It’s a dark and stormy night, and I’m sitting in the most haunted house in Washington’s most haunted town. There’s no heat, and I feel the cold seeping up through my bones. Scattered around me in the empty darkness are 10 other people armed with electro-magnetic sensors, paranormal apps and dowsing rods. We’re all silent, alert for a signal from one of the house’s original occupants.
There’s an ominous gurgle. Then a sheepish voice: “Sorry, that was my stomach.”
We’re partway into a three-hour Special Investigation (a.k.a. ghost hunt) of the Walker-Ames house in Port Gamble, and so far I haven’t felt, seen or heard anything non-living. But that doesn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying the whole experience of exploring ghostly Port Gamble on a dismal rainy afternoon.
A HAUNTED TOWN
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On the way to nowhere, tucked into a corner of the Kitsap Peninsula and quiet as a cemetery, Port Gamble already seems rather ghostly even as you drive in off state Route 104. It’s a company town, built in 1852 by Pope and Talbot for workers in the lumber mill that was America’s longest running until it closed in 1995. Still entirely owned by a spinoff company, Pope Resources, and now kept alive as a tourist town, it’s weirdly perfect in its impeccably quaint New England style, brought from Maine by the company’s founders. Clapboard-and-gable buildings in peach, sage, brown or powder blue are uniformly trimmed in white, with black edges around each historic windowpane. It’s like a movie set waiting for actors.
Quiet streets run the small circle around a central village green. On one side are the misty waters of the Hood Canal and Port Gamble Bay; behind the town loom tangled forests that are gradually being bought back from Pope Resources by community groups for wildlife habitat and recreation.
But apart from the main street, there’s an absence of people — living ones, that is. Just 85 folks still live in Port Gamble, commuting to Seattle or nearby towns, and as I ambled around on a dark November afternoon, I saw no one. There are signs of modern life — cars, basketball hoops, lights. But the silence is palpable, and it’s deliciously easy to feel spooked. Back along the highway from the main street, St. Paul’s church looms sternly among historic homes, its gray New England spire pointing into a gunmetal sky. Beyond a path marked with giant rusted chains and stumps cast off from the mill, the forest lurks, all shadowy moss and tangled branches.
On the west side of town, just uphill from the Vista Pavilion (where even on a rainy fall day there’s a wedding happening), is the 1856 cemetery, where worn gravestones look eternally over the green slope to the Sound. Those buried there include immigrants from Austria, Scandinavia, Canada; homesick Maine folks; soldier Gustav Englebrecht who was killed in battle by “Northern Indians,” fathers, mothers, young children.
So is the town really the most haunted in Washington state, as many paranormal investigation teams claim?
“Yes,” says Pete Orbea, Port Gamble’s communications director, who also happens to be a paranormal investigator and leads the monthly walks. “That’s what makes it unique. I like to think that people loved living here so much that they never wanted to leave.”
Orbea, who’s lived here himself for nine years, has experienced ghostly activity at many locations in town, including his own house. There was the time when he heard someone moving furniture upstairs in the nursery. No one, other than the sleeping baby, was there.
He’s also personally experienced the ghosts that live at the only place to stay in town: the Port Gamble guesthouses.
“I was talking to my brother upstairs and we both clearly heard a little girl asking to play,” Orbea remembers. “The only girl with us was my brother’s daughter — and she was down in the garden, already playing.”
SHOPPING WITH GHOSTS
Down the one-block-long main street, though, I found a few more living souls. Flanked by tall green water-towers on one end and a flagpole overlooking the bluff on the other, Port Gamble’s commercial area is magically beautiful. While the company’s conscientious history signs give it a slightly manufactured feel, it’s a lovely slice of history. There’s a butter-yellow post office building, a fire house now occupied by a kayak outfitters, a theater with red velvet drapes and old-fashioned stage, creamy rafters and wood-stove-warmth in the yarn shop. You can browse dark Victorian shelves in the bookshop or find truffles in the pink-rose Tea Room. There are quilts, gifts, fair trade imports. Mrs. Muir’s House of Ghosts and Magic is filled with smudge incense, divination accessories and titles like “Leveraging the Universe” and “Is Your House Haunted?” It also conveniently sells items you might like on a ghost walk, like ghost meters, flashlights and batteries, plus a selections of teas, and has an entire Harry Potter room in the back.
50 Percent of all buildings in Port Gamble have had reports of apparitions, according to paranormal researcher Neil McNeill
But you might also find some of the original occupants in those shops. According to staff, Mrs. Muir’s hosts no less than six ghosts, including a calico cat. A ghost is said to turn on and off the CD player in the tea room, and it’s not hard to imagine who might still be in residence at the Cranmer House, where Clarence and Lulu Harvey lived until 1904, when Lulu died aged just 34. (She’s buried in the cemetery.)
MUSEUMS WITH FLICKERING LIGHTS
The biggest shop in town is the historic General Store — but head up that broad wooden staircase away from the gifts and candy shelves and you’ll find another kind of treasure. The Of Sea and Shore Museum is as unofficial as you can get, with no entry fee (donations accepted), and no one (living) in attendance. But for anyone interested in sea creatures, it’s fascinating. It’s the collection of former Port Gamble resident Tim Rice, who traveled 40 countries to bring back thousands of specimens of every size, shape and color, from tiger shark jaws to preserved puffer fish hanging in the window; from abalone to giant clam shells; from enormous hairy crabs to delicate pink scallops.
Underneath the General Store, and accessed from the back, is the Port Gamble Historic Museum. With rooms recreating everything from a captain’s cabin to a lumber mill office, it tells the town’s history engagingly — even the front desk is cut out of a large tree root bearing old springboards and logging tools. Nearby is a land grant for the area signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Down here, too, it’s slightly spooky. Lights flicker, and the curtain blows at an inside window in the 19th century bedroom exhibit. Odd things have been experienced here, says local author Joe Teeples in “Pacific Northwest Haunts” — file cabinets opening by themselves, folks hearing people follow them when they’re alone in the museum. Don’t get locked in.
BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND DINNER
There aren’t many places to eat in Port Gamble, but the General Store Café and Bar is worth every bite. From breakfast (I had an egg scramble tasting like a forest with nutty shitake, fresh spinach and gobs of chevre) to dessert (smooth, sweet coffee and a pear-quince cobbler with a cakey top and peachy inside) to dinner (silky roasted squash folded in crepes with a fluffy ricotta/parmesan sauce and crispy, salty sage leaves), this place is worth making a reservation for. With blackboard-menu walls framing the tall windows overlooking the bay, it has a practical feel (flour-sack napkins and a beautiful trim of worm-tunneled pine reclaimed from the old mill) and a sophisticated menu, including some creative cocktails (fig and fennel syrup, elderflower liqueur). Service is friendly and fast.
The back of the store also serves coffee and numerous, enormous desserts (squash pie, lemon-pistachio cheesecake) until 5 p.m., and the Tea Room offers sandwiches, quiches and more alongside the scones, pastries and hand-made truffles for lunch and tea.
Up on the highway leading out of town is Mike’s Four Star BBQ, for more casual dining, and a nearby espresso stand that sadly closes at 4 p.m.
THE HAUNTED WALKER-AMES HOUSE
It’s 7 p.m. when the ghost tour meets in the historical museum next to the Walker-Ames House. Looming over the town with deserted windows and ornate Victorian gabling, the house is said to be one of Washington’s most haunted. Built in 1889 for lead mill mechanic William Walker, whose daughter Maud later married mill manager Edwin Ames (hence the name), the house has been empty ever since the mill closed 20 years ago. Apparently no one can afford the considerable rent and cost of improvements. Or it could be the faces seen regularly looking out of the windows.
But that makes it all the better for ghost hunting. Orbea has been leading walks for five years and paranormal investigations there for three. There’s even a Ghost Conference every October — the supernatural is good business here in Port Gamble. As the group traipses up the steps and into the back kitchen of the dark and deserted house, it’s clear that everyone’s there because they’ve experienced ghost activity on previous tours.
I’m the fourth person inside, and as we go in I hear footsteps — upstairs, where no one can possibly be yet. Others hear it too, and comment. As Orbea begins his historical spiel, I realize I’m standing right near the door to the basement, and remember the story museum director Cayenne Quinn told me about the sick feeling she got whenever she was in there. It’s starting to feel spooky.
We spread out around the first floor, catching glimpses by flashlight of peeling Victorian wallpaper, carved trim and tiled fireplaces. Other folks are earnestly bringing out their devices: an electro-magnetic reader, a ghost box that picks up radio frequencies, an Ovilus (a ghost app that picks up sounds unheard by ears). We settle into our spots, and one by one introduce ourselves to both each other and whatever else might be in the house.
Orbea speaks calmly into the silence, as if to a child: “Hi there, Mr. Walker. You know me, I’ve been in here before. I’ve brought some friends to your house. We’d like it if you want to communicate with us.”
Silence. The stairs crack, like they do in my old house all the time when it cools down.
“Did you hear that?” someone asks fervently. According to Orbea, the stairs are a hotspot for paranormal activity. So is the smoking room, the upstairs bathroom, the upstairs landing, the master bedroom, the attic and the basement. Folks have experienced a butler, a nanny and kids peering out the attic windows, a housekeeper and a malevolent boy in the basement who might have been a brain-damaged child kept locked away, and who causes everything from sick feelings to knocked-over step stools. Orbea has photographs of mysterious figures and writing on the window panes, and audio clips of weird voices.
But all I feel right now is freezing cold feet, from wandering around all afternoon in the rain. I wish I’d brought my gloves.
Over the next few hours we cover the rest of the house, asking questions into the dark, listening and watching intently. All I hear is raindrops and other people’s gurgling stomachs, all I see are my companions, all I feel is cold — which might be paranormal but is probably the result of wet socks in a house with no heat. And down in the basement — made considerably spookier by props like an empty, hanging smiley balloon (left behind by investigators) and a cage on a table (a prop from recently-filmed web series “Thornbrook”) — all I’m hearing is the steady trickle of water down the leaking walls.
“Pretty soon I’ll have to go to the bathroom,” jokes Orbea, and we all laugh nervously.
It’s a fascinating experience, watching these people who have no fear of sitting alone in a dark attic or talking to the dead. Someone asks Orbea if he’d like to live here, and he pauses, before answering yes — as long as he could be sure his kids were safe.
The one unusual thing is when Orbea brings out a dowsing rod and asks questions of Maud and Emma Walker. Slowly, the rod swings to right (yes) or left (no), without any visible human help.
Eventually, it’s time to go. Maybe it was the rain making too much noise, or maybe there wasn’t anything to hear. I’m still open-minded either way, but I’ve had a great time diving into Port Gamble’s ghost experience anyway. As I drive out of town, I see no one, not even at the cemetery — just the driving rain and the dark, empty streets.
Where: Port Gamble is on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula.
From the South Sound: Drive west on state Route16, then north on state Route 3 until you get to the turnoff for the Hood Canal bridge. Keep going straight instead, taking state Route 104 to Port Gamble. Turn left at Rainier Avenue.
From Seattle: Take the Bainbridge Island ferry, drive up the island and across the bridge, then state Route 305 to state Route 104. Turn right at Rainier Avenue.
From Edmonds: Take the Kingston ferry, then state Route 104. Turn right at Rainier Avenue.
WHERE TO EAT
General Store Café and Bar: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. 32400 Rainier Ave. NE, Port Gamble. 360-297-7636, portgamblegeneralstore.com.
The Tea Room: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays (brunch). 32279 Rainier Ave. NE, Port Gamble. 360-297-4225, tasteportgamble.com.
Mike’s Four Star BBQ: 11 a.m.-7:45 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Sundays. 4719 NE state Route104, Port Gamble. 360-297-4227, mikesfourstarbbq.com.
WHERE TO STAY
The only place to stay is the Port Gamble Guest Houses, two historic homes on an expansive green hillside, overlooking the Hood Canal. They’re haunted, apparently. Reserve early. $200-$425 a night low season, $300-$475 a night high season. 360-447-8473, portgambleguesthouse.com.
Otherwise, there are hotels in Poulsbo, 10 miles south; Thorndyke Lodge vacation rental 20 minutes away across the Hood Canal (vrbo.com/355706) or Foxbridge B&B, around three miles south on state Route 3 (360-697-4874, foxbridge.com).
GHOST WALKS AND INVESTIGATIONS
Who: Port Gamble Paranormal, 360-297-8074, portgamble.wix.com/pt-gamble-paranormal.
What: The Ghost Walk tours the “more active” buildings in town, including the morgue under the post office and the cemetery, and spends one hour inside the Walker-Ames house. $25. Ages 16 and older. Dec. 5, Jan. 9, Feb. 6, March 5.
The Special Investigations allow visitors to spend three hours exploring the historic Walker-Ames house, where paranormal activity has been reported consistently since the 1950s. Recording devices are encouraged. $35. Ages 16 and older. Dec. 19, Jan. 16, Feb. 20, March 19.
When: All tours leave at 7 p.m. from the Port Gamble Historical Museum.
Tips: Reserve in advance, pay at the door. The Walker-Ames house is cold; dress warmly and consider bringing warmers for your hands or feet.
OTHER EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES
Country Christmas: Dec. 12-13.
Spring: Fibers and Fabrics Festival, Northwest Adventure Sports Festival, mountain bike races.
Summer: June Faire, Old Mill Days, Maritime Music Festival, summer concerts, car show.
Fall: Forest Festival, Ghost Conference.
Port Gamble Theater: “Miracle on 34th Street” 7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Dec. 4-20. $17, $15. 4839 NE View Drive, Port Gamble. 360-977-7135, portgambletheater.com.
Museums: The Port Gamble Historical Museum is open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily May 1-Oct. 31, otherwise by appointment. $4 adults, $3 students and seniors, free for 5 and younger. 360-297-8074, portgamble.com. Of Sea and Shore Museum is upstairs in the General Store, open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. Free. Both at 32400 Rainier Ave. NE, Port Gamble.
Outdoor activiites: Kayaking is possible from the beach below the bluff park at the end of Rainier Drive. North winds can be strong; best for experienced paddlers. Rent from Olympic Outdoor Center, 32379 Rainier Ave., Port Gamble. Mountain biking and hiking are available on old logging roads and trails in the forests just behind the town. Maps available at the post office, 4839 NE View Drive, Port Gamble.