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Park Hill Haunting

Ghost Stories From The ‘Hood

By Rebecca Zimmerman, For the GPHN

Photos from past Halloweens in the ‘hood by Reid Neureiter. Spider and web photos by Mark Silverstein.

Autumn has arrived. The nights are growing longer, and the moon shining brighter. The leaves are falling on the parkways, the mornings are crisp. Neighborhood kids are devising elaborate Halloween costumes, and the rest of us are stocking up on full-size chocolate bars and candy to hand out to the hordes, just as soon as the witching hour strikes. 

A young trick-or-treater dressed to spook, circa 2017.

For years Park Hill – particularly the wealthier areas of the neighborhood – has been a destination for hordes of trick-or-treaters who descend from across the city. 

Many of us live in century-old homes with their share of creaks and groans. Often we wonder, are these sounds of old wood and plumbing settling? Or is something else afoot?

Park Hill indeed, is filled with ghost stories. For good reason.

Who could blame former occupants of these stately, historic residences if they choose to linger long after their corporeal existence has finished, gracing us with Park Hill’s wonderful tradition of spookiness and ghost sightings? What spirit wouldn’t get into the spirit of scaring trick-or-treaters, or creeping unnoticed among the city’s best Halloween decorations and most jovial block parties? 

The front page of the July 12, 1961 Rocky Mountain News.

Some spirits prefer to stick around all year, inspiring our community’s many writers, artists, historians, and … suggestible middle-schoolers.

Nursery rhyme at Smiley

One of our most well known haunts continues to provide shivering goosebumps to students at McAuliffe International School, at the historic Smiley Junior High campus at 26th and Holly. 

Students report having seen shades of a human figure lurking in one of the bathrooms at the school. Staff have experienced even creepier things. In September of 2017, at 5:30 a.m. – hours before anyone else entered the building – the school’s facility manager was on the third floor. He heard a soft, unaccompanied female voice singing what sounded what sounded like an indistinct nursery rhyme. 

The makeshift morgue that was set up at nearby Smiley Junior High School. Images courtesy Denver Public Library/Western History and Genealogy

He grabbed his cell phone and began recording, later sharing the audio of a perfectly captured disembodied voice with other staff members. Could these spooky experiences be rooted in the tragic history of that fateful day in Denver 58 years ago? 

On July 11, 1961 a DC8 passenger jet crashed on landing at Stapleton Airfield, the airport just east of Park Hill that is now the sprawling Stapleton neighborhood. Initial reports indicated 17 perished in the crash, including the driver of a truck on the ground that the plane smashed into (the final death toll was 18). Another 84 were hurt.

Every ambulance in Denver rushed to transport the injured to hospitals. A temporary morgue was set up at the nearest building where such a large number of deceased could be accommodated: Smiley Junior High. Among those whose bodies were stored in the school gymnasium was a young mother who had been flying home to Colorado from a wedding in Pennsylvania, and her three daughters, ages 8, 4, and 1. 

“We thought maybe she had been singing to the little girls to calm them as the plane crashed,” says Tammy Pittman, McAuliffe’s office manager, who heard the voice recorded on the cell phone. In the afterlife, maybe she still is.

The murder house

Another site with a famous history is the genteel home at 4040 Montview Boulevard, where one of Denver’s most scandalous society murders occurred in 1917. 

As has been detailed in numerous historical accounts, Stella Moore was a lovely society lady whose stepfather, father-in-law, and much older husband were all powerful and connected men among Denver’s early beau monde. When their chauffeur, John Lawrence Smith, handsome and closer to her own age, turned the full force of his charm on Stella, she divorced her husband and remarried Smith. Unfortunately, Smith’s magnetism masked a brutally abusive nature, and Stella ordered him out of her home. 

In the wee hours of a dark winter morning, Smith returned to the house, threating, humiliating, and assaulting Stella. He kept her captive in the home for hours, until she shot him with two pistols, including one she had secreted under her pillow. 

The resulting trial, at which Stella was acquitted on grounds of self-defense, created a ripple of whispers that rose to a crescendo across the city. Some of those whispers may still be heard on quiet nights in Park Hill.

Waking the spirits

Many neighbors say that their ghosts become active during renovations to their old homes. Perhaps original owners return to defend the dream castles they designed and built a century or more ago. Or maybe they just want to make sure the current family loves their space as much as the home’s very first family did. 

One local history maven, who asked to remain unnamed out of respect for her household specters, lives with her family in one of the oldest sections of Park Hill, When she moved into her graceful brick house, she worried about upsetting the lingering spirits, so she hired an empath with paranormal abilities, to do a spiritual cleansing. 

The empath advised the family that the spirit of the original owner wasn’t still there, but his presence was, and that they might notice an uptick in ghostly activity during renovations and the changing of seasons. The family rolled its collective eyes. But sure enough, months later when work was being done to the home’s basement, the husband woke to hear footsteps in hall for three nights in a row. The third night, the sound was so loud he woke up and shouted, “Who’s there?” Certain it must be one of their children, he and his wife leapt out of bed. The hallway was empty. The children were tucked in bed, soundly sleeping.

David Ahling, Jeff Howard and Dave Cisneros man a Ghost Post of a Halloween past. Photo by Steve Ciancio

Jeff the Wonder Dog

Not all Park Hill ghosts are – or were ever – human. In the 1920’s, the 120th observation squadron of the Colorado Air National Guard, located at Lowry Field southeast of Park Hill, had an English Bull Terrier as their mascot. 

Far beyond just inspiring morale in the squadron, “Jeff” was himself an accomplished paratrooper. That is until one tragic day in the summer of 1924 when Jeff’s parachute failed to open. The courageous canine died on impact somewhere in North Park Hill. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, Jeff’s spirit lives on among the neighborhood’s furry residents. 

“My dog Bogart barks at reflections on the walls, floors and ceiling and (my partner) and I joke that he is communicating with Jeff the Wonder Dog,” says Bernadette Kelly, who lives near the rumored crash site.

Ghost-free zones

One place no “real” ghosts are likely to be spotted, ironically, are Park Hill’s iconic Ghost Posts. For a quarter century these check-in spots have been set up across the neighborhood, staffed by adults and stocked with snacks and warm drinks (including boozy ones for the grown-ups). 

“The Ghost Post and Park Hill Safe Halloween campaign got started after 1993’s so-called summer of violence,” said Steve Cianco, who, along with his wife Dee was one of the original organizers. 

“There were a number of gang-related shootings, culminating with the shooting death of 16-year-old Carl Banks on Halloween night at 19th and Bellaire Street. Neighbors from the Park Hill Sector Leaders neighborhood watch organization put together a series of street-corner observation posts to make a non-confrontational presence on the street on Halloween. Back in the early 1990s, cell phones were not ubiquitous, so we arranged for loaner phones from AT&T Wireless. Then neighbors got creative, setting-up gas grills to keep hot dogs, hot cider and other treats for kids and their frozen parents. 

“The transition was from a feeling of fear and being under siege from gang violence to a celebrators atmosphere in the matter of a year or two.”

There are fewer Ghost Posts than in previous years, but the tradition is still going strong a quarter of a century later.

Equally treasured, although often unknown to newcomers, is Park Hill’s tradition of ending tick-or-treating at 8 p.m. (originally 7:30 p.m.). Instead of turning house lights off, neighbors are encouraged to keep their lights on, so the streets are safe and illuminated, and instead place a sign on their door indicating the end of trick-or-treating. 

Cara DeGette contributed to this report.

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