Her white wedding dress rippled ever so gently as she drifted across the crow's nest high in the upper reaches of the Old Faithful Inn.
The lodgepole pine timbers and planking, normally creaking to life with each footstep, were silent as the bride drew near the railing to look down upon the inn's cavernous lobby.The only thing out of place was her head, which was under her arm.
"I saw something out of the corner of my eye, so quickly I turned around and saw a woman, wearing a frilly white dress," Gretchen May, a waitress at the inn, recounted.
And as quickly as the apparition appeared, it vanished, she said.
Was it truly one of the wraiths said to haunt Yellowstone National Park's stately old log inn?
It's easy to envision ghosts wafting along the two inner balconies of the 85-foot-high lobby, along the crow's nest above the balconies, or down the dimly lit hallways of the inn's "Old House," the first portion of the gabled lodge built during the winter of 1903-04.
The dark log railings have been rubbed smooth and shiny from almost nine decades of hands running along them. The wooden floors bow in places where visitors have paused to stare up at the balconies or the massive stone chimney that dominates one corner of the lobby.
Outside the inn's thick log walls, mist from whooshing geysers and gurgling hot springs drifts on the winds, creating ghostly phantoms of their own.
May, from Provo, Utah, hadn't heard any ghost stories before coming to Yellowstone late this spring, but she brought an open mind.
"I believe there are good ghosts and bad ghosts," May said. "I'm really open-minded. I believe there's everything out there. I never say never."
The couple that stayed in Room 2 of the inn this past May 20 no doubt left believing the place was haunted.
Lindy Berry, an activities agent who works at TW Recreational Service's desk in the inn's lobby, recalled that the man awoke in the middle of the night to find his wife's fingernails digging into his shoulder.
When the man asked his wife what was wrong, she responded, "Don't you see her?" Berry said. "He actually had claw marks the next morning because she had grabbed him so hard."
What the woman saw, according to Berry, was a woman dressed in 1890s garb standing at the base of the bed.
There are other stories about the inn being haunted, especially the "300" wing.
George Bornemann, assistant manager of the Old Faithful complex for TW, recalls one bellman who swears he watched his door mysteriously open and close by itself late one night.
"And then there was one `inspectress' who said she was walking down the hallway and the fire extinguisher hanging on a hook in the hallway . . . just turned up vertically, to a 90-degree angle, when she was walking by, and then just slowly sank back down again to the upright position," Bornemann said.
Not all of the stories about the inn's ghosts stem from real-life encounters. In fact, May's encounter is similar to a ghost story Bornemann created several years ago to add ethereal suspense to staying in the inn.
"People always come in here and are always expecting a ghost story," says Bornemann. "I made up that story, about the woman without a head. I've heard people tell it back to me, who I've never met, so it's made the rounds."
Still, it was a real encounter with the unearthly that gave Bornemann the impetus to conjure up his story. It was the end of the 1983 tourist season and Bornemann and just one other employee were staying in the inn.
"Maintenance was shutting down the building. They had already turned off the heat and the electricity to the east wing and the west wing in the `old house' was the only thing that was left on," he remembered. "I was lying in bed at night, reading . . . and I thought I had heard someone running down the hall.
"So I thought: `Geez, who's in the building? All the doors are locked, there shouldn't be anybody else running around in here now.'
"So I got out of bed and looked out in the hallway, down the hallway both ways, and there was nobody there," Bornemann said. "I really didn't think too much about it because the building's got all sorts of creaks and noises of its own."
But 15 minutes later he again heard somebody running down the hallway.
"I thought, `Gosh darnit, somebody's gotten into here or something,' " he said. "I got up and looked out into the hallway again and there's nobody there again.
"So I walked down to the end of the hallway to the balcony that overlooks the lobby area. And I stood up there in the balcony of the lobby area and looked around, and looked down into the lobby to see if I could see anything, and then I looked up toward the crow's nest . . . and this is where the fantasy starts.
"I saw a white, sort of ghostly figure coming down the stairway of the crow's nest," he said. "It was the shape of a woman with a long, flowing, like a bridal gown, a long flowing gown.
"And she was walking down the stairs, and the weird-est thing about her was she didn't have a head. Or she did have a head, but it wasn't on her neck. She was carrying it under her arm."
Further embellishing the ghostly tale, Bornemann tells those looking for a good scare that he was in Missoula, Mont., later that year looking for stories about Yellowstone in turn-of-the-century newspapers.
"I found that in 1915 that there had been a murder in the inn," he says. "And it happened in Room 127. And what happened in Room 127 was they found a woman murdered in there, in a wedding dress. They found her in the bathtub. The bathtub was full of blood, and she had been decapitated.
"But they didn't find her head. Her head wasn't there to be found. And they searched for like two days before they finally found her head. And of course, they found it in the crow's nest."
Fact or fiction, May is certain she saw something.
"She had a frilly white dress, and it kind of waved," she said.
But if what May, the unidentified couple and the others saw actually were ghosts, what prompted the spirits to haunt the inn?
Could it be that Mattie S. Culver, who died during childbirth on March 2, 1889, at the now-defunct Firehole Hotel once located several miles north of the site on which the Old Faithful Inn was built, fretfully stalks the geyser basin heartbroken over not living to see her child grow up?
When Culver died, the ground around the hotel was so frozen a grave couldn't be dug, so her body was placed in two pickle barrels that were then buried in a snowdrift until the spring thaw. Not far from her grave is Dead Maiden's Spring.Comment on this story
Perhaps one of the apparitions belongs to L.R. Piper, a cashier from the First National Bank of St. Marys, Ohio, who on July 30, 1900, stepped out of the now-gone Fountain Hotel to smoke a cigar after dinner and vanished, never to be seen again.
Army troops stationed in Yellowstone at the time searched a month for Piper, and his brother-in-law spent September of that year looking, at one point sleeping under the stars with hopes that coyote howls would lead him to Piper's remains.
Or maybe the haunting is being done by Charles Phillips, a ranger stationed at Old Faithful during the winter of 1926-27 who died after eating water hemlock mistakenly identified as wild parsnip.
"I think anybody who sees anything in the inn, it's mostly just their imagination. It's just them wanting to believe in it," maintains Bornemann. "Yellowstone's a big place of tall tales and everything."