GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- If you're looking to experience Civil War history, there's probably no better place than this quaint town in Adams County, where every house and field seems a reminder of that famous three-day battle back in July 1863. With the opening tomorrow of the new $125 million museum and visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park, learning about this part of our nation's history will be even easier.
Yet Gettysburg, if you believe in this kind of thing, also can be a pretty good place to see a ghost, given how many soldiers gave up their lives. Or so I've been told.
I love a good ghost story as much as the next girl. But could specters past really still hang around to spook us? I've always harbored serious doubts. Then on a visit last fall to Charleston, S.C., I ventured with my sister onto the empty second floor of Poogan's Porch, one of the city's oldest restaurants. As I waited for her to use the restroom, something caught my eye at the end of the long hall. Looking up, I saw a black figure enter the dining room overlooking the street.
Just moments before, our waiter had related the tale of Zoe St. Amand, the lonely spinster who lived in the 1886 house in the early 1900s and starting haunting it after her death in 1954. Laughing in disbelief, I walked to the end of the hall, certain I'd encounter a waiter or another diner. The room, though, was empty. Needless to say, it scared the bejesus out of me. Yet shock soon turned to intrigue. Ghosts, many believe, only appear to people who they know will be receptive. Maybe I now had the knack.
Boning up on ghosts, I'd happened upon a story about the historic Farnsworth House Inn in Gettysburg. Built in 1810, it is said to be haunted by no fewer than 14 ghosts, making it the seventh-most-haunted inn in America. During the battle, Confederate sharpshooters fired from the safety of its windows in the garret, killing more than a few Union soldiers. Even today, more than 100 bullet holes can still be seen on the south side of the inn.
In January, my husband and I checked it out. We'd hoped to land in the Sarah Black Room in the old part of the house facing Baltimore Street, reputedly the most haunted of the inn's 10 rooms. But other ghost hunters had beaten us to the chase. Instead, we got the key to the Schultz Room, a lovely -- if somewhat tiny -- Victorian retreat with a Bradbury & Bradbury papered ceiling, an antique oak wardrobe and a high four-poster bed. It didn't take long for me to feel spooked.
Located down a long, narrow hall, the room seemed a bit isolated from the rest of the inn. As with most houses that have survived more than 200 years, its interior had settled into a slight slant and its floors were creaky. Being off season, it was spookily quiet. I had to leave the door open while my husband got our bags from the car.
Adding to the atmosphere was an old-fashioned sitting room adjacent to our room. Once an open second-story porch where Confederate soldiers would have cooled themselves in the summer heat, it was filled with old books and pictures from the Civil War era.
A quick confession here: Fun as it sounded, I wasn't really sure I actually wanted to see or hear a ghost for fear of people (my husband) thinking I was, well, unbalanced. But if I didn't, I knew I'd be disappointed. This was, after all, a dwelling that merited stories not only on the History and Sci Fi channels but A&E's "Unexplained" and "Sightings."
My skeptic of a husband had no such worries and in fact wasted no time reaching out to the hereafter. Turning off the lights in the bathroom, he challenged me to a game of "Bloody Mary." As if! If I was going to see a ghost, better it be from the safety of the bed, where I'd have a sheet to throw over my head.
Unfortunately, staff had determined it was too cold outside to offer a much-anticipated (and mood-setting) Candlelight Ghost Walk. Nor would we be able to visit the Civil War Mourning Theatre in the basement, where visitors are encouraged to gather 'round a coffin in a 19th-century "viewing" parlor and listen to ghost stories about those who are believed to haunt the town and battlefield.
But not to worry. We found another way to open our minds to all those ghosts: a few rounds at the dark and cozy Springhouse Tavern in the basement of the Dobbin House, an 18th-century pub down the road. In the mid-1800s, the two-story brick house -- now listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- served as a way station for hiding runaway slaves. After finishing one of the inn's signature rum bellies, a potent concoction of light and dark rums, liqueurs and fruit juices, we took a peek at the crawlspace under the stairs where slaves would have found refuge.
From there, we headed across the street to O'Rourkes to listen to live music by Klinger McFry and enjoy a few pints of Guinness. Then we tottered back to the inn to wait for the big reveal, me with a little bit of trepidation and my husband trying to convince me to revisit the spirits in just one more rum bellie.
Alas. Even though our room at this late hour was suitably dark and creepy and our minds receptive to reaching across the barriers of space and time, it wasn't to be. Countless other guests may have heard phantom footsteps on the stairs and other unexplained noises, or felt their shoulder being tapped by unseen hands, or awakened to see the ghost of Mary sitting on their bed. But we got nothing, other than a good night's sleep on a very comfortable bed and a full country breakfast by a costumed waitress the next morning in the Farnsworth House Tavern.
Still, looking at the many props and uniforms that were used in the 1993 film "Gettysburg," starring Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen, which are now displayed on the tavern's wall, I couldn't help but feel the trip was worth it. We might not have seen a ghost, but in the town of Gettysburg, where so many Americans paid the ultimate sacrifice over three hot, smoky July days, the whole town feels like a step back in time.
In a way, it's almost as if the dead truly can speak to the living.
Gretchen McKay can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1419. First Published April 13, 2008 4:00 AM