Oregon History Portland History

Haunted houses and ghosts in Portland

Once upon a time I wrote for Neighborhood Notes, a cool neighborhood, community-focused digital publication based in Portland. The now-defunct site went offline a couple of years ago but the editors have graciously let me repost a couple of the posts I wrote. Sure, the info is more than 10 years old. I’ve done my best to update posts but have pretty much left them untouched.

Hauntings are nothing new – Oregonian article from 1911.

When it comes to the paranormal there are three camps: the hardcore believers, the non-believers and those that are somewhere in the middle. You either believe the squeaking floor you hear at night as you lay in bed is the ghost of the previous tenant hacked to pieces by his wife in the 1930s taking a midnight stroll in your living room. Or, if you’re a non-believer, you’re thinking that you probably need to replace the decaying floor joists and flooring from the 1800s. 

And the somewhere-in-the-middle crowd? You’re thinking it’s probably the cat playing with a toy, at least that’s what you keep telling yourself. But you’re definitely not getting out of bed to check out what the odd noise is as you pull the covers over your head.

Portland has a fascinating past and history. And amidst the famous coin flip, the platting of streets, the growth of the city along the Willamette, the stumps of trees scattered around town, and two World Wars, people did horrible things to each other, like murder, while others died mysteriously or tragically.

Some of the victims just aren’t ready to move on.

Old Town Pizza
Our most famous ghost is probably Nina (pronounced Nye-nah) who has made Old Town Pizza her home for decades. The pizzeria is situated in a ghostly ground zero, sitting in the original lobby of the Merchant Hotel with the infamous Shanghai tunnels underneath—which are also purportedly haunted.

Adam Milne, owner of Old Town Pizza, says Nina, who was a prostitute, has made many appearances over the years since her untimely ending more than 100 years ago. “Supposedly she turned in some of Portland’s more notorious underworld types and was pushed down the elevator shaft and now haunts the restaurant. She’s been seen by various customers and employees.”

She makes appearances throughout the restaurant. “I had one manager who saw an old lady in a dress in the restaurant before we opened and walked down to the basement. He went and chased after her only to find no one was there.” Another instance involved the janitor. As recent as last week, the employee—who doesn’t believe in ghosts—said he felt someone grab his arm. “It creeped him out,” says Milne.

Nina’s name is carved into a brick in the elevator shaft. Legend has it that she carved it herself. She usually wears a dress and hangs out on the second floor. Milne says he’s never seen Nina, but he’s always looking for her.

If you want to get the lowdown on resident ghosts like Nina and visit their haunts, Portland Walking Tours’ Beyond Bizarre, which is part ghost-hunt, part history and part ghost stories, is a good start. Armed with various tools of the ghost-hunting trade, such as K2 meters, EMF meters, and recording devices, participants explore different buildings around town, including Old Town Pizza, with some interesting results.

“I’ve seen pictures taken on the tour that are questionable. I’ve seen orb photos that are definitely not dust,” says Portland Walking Tours owner David Schargel.

SW Stark Street (SW Harvey Milk Street)
Downtown Portland is rife with hauntings and ghosts if you know where to look: well-known restaurants, old flophouses, a gas station and even a former police station.

And then there are whole blocks that have a history of weird events. Many “hauntings” have taken place from 2nd Avenue down to the waterfront right along a meridian line that is Stark Street. “There’s some weird activity there that usually gets picked up by meters or through photographs that’s unusual,” says Schargel.

The reason for this is usually attributed to the Stark Street Ferry. Back before we had bridges connecting the east to the west side, Portlanders relied on the Stark Street Ferry to get to each side for errands or for business. Or for funerals. A good portion of Portland’s cemeteries are on the eastside such as the wonderful Lone Fir Cemetery, the city’s oldest cemetery, and the ferry was used to transport bodies—along with funeral marches—across the Willamette. Could this be why many ghost hunters get some meter action or photos with “weird floaty-shapes” near Stark Street?

Morrison Bridge, Portland, Oregon
The Morrison Bridge was most likely used to transport the deceased to their final resting place as the ferry became obsolete.

Hoodoo Antiques
Another famous Portland haunt is Hoodoo Antiques, and it’s a good example of an “object” haunting. “You may have heard stories of pianos playing themselves or wedding rings that are haunted, well Hoodoo Antiques actually has a haunted object that’s been documented in police reports. That lends some legitimacy to it,” says Schargel.

Well-known paranormal expert Jeff Davis, author of Portland’s Rose City Ghosts and co-author of Weird Oregon, says the haunted object in question at Hoodoo is a 19th century pen and ink drawing of a woman with a lace head scarf that the owner received as a present from his mother-in-law.

“She had had a small workshop in what is now Barracuda (now closed) which was once originally Erikson’s Saloon and had found the drawing hidden in the floorboards and gave it to the antique store,” says Davis.

On several occasions, particularly New Year’s, the burglar alarm—which is motion sensored—has gone off and people have reported seeing a woman standing in the back of the shop either wearing a laced hat or some kind of lace around her hair. “Objects from the antique store have gone missing for a couple of weeks—which you kind of expect in an antique store. But then these same missing objects will reappear in a very common obvious place as if by magic weeks later,” says Davis.

Benson Hotel
The Benson opened in 1913 at Southwest Broadway and Oak, as the New Oregon Hotel, an “annex” to the Oregon Hotel next door: Heavy doorknobs engraved “OH” can still be found in the hotel, harkening back to its gala grand opening. The Benson was equipped with the latest innovations of the day, including automatic door switches and circulating ice water. The ceilings were covered with plaster molds, and the closets in the guest rooms were equipped with electric lights. Guests of the hotel were greeted each morning with a complimentary cup of hot clam nectar, a tradition eventually usurped by coffee.

While management doesn’t officially endorse ghost stories, they’ve had guests tell them of “friendly experiences.” There are three known hauntings. The first is the lobby area staircase leading up to the mezzanine where guests have seen a ghostly man walking down the grand staircase. Another ghost hangs out on the ninth floor and is well documented on sites such as Yelp, while the third is in a downstairs meeting room in one of the restaurants. There’s also a story that a spirit helped a slightly disabled guest into bed one night. “The guest thought the ghost was the night porter. How’s that for service?” asks Davis.

White Eagle Saloon
If there’s on old hotel, in any city in the U.S., there’s probably some sort of urban legend assigned to it. But the haunting at the White Eagle, built in 1905, has some basis in fact and is attributed to an actual person: Sam Warrick. Sam can be seen on historical pictures that grace the wall of The White Eagle from the early 1900s and was a cook and a bartender at the bar. “And here’s where separating the legend from the facts gets a little more difficult,” says Davis. Sam was supposedly one of the last tenants on the second floor which was set up as a rooming house or inexpensive boarding house. Toward the end of WWII, the structure was getting run down and building codes were changing that prohibited living quarters above bars. Sam supposedly died in his room before he was evicted, or he found a place to live but died before he had a chance to move out.

White Eagle Saloon
White Eagle Saloon

Sam supposedly haunts the second floor and the main floor, though his ghost isn’t seen a lot—apparitions are pretty rare, says Davis. Sam does seem to be bit of a prankster though. “A cook in the kitchen once reported a huge container of mustard flew off the shelf so hard that it bounced off the opposite wall and then hit the floor with such force that it fell a couple of feet,” Davis says. 

Heathman Hotel
Built in 1927 and located in the heart of Portland, this 150-room luxury hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It’s also got some ghostly goods. One popular story takes place in room 703. For years guests have reported mysterious incidents. They check into a freshly cleaned room, and after leaving for a few hours, come back to find a glass of water on the desk. In the old days, if a glass moved on its own during a guest’s absence, a bell person could easily be blamed. Nowadays, every entrance is tracked with an electronic key record, so no one has been in the room since the guest first left.


Rooms 303 to 1003 also have strange and unexplained stories. According to the hotel, a well-known psychic visited in 1999 and claimed to see a ghost at the end of her bed with the conclusion that hauntings have all taken place in the column of rooms between 303 and 1003. The psychic’s theory? Someone once jumped to their death and cursed the rooms they passed on the way down.

Hollywood and Bagdad Theaters
What is it about theaters and hauntings? They seem to go hand in hand, and apparently the Hollywood Theater is home to (at least) a couple of ghosts. Numerous sightings of a ghostly male figure have been made in the upstairs lobby, and upstairs in the right theater a female ghost reportedly sits in one of the back two rows. Meanwhile, employees of the Bagdad Theater have reported lights dimming on their own and cold breezes originating from nowhere in particular.

Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery
This functioning, well-kept cemetery is a treasure trove of local history—some of Portland’s most famous residents are buried here. However, it wasn’t always taken care of, according to the Friends of Lone Fir: 

No money was set aside for perpetual care and the cemetery gradually fell into disrepair. By 1928 it was covered with blackberry mounds and there were 10,000 unknown graves. Prior to the 1870s, there were few stone markers and the wooden ones had rotted or were destroyed in one of several fires in the cemetery.

With thousands of bodies buried here, there are some chances for good stories, right? By day, it’s a fascinating stroll through Portland’s past and by night, like any cemetery, it can be a bit spooky though Davis says the space isn’t monitored for paranormal activity. Each year the Friends put on a fun Halloween tour, Untimely Departures, and offer tours year round.


Other Ghostly Gatherings
There always seems to be a theme to hauntings—the spirits usually died a tragic death, were involved in a romance gone bad or were involved in some unscrupulous activity. Here are some of Portland’s most well-known hauntings.

Downtown Burger King
The long-gone Burger King on Burnside had numerous stories of it being haunted by an unknown entity. What happens to resident ghosts when their home is demolished? Shudder to think.

Jantzen Beach Carousel
Rumor has is that the carousel has ghost children that lurk in the middle. And we all know that child ghosts are the worst—and creepiest—kind.

Hayden Island
The island, which has been in the news a lot lately over the CRC controversy, once housed Lotus Isle, a long-lost amusement park on the eastside. In 1930 a young boy died from a fall on the roller coaster, the owner committed suicide the next day and a year later the park’s ballroom burned down. If it’s not haunted, it should be.

Oregon History Portland History

How to research the history of your home

Once upon a time I wrote for Neighborhood Notes, a cool neighborhood, community-focused digital publication based in Portland. The now-defunct site went offline a couple of years ago but the editors have graciously let me repost a couple of the posts I wrote for them. (I’ve done my best to update posts but have pretty much left them untouched.) 


It’s no secret that Portland homeowners are into their homes. Like really into them. People here just don’t have a simple backyard garden—they grow produce that can feed the whole block. Merely painting a home doesn’t fly. Many homeowners will not only find the most accurate colors to match the palette of their appliances and countertops, they’ll match the vibe and natural colors of the neighborhood, and use non-toxic, low-VOC paints, of course. In other words, the homes we live in are very important to us. And thankfully many homes across Portland—the cute bungalows, the elegant tudors, the sturdy Craftsman homes and the venerable Four Squares—get the care they deserve through thoughtful renovations that match the home’s history, original style and architectural integrity.

Visit Rejuvenation Hardware

A logical place to start is Rejuvenation Hardware, 1100 SE Grand Avenue. This well-known local showroom is the country’s leading manufacturer of period-authentic lighting and hardware and can help you choose everything from the correct light fixture, door knob and window to match the style of your home. It’s also a safe bet to say they know the style of house you own.

So what defines the typical vintage Portland home? Bo Sullivan, Rejuvenation’s architectural historian and owner and founder of Arcalus, a period design consulting firm, says homeowners should first recognize that style and type of home are two different things. “We have many cottages, bungalows, foursquares, and basic vernacular forms [that don’t really have a name], in styles that range from Queen Anne and Shingle Style to Craftsman, Tudor, Colonial Revival, Federal, Classical Revival, Mediterranean, Norman, and Storybook,” he says.

There are many clues your home gives you when researching it. For instance, pre-1900 homes often feature black or white porcelain door knobs, narrow (under 1-3/4”) and flat rectangular-shaped decorative steeple-tip hinges with ornamentation, on four-panel doors.

s-l1600 (3).jpg

Homes built from 1900-1920 often feature 2-1/4” plain round or octagonal glass knobs on larger stamped plates or rosettes (and ball-tip hinges on five-panel doors), while homes built from 1920-1940 often feature smaller plain brass or fluted glass knobs on smaller 2” rosettes or stamped backplates and ball-tip hinges on single panel doors.

If you’re stuck or need more information, there are numerous resources locally that can give you snippets of your home’s history puzzle (see list below). Sullivan recommends which usually has the original date of the home on its listings (but can also be inaccurate he warns) as well as books and other resources such as old Sanborn fire insurance maps and city directories, which are available at Multnomah County and Oregon Historical Society libraries. Sullivan says you can also bring a picture into the store and one of Rejuvenation’s staff will try to offer some insight.

Join the Architectural Heritage Center
The Architectural Heritage Center (AHC), located at 701 SE Grand Avenue, opened in 2005 and is owned and operated by the Bosco-Milligan Foundation (BMF). The origins of BMF go back to 1988—its founders Jerry Bosco and Ben Milligan were longtime salvagers and collectors (1950s-1980s) of building materials from buildings being demolished predominantly in Portland.

“They set up the foundation shortly before their deaths from AIDS with the goal of using the collection and eventually the building we are now in (they also owned West’s Block which now houses the AHC)—to help educate people about historic preservation. A capital campaign was started in the 1990s to renovate and restore West’s Block to turn it into the AHC,” says Val Ballestrem, education manager at the Bosco-Milligan Foundation / Architectural Heritage Center. (Val’s also the author of Lost Portland, Oregon.

The AHC’s library is like a candy store for local building and history researchers and is accessible via appointment Wednesday through Friday afternoons to members. Its library is vast and has approximately 3,000 volumes focused on Portland architecture, architects, history, urban planning, historic preservation, and interiors. They also carry old city directories, vintage maps and plan books that can be a tremendous help to researchers trying to discover the style of their home.

Many homes in Portland have a specific style that can be identified, but there are also numerous ones that have a mixed style or ones with names that are merely invented (“Northwest Victorian A-frame” was a personal favorite from a local real estate ad I once read). Like Sullivan, Ballestrem suggests that homeowners determine the rough original architectural style of their home.

“Styles are not cast in stone so you often see mixtures of stylistic elements. Think anything from hardware to brackets and lighting,” says Ballestrem. “Looking at old magazines like House Beautiful or Sunset can also give you a sense of popular styles from various periods. So can old hardware and builders catalogs,” he says.

Old Portland Homes

Visit the Alameda Old House History Web Site
Doug Decker, old house researcher and Alameda neighborhood historian, runs the comprehensive web site Alameda Old House History. Information from his site should definitely arm any weekend preservationist or researcher with everything they need to get started on the history of their Portland home.

It’s interesting how some of our housing stock developed and in what parts of the city they developed in.

Victorian and Queen Anne homes reigned in the late 1880s on the inner east side, both southeast and north/northeast. Decker says larger homes were more predominant in residential districts such as the west side of Irvington while smaller cottage-type homes in areas were more closely associated with commercial or industrial areas. “The railroad was the big business in those days, and many railroad workers lived in Queen Anne cottages adjacent to these working districts,” he says.

He also says, in terms of sheer numbers, there are more bungalows in Portland than any other house style. Two factors influenced this, according to Decker. Following the World’s Fair in 1905, Portland experienced significant population growth which led to a booming housing market, supported both by the flood of new residents and generally favorable economic conditions regionally and nationally.

“The Craftsman and Arts and Crafts movements were just arriving on the West Coast and these designs fed what was often referred to as ‘bungalow fever.’ When you connect the exploding market and growth of Portland from 1905-1915 with a winning design style you have thousands and thousands of bungalows,” he says.


Then, in the 1920s, the design style moved away from all the straight lines of Craftsman design, favoring more “romantic visions of English cottage and Tudor revival styles. Many of these homes essentially kept the floorplan of the bungalow, but had a new and more modern look. The Colonial revival style began to gain in popularity during these years as well,” adds Decker.

So, you have a good idea of your neighborhood, the home’s style, maybe some anecdotal facts but want to dive deeper in its age and the previous tenants. What next?

House parts and style are the ultimate clue to a home’s age. Decker says one of the key components to a home’s secret are the windows or as he calls them the “eyes of the home.” If your home’s windows are long and narrow it usually means the home is older. Wood windows, either double hung or casement, are another clue. And typically the more ornate the style of trim and molding, the older a home will be.

The ultimate score for an old-home researcher are older photos of a home. Finding an old photo can be the missing link needed to bring your research full circle. Sometimes it’s pure luck or hours of research at the local library poring over tomes of musty reference books. Tip: Ask neighbors about your home. One local researcher recalled the time he was talking to a neighbor who it turns out was related to his home’s original owner and had a stack of original house photos from when the home was built. 

Indeed, researching your home can be a rich, enjoyable experience. It can give one a sense of history but also a sense of place. Decker recalls an experience from his own home, an Alameda 1912 Arts and Crafts bungalow, when he met the “little boy” who had previously lived in the home he learned about from the research he had done on the home.

“He was 90 years old when I found him. When we met for lunch and an afternoon of conversation, I had many questions for him, most of which he was able to answer. He also provided me with photos going back to 1918 which were indispensable on a front porch renovation we were contemplating. Based on the photos he provided, we have completely restored the front of the house to how it looked when the house was built in 1912. Plus, my own family just has a deeper connection with the house knowing how it was loved and shaped by earlier families,” he says.

Old Portland Home.jpg
5506 NE 32nd Place (formerly 1150 E. Glenn Avenue, the Eaton family home). Source.

Other Resources

Polk City Directories
Usually available at your local library, these can help fill the gaps by offering the names of previous residents of your home as well as their occupation, giving users a fascinating glimpse of previous tenants. Was the previous owner of your home from the 1920s a dentist or an undertaker? This directory will probably tell you.

Portland Auditor’s Office
Searchable and in-depth resource for city records, planning maps, correspondence and an amazing collection of neighborhood photographs. You can access online or visit their offices at Portland State University Academic & Student Recreation Center (ASRC), 1800 SW 6th Avenue, suite 550.

Past Portland 
Local illustrator and Portland historian Khris Soden meticulously researches and posts  on his comprehensive site that details older Portland street names—and what they were renamed.

Multnomah County Library
Of course the Multnomah library has a great online resource for Portlanders, with their “Investigating Your House’s History,” page with tips, resources and links to get you started.

Oregon Historical Society
Its research library maintains books, maps, manuscripts, reels of newspaper microfilm, film and videotape, oral history tapes, and photographs. In other words, you can count on spending an entire day—if you wish—researching your home, neighborhood and Portland in general. 

Docomomo Oregon 
Let’s not forget the recent past and Portland’s impressive mid-century architecture. Think you have a Rummer on your hands? This group is your go-to resource.

Hard-to-find Houseparts 
Hard to Find House Parts specializes in finding lighting and hardware for your project as well as restoring your pieces or advising you on a project. Check out their Insta site for the goods.