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Mountain Macabre

Morrison ghost tour a frightful delight

By Stephen Knapp - Canyon Courier

Like many a small, Western town, Morrison wears much of its pioneering history on its face. Basking in the golden light of late afternoon, picturesque brick storefronts, rusty, weed-bound rail beds and moldering sheds, shacks and shanties bespeak the town’s busy, sometimes boisterous past. But night falls swiftly over that comfortable wedge of clapboard and sandstone bounded by high, rugged hills and, with the dark, a less casual, more secretive aspect is revealed. And revealing Morrison’s dark secrets is the not-too-serious purpose of the Morrison Haunted History Tour.

Forays into the town’s spectral dimension, hosted almost nightly during the witching season, are the province of Colorado Haunted History, a semi-formal partnership of three young ghost-hunters with a shared fancy for phantoms. Complete strangers at the time, Monica Ferrel, Renee Nellis and Joel Chirhart took the Morrison tour several years ago with spirit guides Dee Chandler and Beaux Blakemore. They soon became fast friends and, when Chandler and Blakemore decided to lay down their spectral chains two years ago, took on the frightful, delightful burden themselves. Of course, all three have day jobs since leading ghost tours is a precarious vocation, at best.

"It’s a hobby, really," Ferrel says. "We all love ghosts. You know, ‘Are they real?’ This is as much fun for us as it is for them." During the past couple years, Colorado Haunted History has hunted apparitions from Wyoming to New Mexico but, supernaturally speaking, they found pay dirt in Colorado.

"We like to say that Morrison is the most haunted town in America, per capita," Chirhart said, a plausible statement about a town of 450 (breathing) souls living amid the residue of 150 years of psychic turmoil. Still, Chirhart and his associates try to edify while they terrify. "It’s not just ghosts," he says. "We try to give a lot of other interesting history about Morrison." The town’s ghostly character, he admits, is based largely on anecdotal evidence and, while the partners’ researches have yielded little hard evidence of howling wraiths, they’ve uncovered plenty of salty morsels about Morrison’s unruly founders.

With reservations (the formal-arrangement kind, not the sensible, I-don’-wanna-see-no-ghost kind), the ghoulish trio will lead a tour in any season, but October is boom-time in the spook trade and nearly two dozen fearless metro-area citizens gathered at Morrison’s war memorial Thursday night, keen to sample the town’s spooky fare. It was a hardy crowd – sadistic parents escorting youngsters who just knew they were about to shake hands with a dancing skeleton, blissful lovers for whom the clubs on the 16th Street Mall are just too scary, and older couples who were going for a walk anyway and figured downtown Morrison was as good a place as any. Oh, and there were some gals wearing red hats.

"These are the ladies of Chapeau Rouge," said a moderately dignified woman wearing a bright red cape and crown, "and I am their queen." You know your tour is going places when royalty shows up. Although her majesty did not deign to explain how she came to lead her chapter of the Red Hat Society, she graciously disclosed her imperial moniker. "I’m Queen Cleora," she said, proudly. Then, winking, "that’s Cleopatra without the ‘pat,’ if you know what I mean."

Shortly after 7 o’clock, following a brief recounting of Morrison’s 150-year-old origins, the three escorts led the group away from the relative security of the lighted street, across a narrow bridge and into the sinister, woody darkness beyond. Ancient cottonwoods loomed menacingly overhead, fallen leaves slushed mutely underfoot, and Bear Creek whispered like the furtive conversations of restless shades. It would have been absolutely terrifying if it weren’t so delicious.

After a short walk on a gravel drive, the party collected at the Horton House Bed & Breakfast, a charming, sprawling, pink clapboard manor and one of Morrison’s oldest structures. The inn’s densely-wooded yard teems with sculpted figures and artful trellises that, in daylight, give the property a friendly, occupied appearance. On a moonless night, by wavering lantern-light, they produce an eerie confusion of stealthy, three-dimensional shadows. In the late 19th century, Nellis explained, the lodge was home to a young woman named Amy whose passions included demon rum and crippling depression. Amy hung herself in the carriage house behind the lodge and, according to local lore, now drifts aimlessly through the rooms and corridors of Horton House, a benign, though sometimes mischievous, presence and a regular topic of conversation over crepes.

Ambling through downtown, it seems every one of Morrison’s celebrated restaurants and bars carries its own spectral freight, a convenience that allowed Chirhart, Ferrel and Nellis to provide a lot of town history without wandering off topic. Red Rocks Grill, Morrison Inn and the Morrison Holiday Bar are all said to be infested with unquiet dead, though patrons are rarely the target of ghostly pranks. In nearly every case, the bartenders – hard working professionals who diligently perform an honorable office and merit only the highest praise and gratitude – bear the brunt of phantom displeasure.

One extreme example deals with the angry spirit of a young girl purportedly murdered long ago in the building that currently houses Tony Rigatoni’s. Animated by hatred for all manly people, she is said to ambush passing Mars-type barkeeps with a small, swinging gate, vindictively focusing her attacks on their poorly armored nether regions. Now, that’s scary.

To hear the guides tell it, Morrison’s north side is replete with haunted localities. Custodians flatly refuse to enter the old Town Hall after dark, they say, and two phantoms of indeterminate identity and motivation play havoc with the inventory and wiring at Lacy Gate’s Antiques.

Of course, in a town as haunted as Morrison, some ghosts are forced to visit terror in less comfortable surroundings. Witness the haunted stump, a twisted, gray remnant of the town’s "hangin’ tree" slowly rotting into oblivion in a dark corner of a dirt parking lot. There are some, Renee assured Queen Cleora, who will not traverse the lot after sundown, lest they attract the stump’s malicious attentions. A hundred yards away, historic Cliff House is said to be the eternal abode of a young man who, like poor Amy, hung himself in the barn. Why he would hang himself in a smelly old barn when a perfectly good tree was available for that specific purpose is an enduring mystery.

The summit of the high ridge defining Morrison’s northern edge features a long row of sharp, uneven stones, like witches teeth. Atop that menacing crest, legend says, the troublesome Ute chief named Colorow can sometimes be seen on moonlit nights, silhouetted against the sky. Also, up there somewhere, the Hatchet Lady of Red Rocks bides her wicked time, waiting to take an ax to disobedient children who meander near her foul cave. According to local myth, she is naked when she dismembers her misbehaving prey, proving that folklore can satisfy every taste.

The Morrison Haunted History Tour, an enjoyable combination of history, humor and horror, wound up at 8:30, but could have easily gone longer. Despite the spine-tingling October chill, nobody was in a hurry to leave, not even when an eerie wail arose from the dense, dark hollow along Bear Creek. "It’s probably just a raccoon," Queen Cleora said, valiantly maintaining her royal composure while the blood drained from her face. That’s right, a harmless raccoon, nothing more.

It was surely no accident that the party broke up next to Red Rocks Grill. After the last tourist had disappeared into the night, Chirhart, Ferrel and Nellis went inside for a richly-deserved nightcap. Hopefully, they remembered to tip the bartender.

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