JUNEAU - Elva Bontrager is hesitant to use words like "ghost" and "haunted," but she knows she has seen things other people haven't.
"We tend to use 'ghosts' for everything we don't understand," Bontrager said.
Cover illustration by Anna Millard
Several hotels and bars in Skagway and Juneau report eerie encounters caused ostensibly by the ghosts of past guests. This isn't necessarily bad for business. Ghost stories can add to the intrigue of an establishment and "haunted" rooms might attract thrill-seeking guests.
Whether it was a ghost or not, Elva Bontrager had an experience 20 years ago that supports the widespread belief that the Alaskan Hotel and Bar in Juneau is haunted.
Franklin Street Frights
Bontrager came to Alaska in 1988 to work at the Taku Lodge south of Juneau. The first place she visited in Juneau was the Alaskan Bar and Hotel, where she had a cup of coffee with a friend who worked as a maid in the hotel. Bontrager got up to go to the bathroom and was struck by a painting of two women, a cute brunette and an unattractive blond with long lips.
"Then, about three weeks later, I went with (someone) new in town," Bontrager said. "She went to the restroom and I told her to look for that painting. I don't know what was so remarkable about the painting that it stuck in my memory like that."
Her friend returned and said she hadn't seen a painting. Bontrager thought she might have missed it so got up to look. It was gone. Not only was the painting gone, but the bathroom looked completely different. Nobody she spoke to knew anything about a recent remodeling.
Inside illustration by Joel Irwin
"She said that there's a room on the third floor that they can clean and leave for a few minutes and come back and it's dirty," Bontrager said. "She said it's always dusty and dirty."
The blond in her drawing looked familiar to Bontrager's friend.
"My friend did say she'd heard the woman, the blond, described many times," Bontrager said. "She was quite bothered by the whole thing."
Bontrager assumes the women in the painting she saw were prostitutes who had once worked at the Alaskan.
"I'm not at all afraid of this kind of thing," Bontrager said, "but on the other hand I stayed out of there for quite a long time, a year or so. I was afraid I would see something else that nobody else saw."
Eventually she started returning to the Alaskan, but never had any similar encounters.
"That one really puzzled me," she said, "because I did not and I still don't understand ... the meaning. Why did I need to see something of that sort?"
Skagway turns into a "ghost town" in the fall when tourists depart and phones ring off the hook at some hotels. But in the summer, there is good business in haunting.
The Red Onion Saloon, a former brothel now operating as a bar and restaurant, offers a "Ghosts and Goodtime Girls" walking tour. Internet sites listing haunted places in Alaska are filled with Skagway businesses: The Golden North Hotel, the Red Onion, the White House Bed and Breakfast, the Eagles Hall and the city municipal building, to name a few.
The Red Onion, for one, is proud of its ghost.
"If you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the resident ghost, Lydia!" reads a description on the saloon's website.
Operations manager Liz Lavoie has never caught a glimpse of Lydia in her eight years worked at the Red Onion ... but she has felt her presence.
"I myself have never seen Lydia, although there are definitely times when one feels they are not alone," Lavoie said. "The strongest indication that there's something there is that (it feels like) there's something there! It's not every time you go through... but I'll talk to her. I'll say, 'Hi Lydia, I'm just passing through to get this box' or whatever."
Over the years, various psychics have visited and said other spirits were present in the building. Once a psychic, when asked if Lydia was present, reported she was "away on spiritual work," Lavoie said.
Those that have had the strongest experiences of Lydia have been men, who have felt pushed down the stairs out of the former brothel, Lavoie said.
"There have been several cooks and a maintenance man several years ago (who felt) a pressure in the middle of the back, just kind of out of nowhere," she said. "Anything aggressive has always been toward men."
Throughout the years, guests have sent photos of their visit to the Red Onion, with notes such as "notice orb in left of photo." Last year, a radio host from Florida visited. He said he had a radio show about haunted places and had received a call from someone at the Red Onion saying mockingly, "I'm in the Red Onion after hours. Oooh, it's supposedly haunted" and laughing. But audible on the tape was a voice in the background, asking repeatedly, "Who are you?"
"That gave me chills," Lavoie said.
Some places embrace their "haunted" reputation while others keep mum, often for good reason. Ghosts in bars or hotels might add to the character of an establishment, but haunted hospitals or schools could make people quite a bit more uncomfortable.
Of course, there are those who just don't believe in ghosts. And for others, strange experiences may be cause more for reflection than alarm.
"One thing that the whole experience taught me or made me think about is how often we see something that the other person doesn't see," Bontrager said. "What you see out there may not be what other people are seeing."