A Confederate cavalryman who lost his head but maintains his fighting spirit near Gaithersburg. A spectral woman from a Gilded Age getaway in Silver Spring. Carousel-riding wraiths in Glen Echo. Phantoms with a flair for drama in Olney.
These restless spirits and ghostly figures haunt cherished places with lots of history—or so the stories go. One of the best things about ghost stories is that whether or not you believe in spirits, these tales invite a closer connection to a place and the community of people who were there before. Some of Montgomery County’s most dedicated ghost hunters are local historians who prize spooky stories for offering unconventional angles on history.
“You come for the ghosts and leave with the history,” says Karen Yaffe Lottes, program coordinator at the Gaithersburg Community Museum and co-author with Dorothy Pugh of In Search of Maryland Ghosts: Montgomery County.
Pugh, a former librarian and writer with Montgomery History, once estimated with remarkable precision that there are 42 or 43 reported ghosts in the county. She and Lottes dug deeper and uncovered more than 50 for their book. Who’s to say if that’s a typical census of spirits for a county of more than 1 million living beings? But it’s enough to keep ghost hunters busy for a while.
Here are the stories of a few…
An Encore in Olney
It was about 2 a.m., and Bill Graham was tucked in for the night in a creaky 1898 farmhouse in Olney. He awakened with a start, his eyes riveted on the commotion above the bed.
“These things were swirling over my head,” he recalls. “They were like swirls of smoke with what looked like faces. …They freaked me out, and I made the sign of the cross with my hands. And they went away.”
Graham was terrified—but not completely surprised. This was the mid-1980s and he was the producing director of the Olney Theatre. Since 1938, plenty of ghosts have stalked its stages, from Banquo in Macbeth to Marley in A Christmas Carol. But the farmhouse that served as the actors’ residence, offices and rehearsal space was said to host the sorts of spirits that didn’t stick to a script.
Graham was trying to sleep one floor below what had gained a reputation as the most haunted bedroom in the building—where witnesses had reported seeing figures enter by walking not through the doorway, but through the door; where actors and staff claimed to hear thumping and furniture dragging when no one was there.
Another night, Graham recalls, he heard piano music coming from the enclosed porch used for rehearsals. “It didn’t quite sound like a tune, but it wasn’t merely banging,” he says. “It was ethereal.” He found the rehearsal pianos standing silently, while the music continued to play, receding as he proceeded down the long porch.
The ghosts “were very real for many people,” says Graham, who now runs a communications firm in New Jersey.
The ghosts of what had become known as the Olney Theatre Center were invited to depart once, in the 1990s. An actor staying in an upstairs bedroom told colleagues the room had a strange presence. The windows would fog up for no reason, and the actor felt the weight of someone sitting on the bed.
Staff members held a kind of new age exorcism of the room. They waved crystals around on thin necklace chains and politely urged the ghosts to be friendly.
“They said things like, ‘We respect you, but leave the people alone,’ ” recalls Weldon C. Brown, director of sales for the Olney Theatre Center. “I kid you not: Right at that time, the lights flickered and the window fogged up.”
The spirits didn’t take the hint. In 2018, an actor appearing in a production of the grief-infused Aubergine was staying in the same room. One day he came downstairs and asked, “Do you guys have ghosts?” The actor told Brown that a window in his room kept fogging, and he felt he wasn’t alone.
Brown himself describes seeing an apparition. Just before a performance of Peter Pan in the late ’90s, he glimpsed a man in a brown suit and brown wing-tipped shoes disappear into the box office. Brown followed him in—and found only two young ticket sellers wearing shorts. That same performance, during curtain calls, members of the stage crew spied a mysterious figure taking a bow in the shadows at one end of the stage. He was wearing brown pants and suspenders.
Theories abound for who these spirits might be. One or more of the golden-era actors who have performed on Olney’s stage—Tallulah Bankhead, Lillian Gish, Bob Fosse, etc.? Mary MacArthur, who contracted a fatal case of polio before she could appear in a 1949 production of Good Housekeeping with her mother, the acting legend Helen Hayes? The couple—Elizabeth C. and Henry Davis—who built the farmhouse?
“Every theater has ghosts; we just happen to have particularly storied ghosts, because of the history of the place,” says Joshua Ford, director of marketing and communications. “Theaters are the repository of a community’s stories. … Not exclusively ghost stories, but we really like the ghost stories.”
Spirits of Glen Echo Park
Glen Echo Park exudes enchantment at all hours. The vibe is probably a combination of the omnipresent band organ music from the historic carousel; the art deco architecture, dating to the 1920s and 1930s, of the former amusement park; and the ripe imaginations of so many potters, painters and other artists on the premises teaching thousands of students each year.
Over the years, employees have reported strange sounds and doors abruptly opening and closing in the Spanish Ballroom, according to artists in the park.
Other remarkable occurrences have been reported as well. Several years ago, silversmith Blair Anderson expanded her SilverWorks Studio & Gallery into a second studio. She installed space for 12 black tool bins that could be pulled from slots on the wall. Any bin can go into any slot, and she moves them around. Yet, she says, no matter where she puts the scissors bin, on three occasions it has suddenly burst out and spilled its contents. Once, a pair of scissors was driven into the wooden floor like a dagger, Anderson says.
“There are things outside of ourselves that we don’t always understand,” Anderson says, “and that was just one of those things that’s like, Huh?” She named her unseen visitor Edward Scissor Ghost and has woven him into the narrative she tells her students about the special atmosphere of the park.
It’s hard to say who might be haunting Glen Echo, but some bad blood flows through its history. Alonzo Shaw, an early operator of the amusement park, built a ride around Clara Barton’s house to try to drive her out, to no avail, before begging her for money, according to a 1997 history; she turned him down, and the park soon changed hands. A handful of riders fell to their deaths from roller coasters, according to news accounts, before the amusement park closed in 1968 and the National Park Service took over the property, supporting its transition to an arts and cultural center in 1971.
The most notorious tragedy of the park’s past was the ownership’s policy of racial segregation that kept generations of African American families from enjoying the grounds. In the summer of 1960, students from Howard University picketed. When a demonstrator attempted to ride the carousel, he was prevented because “it’s strictly for white people,” a security guard said. Five were arrested. Picketing continued until the end of the season. The next year, the park opened its doors to all.
In her book, Lottes includes the story of a teen in the mid-1960s who crept into the park at night after it was closed. Twice he saw ghostly riders on the carousel. They were African American families, formally dressed in clothes that would have been fashionable decades earlier. They bobbed up and down and whirled round and round on the polished and gleaming wooden animals. They were enjoying themselves. It was as if they were asserting a gleeful, ghostly claim to a simple pleasure that had been denied for so long.
The Enchanted Ballroom of National Park Seminary
The National Park Seminary campus in Silver Spring looks like a fairy-tale village, with a Japanese pagoda, a Dutch windmill, a Swiss chalet and an English castle. The property started as a resort hotel, Ye Forest Inne, in the 1880s and soon after became a posh boarding school for young women. Its “rolls burgeoned with young women surnamed Hershey, Chrysler, Heinz, Kraft and Maytag,” Bethesda Magazine reported in 2010.
The Army took it over during World War II and made it a rehabilitation center for wounded troops through the Vietnam era. Preservationists and preservation-minded developers rescued it from abandonment in the early 2000s, and now it’s repurposed for its fourth life as a residential community.
“I can see why people would expect ghosts there,” says Bonnie Rosenthal, executive director of the Save Our Seminary advocacy group. She hasn’t seen a spirit but has heard stories. In the early 1990s, when the property was rundown, a visitor told Rosenthal that he had just seen a ghostly figure in the window of a house that had been uninhabited for years. He described “a Victorian-era woman with her hair piled up and a white high-neck lacy kind of blouse,” Rosenthal says. The witness was more amazed than frightened, according to Rosenthal.
Another story recounted in Lottes’ book takes place in the ballroom, built in the 1920s with a vaulted ceiling and tiered balconies. The space has the grandness of the Overlook Hotel ballroom, though perhaps without the “Shining” menace.
A visitor in the 1960s attended a Valentine’s Day dance sponsored by the Army. He looked up and saw servicemen sitting in the balconies. They seemed melancholy, maybe a little wistful. Then he noticed that the soldiers’ uniforms dated back to World War II. And their bodies appeared translucent. He realized they were ghosts. He wondered if they were sad they couldn’t join the corporeal fun. Or were they still recovering from their wounds, waiting for their chance to return to the dance floor?
Headless Horseman of Game Preserve Road
Game Preserve Road winds lonesomely through a stretch of woods west of Gaithersburg until you come to a one-lane stone underpass beneath the railroad tracks. Legend has it that a Confederate cavalry officer was decapitated hereabouts during a skirmish in the Civil War, according to a story in the county Gazette newspapers in 1992. Could he have been one of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s men, who marauded through the county in 1863, or one of Gen. Jubal Early’s forces, who attacked Rockville in 1864?
In one version of the tale, the Gazette reported, a farmer and his family were traveling to Gaithersburg in a wagon on a foggy night after the Civil War and encountered a figure on a steed with glowing eyes. The rider leaned down to leave a message in the dirt road before galloping away into the fog. Curious to read the message, the farmer was horrified to find it was written in blood: “I cannot rest until I become a whole being. Stay clear, or you and yours may suffer a similar fate.”
The Headless Horseman of Game Preserve Road, as he became known, mutated over the years. In March 1876, under the headline “A Haunted Bridge,” the Montgomery County Sentinel reported on a “mysterious occurrence” that kept happening at 9:30 p.m. around the railroad bridge that crosses Great Seneca Creek: The lantern on the bridge would go out, then “a flame like a flash of lightning” would erupt straight upward and another would shoot across the bridge. Was it a “goblin damned”?
A posse of 50 residents led by young armed men went to investigate. When the flashes burst out, the men fired their guns—and were answered by a shot from the bridge. They withdrew without solving the mystery.
The railroad bridge over the creek is up the tracks from the lonely underpass. Since the railroad didn’t come to the county until several years after the Civil War, was the flashy spirit on the bridge a separate ghost or the Headless Horseman in a new guise?
In the 1980s, according to the Gazette, a ranger at Seneca Creek State Park described hearing hoofbeats and seeing flashing sabers.
A parallel legend grew up about the headless spirit of someone decapitated in a train accident—perhaps rooted in at least two decapitations on the tracks documented by Lottes. A county parks historian in 2001 told The Washington Post that the headless figure has been “a pretty common sight,” and he recalled teenagers looking for a headless ghost killed in a train wreck.
As for the mysterious disturbance on the bridge, in the words of the Sentinel, “You who are not afraid of ghosts would doubtless be repaid for a visit to it. We hope that a solution of this affair will soon be discovered and a cause of terror be removed from the superstitions of that vicinity.”
Lennon Gross and Christine Rai were deep into research for their book project, Mysteries & Legends of the Ag Reserve, when they met for lunch at Locals Farm Market in one of Poolesville’s historic houses. Suddenly the attic door popped open, and there was a gust, as if something were floating through the room. They took it as a good omen for their effort to explore the paranormal lore of the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve in northern and western Montgomery County.
“The history of the Ag Reserve has not been cared for the way I think we would have wanted it to, and there are a lot of stories that remain untold,” says Gross, 27, an artist and public historian who grew up in the reserve. “If framing the stories…as a mystery to unravel is something that inspires people to become interested in local history, then that’s the value for us to really investigate these things.”
“We are a part of the community, and that gives it a different angle,” says Rai, 46, an English professor at Frederick Community College and a folklore enthusiast who leads haunted history tours in Poolesville in October. “People…feel more comfortable discussing this stuff [with us], because it can be hard to talk about strange things that happen, especially when you live in a small town.”
Gross and Rai chronicle their progress on Facebook as they dig into lore rooted in the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, the C&O Canal and bygone Indigenous communities. One spooky story they’ve uncovered features the Watcher (pictured at left), a grizzled character that residents have spotted over the years. The authors are drafting the first volume, but the window is still open for folks to share tales at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Montgomery is a freelance writer who lives in Takoma Park.
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.