Haunted history scares up business for Briarhurst

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Briarhurst Manor Marketing and Sales Manager Janice Montoya

In the 1880s when William and Cara Bell entertained guests at their beloved Briarhurst Manor in Manitou Springs, their children scampered among the guests.

Nearly 139 years later, they still do.

Modern-day visitors to the manor, a restaurant known for award-winning fine dining, have reported seeing a red-haired girl, dressed in Victorian-era clothes, playing on the lawn as they had lunch.

Others have heard children laughing and playing ball inside the house when no children were visiting that day. And, on cold days, employees have heard running in the attic — the place where the Bell children played during the winter.

Strange events are part of the estate’s charm — reports of lights turning off and on, stereos suddenly blaring, shadows in the hallways and an alarm system detecting motion when everyone has gone home for the night.

While the manor’s owner Ken Healey does not hype the ghost stories, he doesn’t dismiss them either. The manor offers historic and paranormal tours every Saturday.

“We don’t work that angle too much,” Healey said. “But, there is a large contingent that is interested in talking about the paranormal.”

These are the spooky stories of the old castle, which was built by one of Manitou’s founding fathers, who is reported to have lived a joyous life in the 15,000-square-foot home.

People are interested in the things that go bump in the night for many reasons, said Briarhurst Manor marketing and sales director Janice Montoya.

Two years ago the crew of the popular SyFy Channel television show, “Ghost Hunters,” showed up in search of the little spirits.

“When the Ghost Hunters were here, they were pulling on the cabinets to see if they were solid,” she said. “They want it to be scientific.”

And while the Briarhurst Manor is known for fine dining and a romantic environment, ghosts are good for business. There was a boost in bookings following the airing of the Briarhurst’s ghost story, Montoya said.

“It was a nice bump and exposed a lot of people to Briarhurst who had not been here,” Montoya said.

And, she can always tell when the Briarhurst episode has been rerun.

“I’ll start getting more calls for tours,” she said. Some guests have brought in their own ghost hunting machines and detection devices trying to sense the spirits.

Haunted Manitou

Being haunted is good for tourism. And, Manitou Springs, a National Historic District, embraces its spiritual side.

This weekend the city celebrates its 17th year of the Emma Crawford Coffin Races, an event based on the tale of Crawford’s burial at the top of Red Mountain. As the story goes, following stormy weather, her remains washed down the side of the mountain in 1929 and some say Emma still haunts the area.

About 10,000 spectators are expected to line the streets and hopefully spend money in local restaurants and taverns, said Floyd O’Neil, Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce director of special events.

“From tourism, it puts Manitou on the map,” O’Neil said. “We get national and international news coverage.”

An estimated 700,000 people visit Manitou Springs each year, O’Neil said. No telling exactly how many are searching for spirits or are interested in history.

“We do get people wanting to know where the ghosts are,” he said.

Deborah Harrison at the Manitou Springs Heritage Center tells folks all about the ghosts of Manitou during her annual Ghost Stories tour Halloween weekend. And, she’ll raise about $1,000 for the center, which is run entirely by volunteers. She’ll make 10 stops and tell stories of a miner who roams the hillside and a nanny who saved children from a fire; and, of course, the star of the Manitou ghost show, Emma Crawford.

“I’ll add a new ghost every year,” Harrison said “We’ve got so many, because it’s Manitou.”

History

Historic buildings are ripe for eerie unexplained wanderings of spirits from days past. When the crew of “Ghost Hunters” arrived at Briarhurst Manor in the summer of 2009, some employees were so spooked by what they had seen at the manor they refused to talk to the crews.

“I don’t want to stir up old dust,” one employee told Montoya.

Dr. William Bell, who was best friends and colleagues with Gen. William Palmer, built the manor in 1872 to entertain friends. Bell and his wife hosted grand parties and costume balls there year-around and then the manor burned down in 1886.

“They loved it so well, they had it rebuilt,” Montoya said.

The manor saw a variety of owners since then — it was a reported “supper club” during Prohibition; it was owned by a wealthy couple in the 1930s; it was a hippy commune in the 1960s; and it was turned into a restaurant in the 1970s. It’s been ransacked and hardly any of the original furnishings remain.

But, many believe the spirits remain. Healey bought the manor in 2000 and began serious renovation. During the construction project, one of the managers reported seeing tiny, child-like footsteps coming from a locked bedroom going down the hallway, “like little Victorian slippers,” Montoya said.

Today, Briarhurst Manor is booked for many special events. About 150 weddings are held at the manor each year, Montoya said. And the staff just deals with the rearranged objects, the strange shadows and the blinking lights, she said.

“They are not malicious,” Montoya said “Some paranormal groups that have come here said they have not connected with mean spirits.”

Ghostly weekend

Oct. 28: Emma’s Victorian Wake at Miramont Castle. For details call 685-1011.

Oct. 29: 17th Annual Emma Crawford Coffin Race, starting at noon in downtown Manitou Springs. Fifty teams compete, including six firefighting teams.

Oct. 29: “Ghost Stories of Old Manitou” hosted by the Manitou Springs Heritage Center, 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tours are $10 for adults and $5 for children and depart every 15 minutes from the Heritage Center, 517 Manitou Ave. The tours tell the stories of real people who lived or died in remarkable ways in Manitou Springs.

Oct. 30: Halloween Murder Mystery Dinner Theater, five-course dinner at Briarhurst Manor starring Red Herring Productions. By reservation only. Call 685-1864.