St. Augustine, Fla., is an old city by American standards. The famous Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon — all swaggering 4 feet 11 inches of him — landed off the coast in 1513, and the trolley drivers like to explain that St. Augustine had been inhabited for decades by the time the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, so there, Massachusetts!
What better place to hunt ghosts than a 450-year-old city? St. Augustine has ample ghost-hunting opportunities year round, and I was able to participate in three. The first focused on the lighthouse on Anastasia Island, a quick drive over the Bridge of Lions. Haunted or not, the lighthouse is a popular attraction, and ghostly inhabitants just add to the allure. The grounds have even been the focus of professional ghost-hunters on television.
Unsuspecting tourists sometimes arrive at the lighthouse in the evening after closing time. More than once they have reported being greeted by a family wearing odd clothing and sitting on a porch swing. This family even speaks, telling the tourists to come back the next day. However, there is no swing on the porch and this family has long since passed away. Now that's intriguing.
I signed up for the ghost tour called "Dark of the Moon" in the gift shop at the lighthouse. Our group consisted of a dozen people. After a brief introduction, we walked through a spooky wooded area to a courtyard between the keeper's house and the lighthouse. Our guide pointed out garages and sheds beyond a low wall where numerous ghost sightings had been reported, in particular, those of young girls.
Three girls did die accidentally while the lighthouse was under construction. They were playing in a rail car that broke through a barrier and flipped upside down in the water. Although the little girls seem to be the most frequently witnessed, there are other spirits occupying the lighthouse grounds, too.
In the basement of the house, an adult male ghost likes to stroke ladies' hair. The smell of cigar smoke also indicates his presence. Like most basements, it is damp and airless, adding to the sinister feeling. Employees believe another ghost called Andrew unlocks doors and causes minor disturbances around the property.
The second ghost tour I took was called "Ghosts and Gravestones." Our transport for the evening was a solid black trolley with oversize windows, great for catching the breeze. Inside a driver in jail stripes was accompanied by a blond tour guide in a long green skirt. We drove back to the lighthouse but this time strolled through an open area across the street from the keeper's house where there was a large swing set and a scattering of trees.
Again we heard about the young girl ghosts and the long history of sightings. While we in the playground area, a teenager in our group captured white glowing orbs on his phone, causing quite a commotion.
The trolley continued to the old jail, well known to ghost-hunters familiar with St. Augustine. Another fellow in prison stripes welcomed us inside and explained the reputation of the jail and the story of one particularly harsh sheriff. We moved to another part of the building where our guide closed us inside a dimly lit cell block, which made my skin crawl.
My final ghost adventure was a tour called "A Ghostly Experience Walking Tour." The guide wore Civil War period clothing and carried an old-time lantern, a nice touch. After the introduction, we walked down St. George Street to hear about a mystery woman seen washing and hanging laundry on a line. After nightfall, the area takes on a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.
Since ghosts are not limited to humans, another historic building on St. George Street houses the tail-wagging spirits of two Standard poodles, or so we were told. We turned down a side street and walked toward the water. Older, multistory houses still line the street, and one is known to have three female ghosts often heard having tea and laughing on the second-floor balcony. At least they are having fun in the afterlife, unlike the poor laundry lady.
We continued toward the Castillo de San Marcos, a much-loved attraction in St. Augustine. Our guide knew fellow ghost-hunters who found evidence of both human and animal spirits at the fortification. The grassy "moat" surrounding the fortress was a protected place, so the residents would move their livestock there in times of siege or trouble, and ghost chickens are said to have been sighted.
We crossed the street for another short walk to a cemetery to hear more stories. Then it was on to the old city gates. In the narrow space between stone gates, once again tourists and spirits collide. Visitors have been known to call law enforcement late at night believing they've seen a lost girl standing at the gates. She is familiar to the local residents as the spirit of a teenager called Elizabeth who passed away in a yellow fever epidemic in 1821.
WHEN YOU GO
There is no shortage of ghost stories in this Florida city. For more information, visit www.floridashistoriccoast.com.
Kathryn Lemmon is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
(c) COPYRIGHT 2012 CREATORS.COM