Fort El Reno, Oklahoma: November 15 (2008) Ghost Tour: Communing with the Spirits
When I spoke at the First Annual Route 66 Festival at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, on October 4, 2008, I was asked this question: “You’ve been researching ghosts along Route 66 for your book Ghostly Tales of Route 66 for almost two years now. You’ve already written one volume of ghost stories. Have you ever had an encounter with a ghost yourself, firsthand?”
I had to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that I had never had a ghostly encounter.
It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m open to the possibility that the spirits of the deceased linger in a place and attempt to contact the living after death. I just had not heard or seen or experienced anything “ghostly”—until November 15, 2008 during the Fort El Reno Ghost Tour in Oklahoma.
Fort El Reno is about twenty miles west of Oklahoma City just off Interstate 40. It was established the Cheyenne uprising of 1874. The post was named in honor of Major General Jesse L. Reno and served as a remount depot for the military from 1908 until 1947. The men stationed there helped escort cattle drives and served as wardens of 1,335 imprisoned World War II German POW’s (part of Rommel’s forces in North Africa) and helped to police the area during the Indian Wars. The riderless horse, Black Jack, used at JFK’s funeral, was born and raised at Fort El Reno. Today, there are no horses.
The facility today is a grazing lands research laboratory owned and operated by the U.S. Government.
The ghost tour at Fort El Reno has become so popular, attracting paranormal investigators (this night, they were present with their equipment) as well as ordinary folk and devoted ghost enthusiasts that the tours, run by Bob Warren and Jessica Wells, have had to divide up the eighty or more people who routinely show up. The tour members are divided into groups of four and each group is assigned their own guide to make the five-hour walk by lantern lamplight.
This tour was added to the season schedule on November 15th because all the others were full. The tours will resume again in March. There is usually a waiting list for people to take the tour, which currently costs $6 and takes about four to five hours.
It was bitterly cold this night. I was wearing a winter coat, gloves, and earmuffs. I was ready. My husband had on only a light jacket and would end up in the car with the heater running, by the time we came to the end of the tour and traveled to the old, haunted cemetery a mile away from the Visitors’ Center, down a winding gravel road. He missed one of the most truly frightening sets of stories about Fort El Reno, delivered by the light of the full moon in the creepy cemetery atmosphere.
However, I wasn’t ready to be personally “touched” by a ghost, nor to take a picture through the window of one of the haunted houses on the Fort’s ground that was so unusual, cloudy and filled with orbs (when all other photos I took that night were completely clear).
We gathered on the lawn outside the Visitors’ Center, which was built in 1936 and removed in 2005 after the first building burned down. We shivered in the crisp darkness as the moon rose high above the chapel, a chapel built by thirty-five World War II prisoners who had been taken captive in North Africa and were subsequently imprisoned here. The prisoners worked for eighty cents a day on neighboring farms and built the chapel to thank their captors.
The chief guide, Jessica Wells, asked each of us to select a lantern and then enter the Visitors’ Center (formerly the Commandant’s Quarters) to be divided into tour groups. It was inside this house, in the green-tiled bathroom, that Major Konat committed suicide in the 1930’s after his wife left him. The Major’s spirit supposedly still roams the house, his medals rustling, his presence felt on the staircase landing where motion detectors are set off at 3:00 a.m. in the locked facility. The Major changes television stations from soap operas to game shows, the employees say, and they hear his heavy boots thudding across the floorboards upstairs when they are completely alone in the building. Lights go on and off after the facility is locked for the night. Water turns itself on and off in sinks. And there are cold spots. All of these things signal a ghostly presence.
Was it the ghost of Major Konat that tapped me on the right shoulder three times as I entered the building? I had turned and stepped up the one step to enter the building where we would be broken down from one large group of eighty to four smaller groups of twenty. I turned, expecting my husband to be the person who had tapped me on the shoulder. He was fifty yards away on the other side of the lawn. Did one of the strangers assembled have a question for the lady who wrote the ghost stories? No one said anything. No one looked at me. We entered the building.
As we were briefed on the path we would take this night, a picture fell from the wall. (Something that can indicate a death occurred in the room). No one was near it. Jessica seemed unfazed. “That happens sometimes,” she said.
Jessica asked if we had any questions. I raised my hand.
“Did any of you tap me on my right shoulder three times as we were entering the building? Silence.
No response. This was growing “curioser and curioser,” to use the term from Alice in Wonderland. We left the building and walked twenty yards to the first house to the left of the Visitors’ Center, a house that is supposed to be among the most haunted of all those on the grounds of Fort El Reno.
“You can’t go inside the house any more,” said Jessica’s husband, Joe, who was leading my group. “The floors are unsafe. You can take pictures through the windows of the house, if you want. There’s still furniture inside, but it’s often moved around, even though no one is allowed inside the building.” He simply shrugged when asked to explain.
I took a few shots with my brand-new digital Nikon D90 camera through the window of the ratty old white house.
“Oh, my God!” said the paranormal investigators present that night, upon viewing my photo. “Look at that orb in the bottom of the photo! It looks like there’s a woman standing there in a bikini with her hand on her hip.” There was nervous laughter. Even more mysteriously, the picture wouldn’t come up on my computer to be closely viewed for a very long time, until I had my son help me with it.
Later, on the computer, the orbs and cloudiness still presented a mystery. The three taps on the right shoulder? No explanation.
The trip to the Fort El Reno Cemetery that followed the tour of the main grounds was unnerving in the midnight chill. We traveled down a gravel road lit only by moonlight, a good mile or two from the Fort itself. We could see our breath in the wintry chill of the small cemetery as we heard more stories of POW’s who had died and been buried here. There was the story of the minister’s funeral. His horse-drawn hearse was hit by lightning not once, but twice on the way to bury him in the cold clay, killing two of the four horses. The mourners couldn’t wait to get out of there!
This was the kind of place you just wanted to get away from; it was surreal, spooky, isolated. It felt unsafe. It was haunted by the memories of men like German prisoner of war Hans Seifert, who, one day before he was to be released, was killed in a fiery blaze when he accidentally set himself on fire while lighting a natural gas stove.
I still have no explanation for my experiences there.
Fort El Reno at night has a spooky, haunted feeling. It is one of those places you just want to flee.
My experiences at Fort El Reno with the shoulder tapping that cannot be explained and the ghostly photo did not scare me, but they certainly provide food for additional thought about the spirit world.
If you want to read more of the stories on this one-third of the Mother Road, told me in person by those who live along the route, visit www.ghostlytalesofroute66.com or call 1-800-571-2665 (or Amazon.com) to secure this second volume of the trilogy, GhostlyTales of Route 66. This volume goes from Oklahoma to Arizona, while Volume I took the readers from Chicago to Oklahoma.