Grand Lake is far too vibrant to be mistaken for a ‘ghost town’ and much too beautiful to be truly ‘spooky,’ but it does have some very eerie tales. With so much history behind it, let’s just say it has a few skeletons in the closet. And this time of year especially, those bones are going to start to rattle a bit. Here are some of our famously frightening tales, legends and lore…
THE SPIDER HOUSE
In the area known as Old Grand Lake City, where the first pioneers settled, stands a log home haunted with a tragic history. Local lore has it that if you walk by the ‘Spider House’ after dark you can still hear the tall pines around the home “moaning their mournful song.”
Warren C. Gregg brought his young bride Mary O’Brien Gregg to Colorado from Wisconsin via oxen-drawn covered wagon in 1888. Along the arduous trail, Mary gave birth to a son who did not survive past early infancy. This submerged Mary into a deep depression that never lost its grip. In later years, she also lost three more children to the plague, but there were also five children who survived. Until that terrible Sunday in 1904, that is.
A talented woodworker, Warren designed and built the home with a uniquely distinctive exterior featuring spider-web-like wood details adorning the porch. But the winters were very long and Warren was away much of the time hunting and exploring, leaving Mary and the kids alone. Mary must’ve finally snapped under the harsh conditions that fateful day when she gathered her daughter and three sons to read them a story. Instead, the tale had a grim ending, and Mary took a pistol and fatally shot them. Then Mary turned the gun on herself. Her oldest son Lloyd was spared, as he was dining at the Westcott’s home that night and her husband also survived because he was working in his woodshop.
The four children and their mother were buried together in one grave in the Grand Lake Cemetery in 1905. Even after this terrible tragedy, Warren remained in the Spider House for nearly 30 years until his death of heart failure in 1933.
THE LEGEND OF SPIRIT LAKE
Right around sunrise, especially this time of year, a ghostly mist often rises in wisps that blanket Grand Lake. Seeing this makes it easy to understand why it was once called Spirit Lake. The Utes consider this lake haunted — the mist representing the spirit of their dead.
The legend begins back in an era when Native Americans occupied this land. One summer day a scout for the Ute Indians spied a band of warring Arapaho and Cheyenne heading their way in attack-mode. To protect the women and children, the Utes sent their loved ones out into the middle of the lake in log-hollowed canoes and hand-tied rafts. A sudden violent thunderstorm swept in and they all “were born away from this merciless shore, Never on earth to be seen any more,” according to the “Legend of Grand Lake.”
This epic poem was written in 1882 by pioneer Joseph Wescott, inspired by a detailed conversation with an old Ute Chief who described the event in graphic detail. “The angry waves still lashed the shore, far, far away I soon espied, the raft upon the angry tide, each moment some high angry wave, carried a victim to the grave…” the poem describes. As the “wave came down with a thundering sound,” a wail of despair rose up in a haunting sound that some say can still be heard in the wind. And from then on, according to the Ute legend, “from the lake so cold and damp; unearthly forms would upward leap; utter a cry of woe and pain, then drive into the deep again…’
In the dead of night around Scout Rock it is said that “the ghosts of the warriors lain, rise up from their graves again, again in battle they stand, the dead chief leading his command, they then engage in deadly fight, and stop not till the morning light, for the first faint streak of day these ghostly forms will fade away.”
This eerie description also comes from “The Legend of Grand Lake.” Scout Rock is a natural vantage point high above Jericho Road between Shadow Mountain and Grand Lake where Ute scouts would scour the horizon for the approach of enemies. Directly connected to the Spirit Lake tale, this story involves the battle itself — the very thing the woman and children were hoping to escape on the lake.
The battle between the Utes and the Cheyenne/Arapaho band was excruciatingly fierce. As the “ruthless invaders” were spotted and came ever-nearer, there arose a dreadful din of sharp, shrill wild war cries followed quickly by “an arrowy tempest spread around.” After the savage fight, “the blood from scores of warriors seeping into the ground… grim, ghastly piles of flesh and gore; at last they fell to rise no more.”
The sound that haunts Scout Rock comes from their enemy Chief Red Wolf’s final dying yells. All went silent for a moment, until “soon broke by a low murmuring sound, that murmur increased to a wail, soon followed by a howling gale.”
Listen closely as you approach this rock to imagine how that wail carried into the wind and rain that long-ago night.
GRAND LAKE CEMETERY
Sheltering the souls of the town’s earliest residents, Grand Lake Cemetery has many stories to tell. Numerous early pioneers did not have a peaceful passing, leading to speculation and lore that their spirits are still not at rest.
One colorful story concerns Harry Randell who was literally stabbed in the back after a dance at the Young boathouse in the late 1800s. He was carried back into the boathouse where his blood stained the dance floor. This venue did double-duty as both a Saturday night dance hall and a Sunday School room, so the ghastly evidence of the night before haunted the holy. The legend goes that Harry’s blood was never completely removed and haunts this boathouse to this day. A man named Mitchell who played violin at the dances was accused of the crime but many say he was falsely accused. He served time in jail but there seemed to be enough doubt about his guilt that they only gave him 18 months for murder. But a year and a half behind bars was still enough to ruin his life. His wife left him, his children disowned him, and his hair turned white overnight. Some say they still hear him pleading his case late at night.
Then there’s Robert Plummer who was murdered in January 1883 by Wilson Wadern. It says so, right on his gravestone. It’s unusual to see this kind of information on a tombstone, but it must have been important to the Plummer family that this not be forgotten.
Weather extremes took the lives of many, including Doc Duty who was killed in February 1883 in a snowslide at the Toponas Mine. They had to wait until the snow melted months later to find him and give him a proper burial.
In the grave of Andy Myers’ rests the man who died in summer 1883 after being struck by lightning. He was digging a well near the courthouse at the time.
The flu epidemic did not spare Grand Lake either. Many residents died in 1919 of this terrible illness.
This sacred ground is the only cemetery officially located on national park land. The present-day cemetery was established here in 1875, about 40 years before Rocky Mountain National Park became official.. Prior to this residents were buried in a cemetery beside the Colorado River. When a dam was erected in the mid-1940s to create Shadow Mountain Reservoir, these graves would have been underwater had they not been moved to the ‘new’ cemetery site.
The Grand Arts Council hosts ‘Tombstone Tales,’ an annual interpretive history event chronicling the many stories of life-and-death of Grand Lake’s early residents. It was cancelled in 2020 but hopefully it can be revived in future years.
If you think politics are contentious these days, consider the fate of three County Commissioners on July 4, 1883.There was a different kind of fireworks on that Independence Day — a deadly kind. Commissioner John G. Mills was one of three county leaders who were shot that night in the area now known as Point Park. Mills is the only one buried here in the Grand Lake Cemetery.
The build-up to this deadly encounter had been brewing for months, if not years before. It boiled over like a fatal poison in a cauldron, with the ingredients of political wrangling (over the County seat’s location) and an unhealthy dose of political pride. A flurry of 12-15 shots were heard by guests at the nearby Fairview Hotel that night, but everyone thought it was just fireworks so no one sent help. Some accounts say it was an ambush; others say it was a confrontation that got out of hand with each of the men involved firing on each other. Either way, no one was ever convicted for this shocking loss of life and local leadership. Legend says that the blood from these men’s fatal wounds made a sinister trail dripping from the scene into the lake that night, staining it rust-red and forever haunting one of Grand Lake’s most picturesque spots.