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Mysterious guests appearing at creaky old hotel

(Originally published on Oct. 31, 1999) Who is haunting the Washington Hotel?

"I got used to hearing her," said Space Voight, who lives on the third floor of the hotel - presumably alone - in the remote Nevada County community of Washington. "I'd hear three footsteps, and that's it.'

When Hank DeCorte bought the old hotel in 1994, it had been declared uninhabitable some 18 months earlier. After DeCorte and friends like Voight had worked on restoring the old hotel - from the foundation up, for a couple of years - they began to suspect that the old three-story building, constructed in 1857 and partially scorched in a fire in 1896, had been inhabited all along.

As restoration progressed, Voight moved into a third-floor room that he thought he had all to himself.

Voight used to jump out of bed and grab a gun to search the hotel's three floors for the source of footsteps and the sound of opening doors.

Late one night, a dresser that Voight had put against what had been the outside wall started shaking, he said. He woke to discover that everything on top of the dresser was on the floor.

"The dresser bounced away from the wall, and the door flew open," Voight recalled. "I was petrified."

Voight also recalled walking down the third-floor hall feeling as if he had just bumped into someone or something. "I'd feel like I hit my shoulder on a door and there's nothing there," he said.

Now he barely turns a hair when he hears the door at the foot of the stairs between the second and third floors open, followed by three footsteps.

"Just three, always," Voight said. "No creaking on the stairs, like when Hank walks up. Just three footsteps, and that's it."

As the men began to work on the second and third floors, they heard doors opening down the hall. One by one, each man went searching for another, only to discover he was on the floor or in the hotel alone.

"I'll be up there working. Out of the corner of your eye, you'd see someone walk by," Merv Lee said. "I'd go out and check, and no one was there."

Lee's first encounter involved only a feeling.

"I was up in the attic," Lee said, recalling an experience that still gives him chills. "I had a feeling, a foreboding and felt like I couldn't breathe. I thought, 'Great. You're the only EMT (emergency medical technician) in town, and you're having a heart attack.' It scared me. I got out of there like a bullet out of a gun."

Constructing a foundation for the hotel and restoring the first floor was uneventful, ghostwise, DeCorte recalled.

"Nothing ever happened in the basement," he said.

"The only time I came up here was to snake electrical wiring through or take windows out," Lee said about his visits to upper floors during early restoration work.

"It was when we moved our workshop into the second floor," Lee recalled.

"I couldn't close the doors up there," DeCorte said. "They kept opening up."

"I'll be sitting here and hear doors open and close," Lee said. "That happens a lot."

"We'd been working on the building for two years before I saw her," Lee said.

Lee was sitting across the table from friend Kevin Potter when he saw the young dark-haired woman in a light blouse and dark floor-length skirt.

"I thought my wife, Kim, had walked into the room," Lee recalled.

When he realized she hadn't, his friends saw him turn white, Lee recalled. "What's wrong?' they asked me."

DeCorte saw the same woman later. "She stood there and looked right at me," he said, referring to a spot on the second floor.

"She looked right at Hank," Lee recalled, still marveling.

Hotel lights flicker for no reason, the men said.

"I did all the electrical work in the hotel," Lee said. "I know it's all new. Still, sometimes the lights go bright, dim, bright, dim, bright, dim."

If the group of friends had any doubts about their collective vision, they were dispelled one night when they heard a loud sound upstairs.

A woman who previously occupied Space's third-floor room - which has doors to the inside and outside of the hotel - told them that the inside door to her room was always standing open every time she went upstairs through the hotel, Lee recalled. Another friend, "Doc," nailed a 2-by-4 across the door so nobody could go in without making a lot of noise, Lee said.

A couple of days later, Lee recalled being in the hotel bar with friends when they heard a loud noise upstairs. Going up to investigate, they discovered the 2-by-4 off the door and against the wall at the other end of the third-floor hallway.

The door to the room was wide open, Lee said. No one was on the third floor.

"I thought, 'OK," Lee said laughing.

The down-to-earth men, more accustomed to hammers and saws than horoscopes or crystal balls, came to accept and agree that they had seen and sensed a ghost.

"We've all seen her in the same outfit," DeCorte said.

Mama Sue Morgan, a friend of DeCorte who helps out around the hotel's kitchen, said she thinks she has a clue to the ghost's identity.

Morgan began studying the hotel's register to see whether she could discover who the young woman is. One name appears in the register regularly every month between 1899 and 1902: Miss Alma Russell of Maybert, a long-since-disappeared town a few miles upriver from Washington.

"I don't have a clue why I thought that," Morgan said about honing in on Russell. "I was so fascinated by a woman traveling alone."

Morgan didn't find a pattern to Russell's visits, nor was she able to connect her visits to the hotel to any other guest staying there at the time. Sometimes she is registered as "Miss Russell," sometimes "Miss A. Russell." She usually stayed in Room 4.

On Dec. 20, 1902, the hotel register shows that Russell stayed in a room across the hall from Wyatt Earp, the famous lawman who was also a mining engineer, Morgan said. The hotel's register lists guest after guest visiting area mines. President Grover Cleveland slept there on Oct. 6, 1901.

Morgan searched at the Searls Historical Library in Nevada City for Russell's name. She is not listed as a teacher, or as a secretary at one of the mines, or as a postmistress. Morgan also has found no birth, marriage or death records on the regular visitor from Maybert to Washington.

Morgan said she does not think Russell was a prostitute, another of the very few professions for women at the time. "They were all over at Rocky Bar," she said.

The ghost's dark hair is worn up, in the style of respectable women of the time, and her skirt covers her feet. Her blouse is a demure pink or rose color, DeCorte said. An old hat found in the wall upstairs is decorated with faded pink ribbon. Morgan wonders whether it belonged to Russell.

"She's a mystery," Morgan said. "She's not recorded anywhere."

Guests at the hotel sometimes ask about laughter, crying and a small child in the third floor window - sounds and sights for which DeCorte and friends cannot account. People have reported seeing a small child in the third-floor window as well as a miner in the hotel.

DeCorte, Voight, Morgan and Lee said they have at times just asked the ghosts to stop their nonsense.

"Once I was tired, closing up the bar, and the lights were flickering on and off," Lee recalled. "I just said, "Hey, I'm tired. Stop."

"I've had a feeling of someone getting into bed with me," Voight said. "I said, 'That's it."

"She's been quiet for a while," Lee said. "You don't really get scared after a while. It's a normal occurrence."