Autumn Phillips: Ghosts of South Routt haunt old buildings

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— Editor's note: This ghostly piece of prose by former Steamboat Pilot & Today staffer Autumn Phillips originally published in October 2002. Tom Ross' column will return to its regular schedule Tuesday.

Whether Mary Ray's ghost paces the halls of the inn at the entrance of town in Oak Creek, stories of ghosts have kept a lot of history alive for residents.

Ray's ghost holds the story of Oak Creek's wilder days, when coal miners and railroad men walked down a Main Street lined with bars and brothels.

In those days, hell had no fury like a woman scorned, and no better story to be told and retold.

Even as they say she is still up there, pointing to the top window of the Oak Creek Inn, residents tell how Mary Ray, a former prostitute-turned-bartender's-wife, pulled a revolver on her husband and shot him dead when he tried to beat her.

They had been married eight months.

"In spite of her marriage, she did not change her ways, but persisted in going unescorted to dances and was often found in the company of other men. This was the cause of several serious quarrels between her and her husband," as was written in the Oak Creek Times, a paper that existed from 1919 to 1947.

It was about 1 a.m. Sunday morning, and James Ray was just home from work at the Big Six saloon when his wife came home from a night of heavy drinking and dancing elsewhere.

"A.S. Brown and William Irwin, who were sleeping in the house, rushed into the kitchen at the sound of the shots and found Ray unconscious in the middle of the floor. Mrs. Ray held his head in her lap and was crying, 'I'd give my life if I hadn't done it. I'd give my life if he wouldn't die,'" the Times said.

After Mary was told her husband was dead, she lunged for the gun but was unsuccessful in killing herself.

Nearly 300 people came to the funeral, and nearly as many attended Mary's murder trial.

She was found guilty of second-degree murder.

After Mary's death, by all accounts, her ghost returned to the Bell Reidy "House of ill fame," now known as the Oak Creek Inn.

When the former brothel became a nursing home years later, "several guests spotted a girl walking the halls," Oak Creek historian Mike Yurich said.

Quietly disturbing

Oak Creek is full of old homes climbing the walls of the valley. Each has a history under its layers of wallpaper and paint.

Some know former residents only because they refuse to leave, as in the poltergeist in a story Yurich recorded for the Oak Creek Historical Society.

His written version tells of his friend Ozzie Phelps, who lived in the Schemmp's Addition at the top of the hill near Lincoln.

"Phelps had a rare ability to foretell the future with cards," Yurich wrote. "It was at one of these card readings. The house was very quiet, just Ozzie and myself. Suddenly, there was a noise of scraping feet, a door opening, and the sound of something being dragged across the basement below.

"Ozzie, ever so calm, said, 'That's my Poltergeist. He moves about the house but always ends up dragging something heavy from that corner to this corner. Listen. He'll soon stop and leave.'"

Phelps even knew the name of the friendly ghost, but Yurich forgot the name over time. According to his written account, he spoke to the new owner of the Phelps house, Linda Wellman, and asked if a remodeling had frightened away the ghost.

Wellman told him the ghost was still around.

"She hears movement but did not realize what it was until I explained," Yurich said.

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