roam the waters of the Sound; what about hidden treasure, though? In the 1870s, the southern end of Tacoma’s Schuster Parkway, which runs along the water for a mile or two, served as the end of the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad. 

According to Tacoma Ghost Tours’ Andrew Hansen, the men who worked on the railroad were aware of the hazards of erosion and landslides in the area but failed to reinforce the sides of the railroad in a way that would increase safety. 

“A lot of stones killed people between Pacific Avenue and Old Town,” he said. “Then there was one landslide in 1894; something like 1,000 cubic yards of land dislodged and wiped out the majority of the wharf.” 

The land that was taken out included the railroad’s payroll office, Hansen said. Legend has it that the office was brimming with money in a safe for the railroad workers — a safe that is now somewhere in the water along Schuster Parkway, still undiscovered.

The Raven

Across the Pacific Northwest, one mythological icon consistently makes an appearance in many indigenous communities’ oral traditions: the Raven. While the particularities of these stories differ among communities, there are some recurring themes. Raven is a trickster and a creator.

 Right now, you can experience the story of Raven at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. Glass artist Preston Singletary’s exhibition Raven and the Box of Daylight — the Tlingit people’s story of the Raven’s transformation of the world — will be on display until October. The exhibition was curated by Miranda Belarde-Lewis, who, like Singletary, grew up hearing the story of Raven.

“In the beginning, before this was Tacoma, before the Puyallup were the Puyallup or the Tlingit the Tlingit, the world was in darkness, and Raven was a white bird,” Belarde-Lewis said in an interview about the exhibition last year. “He was a shape-shifter, a trickster, and he could take on different forms, which was represented by his white color.”

In the Tlingit tradition of Southern Alaska, Belarde-Lewis said, Raven grew tired of the darkness. He soon learned that all of the world’s daylight was being hoarded by one wealthy man. Through a series of complicated tricks, Raven manipulated the wealthy man and released the boxes of daylight one by one, including the stars, the moon, and the sun. 

The wealthy man punished Raven for this trickery by holding him over a cloud of smoke, turning Raven into a black bird, and leaving him unable to shape-shift. It is thanks to Raven and his trickery that we now have the light, which allows us to see one another, and also allowed for beauty and diversity to exist in nature.

Caddy the Sea Monster

Illustration by Jorgen Burt


OK; so you definitely know about Nessie, the endearing term for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland. But did you know that the Sound had its own? Caddy has been described as a long, snakelike creature with the head of a horse or goat. She’s been seen more than 50 times in the Puget Sound since the 1930s and has also been spotted near Alaska and Oregon.

Tenino Quarry

It’s not uncommon for neighborhood-specific lore to sprout, and in Tenino, lore revolved around a beast that hid in the waters of the Tenino quarry. 

“When we were kids, we would tell stories about the quarry fences. They weren’t meant to keep people out; they were meant to keep the swamp monster in,” Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier said. 

Ever since the sandstone quarry filled with water in the 1920s, the people of Tenino have theorized endlessly on what might be down there. 

“There has always been a lot of mystery around the pool: how it came about, what’s down there, how deep it is, what caused it to be,” Fournier said.

In 2017, Fournier led a dive trip into the depths of the quarry in hopes of answering that very question. One hundred feet below the surface, the dive team discovered old cables and a steam engine-powered chisel. Fournier is sure they would have found even more artifacts, had the visibility been any better. 

As of now, however, the depths of the pool are anoxic, meaning natural matter like leaves and trees are unable to decompose because of the lack of oxygen. Rather, they dissolve and create dark, leafy soup. When you get about 30 feet below the surface, “The water turns completely black, like a tea,” Fournier said. 

Fournier has plans to re-oxygenate the pool’s depths and eventually turn the pool into a dive park, where divers can see the underwater history of the sandstone quarry for themselves. 

Despite the local folklore of swamp monsters and giant catfish, the quarry is a lovely summer destination for camping, swimming, and hiking. There’s a kiddie pool, fenced off from the deep end and chemically treated for clean swimming. In the deep end, however, there is still much to be discovered.

Rust Mansion

If you’ve ever driven down Tacoma’s North I Street, you’ve seen it: an extravagant, white mansion, complete with towering columns, a sprawling veranda, and several balconies. Something else you might notice about the home? It’s, well, more than 100 years old. 

The home was commissioned and first occupied by one of Tacoma’s financial pioneers, William Ross Rust. If that name rings a bell, it’s because the City of Ruston is named after Rust and his local enterprise.

Rust moved to Tacoma in 1889 to buy and manage the Tacoma Smelter and Refining Company. This business had huge financial success, which allowed him to invest in such an extravagant home designed by Ambrose J. Russell, the same architect behind the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia. 

Out of many sensationalized rumors about this legendary Tacoma home, the most popular one is that it’s probably haunted. If not by ghosts, then by memories. In 1911, while Helen and William Ross Rust were in Europe, their son Howard died just shy of his 25th birthday. Soon after, the Rusts invested in building another ornate mansion on North Yakima Avenue, likely because of the painful memories that the old mansion brought to the grieving parents. 

While the newspapers at the time attributed Howard’s death to a “ruptured artery,” others believe he died by his own hand. Countless unverified theories about this home can be found in many corners of the internet. Browse at your own risk.

Stonehenge Replica

Renton’s Southgate Office Park has one very unexpected feature: a mysterious and inexplicable Stonehenge replica. Located unassumingly in the roundabout of the office park, the five square arcs appear to be made of cement block and have no explanation attached — not so much as a plaque. Mysterious, just like the Stonehenge in England.

Gravity Hill 

Prosser, Washington, is home to one of the world’s “mystery spots,” where gravity inexplicably seems to work backward. At the bottom of a small incline on a remote, difficult-to-find road, you can shift your car into neutral, and it will start rolling uphill. 

Why does this happen? Some say that the incline is some kind of optical illusion and you’re actually moving downhill rather than uphill. Our vote? Ghosts. Definitely ghosts.

The Tacoma Tunnels

According to Tacoma fables, a series of tunnels ran beneath the city, which were allegedly used to kidnap men and force them to work on ships, smuggle opium, and smuggle Chinese immigrants and their families into Tacoma during the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Stories of the tunnels have echoed throughout the city’s history, some having warped over time, but not much physical evidence proves the tunnels ever existed.

is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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