Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Public History Ghost Story

When you are a public historian, the public finds you. I get calls and emails all the time with research queries, historical items that people want to be appraised or authenticated, and some pretty interesting stories. This post is about one of the latter. I hope it is OK to tell it here.

Lowell School, 1922. Photo from the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture
Maybe four or five years ago, I got a phone call from a man who had found my name through a mutual friend. The man was Native American, a member of a southwestern or California tribe, I forget which. I was actually in Centralia at the time, strolling down the historic main street. I remember that it was a sunny fall afternoon, and I was grateful for that as the man's macabre tale unfolded.

He told me how, as a boy, maybe eight years old, he was haunted by a series of terrible and realistic nightmares. In his dreams, he was a Spokane Indian boy his same age, forced to attend a white-run school. He had never been to Spokane and had no connections to our area. In his dreams, he was constantly disciplined at this school for things like speaking his own language and not being a good student. Sometimes he would be beaten in his dreams and wake up screaming. Often he would be locked in a basement cell without food or water for days at a time.

The dreams became so bad, he told me, that he underwent therapy. It went on for several years, and he was terrified to go to sleep at night. Finally, in one particularly awful dream, he was beaten and thrown into his basement cell--and in his dream, he died there. The school principal walled up the cell with his body inside.

The nightmares went away as he became a teenager, but he never forgot about them. It sounded to me like he still carried scars from those years. Then, in his thirties (I think?) he ended up moving to Spokane.

One day he ended up driving through the Vinegar Flats neighborhood. This is a quaint part of Spokane along Hangman Creek just before it flows into the Spokane River. It is a traditional worker's neighborhood that also includes some of the little commercial farmland still being worked within city limits. And before the arrival of the white invaders, it was the traditional sinter season campground of the Upper Spokane band of Indians. Anyway, the man was taken aback and stopped dead in his tracks when he came across this abandoned school building. The Lowell School, it was the school in his old nightmares.

Photo courtesy Spokane Historic Preservation Office
He arranged with the owner, he told me, to go inside. He recognized everything, even things like doorknobs and hinges, from his dreams. He said that he felt such a chill at the time, and I felt the same chill standing on the sidewalk in Centralia listening to the story. He was adamant that he recognized every single thing in the old building, which is apparently well preserved inside as we see in these photos from its 2015 nomination for the historic register.

Photo courtesy Spokane Historic Preservation Office
Then they went down into the basement. There was no sign of a cell. The basalt walls seemed original and that there was no sign of any alterations--no bricked up old doorway or other hints that there had ever been a cell down there. He said it was strange that every other detail was exactly as he remembered, but there was no sign at all of the cell where, in another life, he had died.

Photo courtesy Spokane Historic Preservation Office
The man wanted to know if the school had ever been a school for Native American children. I told him no, I was pretty sure that it was never used for that purpose (as the historic register nomination above confirms). There was a boarding school for Spokane Indian children at Fort Spokane, and it was terrible, but nothing at the Lowell School.

We talked for a long time. I am convinced that he was not pulling my leg but telling me the truth about experiences that he was trying to understand. He was smart and articulate and sane. I suggested that sometimes people have visions and that they are not always to be understood literally. We agreed to talk more--but we never did.

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