Lake Tahoe has plenty of spooky stories to share
Special to the Nevada Appeal
The vision of the Northern Nevada Ghosthunters (formed in 2005) group is to “seek to understand paranormal events through investigations using all tools at our disposal with a scientific approach.”
Per the group’s website, “We investigate using historical data as our primary source ... by gathering like-minded individuals who wanted to prove the existence of the paranormal.”
With Lake Tahoe considered one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, many people come here to enjoy the pristine environment and striking beauty its crystal clear water holds.
Many people come to the area to rest and relax, and there’s even scientific evidence to suggest the power of negative ions — abundant in mountains, waterfalls and beaches — that can boost energy levels and moods.
Centuries ago, Native Americans recognized the power of Lake Tahoe and the spirituality the area holds, and the region grew and changed over the years, bringing with it the Comstock Lode, mobsters, people with massive wealth who built mansions on the lake — and, ghosts?
That’s right — Tahoe-Truckee, like any region in America that’s steeped in decades of history, isn’t immune to stories and tales of supernatural sights and sounds. As paranormal tourism becomes more and more popular these days, here are some alleged stories of history, mystery and lore associated with the region — from all sides of the lake.
Tahoe Biltmore (North Shore)
A notorious location loaded with history and odd experiences, the Tahoe Biltmore was the meeting place for the Haunted Tahoe Biltmore Hotel ParaRetreat 2018 during the weekend of Sept. 7-9, when ghost hunters reported odd experiences.
Along with random doors opening and closing, voices whispering nearby and knocking sounds, the Biltmore’s resident ghost, Mary, was spotted regularly throughout the weekend in stairwells and hallways. Many employees have their own stories about the 1960s Aspen Cabaret (now known as the Breeze Bar) showgirl who still haunts the halls of the 72-year-old hotel, apparently appearing in several places donning a ’60s-style mini skirt and no facial features.
Jeadene Solberg founded the group Northern Nevada Ghosthunters in 2005 when she saw a ghost hunting show on TV and decided to launch her own investigations in the Reno-Tahoe area.
She organized the group’s first ghost hunt at the Old Washoe Club in Virginia City, and as ghost hunting became more popular, Northern Nevada Ghosthunters’ membership began to grow (the organization now has more than 180 members). She believes she’s been on an empath her whole life, always open-minded about what could exist outside of the physical world, and is learning many others share her abilities as well.
“It opened up so many doors when people realized that our mission is strictly to preserve history,” says Solberg. “The biggest thing is saving and restoring old historic buildings. This is such a great area with the mob ties and Native American heritage.”
Solberg has done five or six ghost hunts at the Biltmore, and also has had odd experiences at other parts of the lake.
On a drive to Emerald Bay, she stopped and was looking over the edge at the cobalt blue body of water. A man came up to her and said, “Isn’t the lake beautiful?” But when she turned to respond, he had vanished. Her mother who was present at the time said she never saw a man with Solberg.
“I’m a healthy skeptic, I always look for the physical first, but once you get that first personal experience, you want more — it’s like getting a tattoo,” Solberg told Tahoe Magazine. “This realm of water around us, it is a great conduit of energy, and these spirits use that. Everyone who lives here comes here to rejuvenate, recharge.
“The more you open up, the more you become a beacon of light.”
Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, Sugar Pine State Park (West Shore)
Head west from the Biltmore into the California side of Lake Tahoe and wrap around to the heavily pined area past Sunnyside and Homewood Ski Resort to enter Sugar Pine State Park.
There lies a huge estate built in 1903 and used as an informal summer home (it was, after all, the first in the area with advanced indoor plumbing, according to historical reports).
Designed by Walter Danforth Bliss (where the name of the nearby beach came from), the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion was operated by Sydney and Florence Hellman-Ehrman for many years. Florence lived to be 82 years old, while Sydney carried on until he was 101. After his passing, the state of California acquired the 1,975-acre estate in 1965 thanks to an initiative California voters adopted to free money to preserve it.
Heidi Doyle, former California State Parks ranger and current executive director of the Sierra State Parks Foundation, has been involved with supporting the cultural history and restoration of Tahoe’s landmarks for the last 37 years, but is only aware of one paranormal experience.
Doyle says she has received reports from California State Parks staff they saw, while conducting tours at Vikingsholm and the Ehrman Mansion, an indention in the bed on which Sydney Ehrman once slept.
“The staff throughout the decades have been in the house by themselves at night and haven’t reported anything specific, but have felt a secondary presence,” Doyle says. “I think that people have built these big homes in Lake Tahoe and come here to get away, enjoy the lake, so maybe all they left here are good vibes — something positive.”
Lindsey Harbison has been giving tours of the West Shore mansions for 32 years, but her only recollection of something weird going on was she once may have heard the creaking of a rocking chair swaying on the third floor of the mansion in one of the rooms.
“It can get very quiet here, I hear squirrels running around a lot, but being in the house by yourself, your imagination can run wild,” she says
There once were rumors going around that in the wintertime, a little girl drowned in the lake by Sugar Pine and she’s sometimes spotted near Highway 89, but any details of this incident are unfounded.
“It was pretty isolated here in the wintertime,” Harbison says, making it unlikely schoolchildren would be in Lake Tahoe at the time.
Guided tours of the Hellman-Ehrman Mansion are available daily from May-September, but its grounds are open all year long if you want to go ghost hunting yourself.
Vikingsholm (South Shore)
Keep on Highway 89 and wind down to Emerald Bay, where Lora Josephine Knight built the impressive Scandinavian/Norwegian/Swedish mansion facing Fannette Island (the only island on Lake Tahoe). Walk 1.5 miles down to the shoreline and you barely see the stone mansion with sod grass roofing nestled between 300-year-old cedars.
Ms. Knight was known as a compassionate, well-traveled and savvy businesswoman who loved Lake Tahoe and was cognizant of the environment around it, so there isn’t really anything scary that happens in her neck of the woods.
When her first husband James Moore died, she inherited $10 million and used it to buy property in Santa Barbara, Reno and Dollar Point, at North Lake Tahoe. She also used $250,000 to acquire 239 acres around Emerald Bay to build the house of her dreams — Vikingsholm.
After a short marriage to Henry Knight, yet keeping his last name, Lora Knight went to work on creating the castle of her dreams to blend in with the bay. She spent 15 summers at the mansion before passing away peacefully in her home in 1945 (and leaving $1,000 for each of her employees for every year they worked for her).
“This is not really a spooky place — Ms. Knight was a lovely person, was very giving. She was very in tune with nature, astute in her way of thinking,” Murray, a Vikingsholm tour guide, told Tahoe Magazine this summer.
That said, while Lake Tahoe was known as a place of solace for Ms. Knight, perhaps she still is spending her summers at the beloved castle even in the afterlife, as park rangers have reported a recurring smell of cinnamon toast wafting through the pantry several times over the past year.
“One of her favorite breakfasts was cinnamon toast … one morning I was the first one inside and walked around and unlocked the pantry, and there’s this strong smell of it,” one park ranger told us.
Then, there’s the story of a museum curator who not long ago was re-cataloging artifacts of the castle and staying in the caretaker’s apartment. During the time she was conducting research, she woke up one night and saw a dark figure standing in her room and told it to go away.
A year later, she was retelling her experience to a Vikingsholm tour guide, and that person reported seeing the same dungaree-clad figure roaming around the property. The story goes that years back, some guys were building cabins by Emerald Bay, and one of the worker’s wives took up with a Paiute chief, who then disappeared.
Maybe he’s the one haunting Emerald Bay?
I myself have felt a presence at the teahouse on Fannette Island. Many reports mention the caretaker/hermit of the island, Captain Richard Barter, would row to Tahoe City and tie one on at one of the local saloons, and then row back.
On one trip in a heavy storm, though, he smashed up against one of the rocks in Rubicon Point, meeting his final demise. Some people have reported seeing the figure of Captain Barter roaming around Rubicon, but it’s quite possible he comes back to the teahouse every so often as well.
Thunderbird Lodge (East Shore)
Once you enter South Lake Tahoe and turn left onto Highway 50, keep going past Stateline’s casinos, and through Zephyr Cove and past Cave Rock. You’ll turn left onto Highway 28, soon happening upon the East Shore entrance to the Thunderbird Lodge.
On a quiet breezy autumn morning, the lodge’s chief executive, historian and curator Bill Watson is sitting in the stone gazebo of George Whittell’s famed estate waving to some boaters who support the preservation of the lodge. Intricately involved with the preservation of Thunderbird since 2006, Watson has spent many nights at the remote property but has yet to have a paranormal experience.
“I’ve been here on every dark and stormy night imaginable, and there was only once when I thought I heard footsteps up on the balcony,” Watson says.
He doesn’t discount what others have felt at Thunderbird, though, and there are several deaths that have been associated at the estate.
“We have volunteers who won’t go into the tunnels at night, and a few have said that they’ve sensed a presence,” Watson says, later admitting: “Given enough late nights and tequila in this lodge, anything can happen.”
A few people have insisted they see the ghost of Jimmy Lee (a chef in 1954 who was apparently mauled by a black bear while taking scraps to the incinerator), and a few psychics have told Watson they’ve seen George Whittell standing right next to him while on site at the property.
There’s also the worker who fatally fell in the old boathouse as crews were building a swimming pool in 1940. No one has been able to verify his name, according to reports, but a few psychics and ghost hunters have had some notions.
People also report seeing the spirit of Whittell’s beloved confidant and mistress, Mae Mollhagen, around the Tahoe Biltmore and Thunderbird Lodge. Mollhagen was tragically killed decades ago in a car crash in Crystal Bay driving one of Whittell’s vehicles.
In 1972, when Jack Dreyfus bought the estate, the first thing he said he saw upon his arrival was then-caretaker Od Hodne dead in the kitchen in front of the sink (so his first order of business was to call the coroner).
Hodne was pretty famous in Tahoe; he was an underground Norwegian resistance fighter in World War II and would ski in the backcountry dressed in all white, sniping German physicists on their way to work with his white rifle. He came to Lake Tahoe to teach athletes how to ski and shoot for the 1960 Winter Olympics biathlon and started looking after Whittell’s estate.
Coupled with the Native American heritage and folklore as well, Lake Tahoe’s East Shore holds a lot of myth, legend and mystery that’s still being discovered today. Up on the mountainside adjacent to Thunderbird, unmarked gravesites from pioneers can be found along with some remnants of Mollhagen’s car.
The Thunderbird Lodge hosts public tours in the summertime and private corporate events/parties year-round at the lodge. Sometimes, the lodge’s volunteers will decorate the lodge all spooky-like and host murder mystery events, reenacting some of the tales spun from the happenings there.
Gold Hill Hotel (Virginia City)
Located about 40 miles east of Lake Tahoe in the hills of Comstock country lies an old mining town that was booming in the 1860s due to its abundance of silver (partly why Nevada is called the Silver State).
At the height of its heyday, Virginia City had a population of around 25,000 people, but over the next century and a half it dwindled as the amount of silver was depleted from the mines.
In the old western town with saloons, brothels, casinos and gun-toting cowboys, Virginia City has many unusual sightings. People have creepy tales from their experiences in the Silver Queen Hotel, Piper’s Opera House, Mackay Mansion and Old Washoe Club.
Years ago, I personally toured the Silver Terrace Cemetery at sunset, and the smell of death permeated the air, even though bodies were buried more than 100 years ago (I also found a goat’s skull placed underneath a tree).
Plus, a few visitors have reported odd happenings during their stay at Nevada’s oldest hotel — the Gold Hill Hotel. Established in 1861, overnight guests have reported the spirits of miners, a former housekeeper (or a “lady of the night”?) named Rosie, and a previous owner named William messing with them and their stuff.
Apparently, Rosie likes to relocate people’s personal belongings and turn the lights on and off, while William likes to lock people out of their rooms and smoke tobacco. Even though the hotel has been remodeled, it seems the ghosts of the mining days are still hanging around.