I’m heading to Scranton to talk to a dead man. A couple of them, maybe, depending on how things go.
The two-hour ride up the Northeast Extension leaves plenty of time to consider whether this is a good idea, or one that shouldn’t have advanced beyond a stray thought in the back of my mind. Fall has worked its magic on the landscape: Blue Mountain, which towers over the entrance to the Lehigh Tunnel, looks from afar like a toddler’s finger painting, a giant collage of red, orange and green splotches. You don’t get a view like that in the city. This was a good idea.
Then a wall of dense smoke cuts across the highway, and I slam on my brakes. Don’t remember biblical fog being part of today’s forecast. Is something on fire? This was a bad idea. Traffic slows to a crawl for an uncertain moment. The smoke seems to be coming from road crews working on the other side of the highway. Mystery solved. The journey resumes.
Once I reach Scranton, it takes only a few minutes to find my destination, a 108-year-old French Renaissance building that sits atop a tiny parking lot at the edge of downtown. Though just six stories tall, the limestone structure casts an imposing, wide-shouldered shadow. Six columns line the front of the property, creating the impression of a malevolent smile against the rows of windows behind them. Welcome to the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel.
I’ll come right out with it: I’m here because the hotel is said to be haunted. Any building this old is bound to have a history, and the hotel’s is rich with the kind of tales that could fill even the most principled atheist with cold dread. I’m a perpetually skeptical person — a career in journalism will do that to you — but I also tend to think we’re all just ants on a rock hurtling through space, so anything’s possible. There are enough anecdotes floating around about the hotel to convince me it’s worth exploring.
Worst case scenario: I’m wrong and my employers are out a hundred bucks for an overnight room. Or… I encounter something I can’t explain, and lose my marbles, a la Jack Torrance. Either way, some of the blame should fall on the shoulders of Vin Scully.
YES, I’M TALKING ABOUT that Vin Scully, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers announcer who recently retired after 67 years behind the microphone.
I caught a snippet of a Dodgers-Red Sox game in August. Scully’s voice still sounded like apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream as he shared a little story about Red Sox starting pitcher David Price. When Price was in the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system, he and a teammate had an experience in a hotel that spooked them something terrible, so much so that they booked another room elsewhere.
It was told for a quick chuckle in between batters, one of those front porch conversations you can only find during a baseball game. A Google search turned up the full story. Price and fellow pitcher Wade Davis played for the Durham Bulls in 2009, and a road trip brought them to Scranton to face the New York Yankees’ Triple-A club. The Bulls were supposed to spend a few nights at the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel. Davis explained the rest to an MLB.com writer:
“We started hearing knocking on the door,” Davis said, “but no one was ever there.
“We tried to get to sleep but it got really hot in the room. We turned the air conditioner to cool and it would go back to hot. Turn it down as cold as it could get, and it would turn up. Then we started hearing some weird noises, stuff out of the walls — can’t describe them. Kind of like screams.”
Well, by 7:30 the next morning, both Price and Davis were down in the lobby with suitcases packed. They checked out and checked into a Ramada down the street.
“That’s how serious it was — we’re never up at 7:30 after a game,” Davis said. “But we sure were that morning. All the stuff that went on— not cool.”
Price claimed he didn’t remember the nighttime disturbance, but Davis insisted the two men still discuss it. (Davis now pitches for the Kansas City Royals; a team spokesman tells me the pitcher is “not really interested in re-telling that story.”) I was surprised that a pro athlete had been willing to put his name to a ghost story, given all the eye-rolls and ball busting it surely invited. But Davis wasn’t the only one.
Ryan Tatusko spent seven years bouncing around the minor leagues after he was drafted as a pitcher by the Texas Rangers in 2007. He played a couple of seasons on the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A team, which often ended up in Scranton. “Stayed there quite a few nights,” he tells me. “It is a creepy hotel.” Tatusko is quick to note that he didn’t have any personal brushes with things going bump in the night, but other teammates did. One described how he and his wife watched a glass slide across a table in the hotel and shatter when it hit the ground.
“We even had a coach so freaked out that he checked out of the hotel mid-road trip to stay in a different one,” Tatusko says. “He said when he was walking to his room he saw someone coming [from] the opposite direction, so he just kind of shimmied to the side and said excuse me, and then when he looked behind him, there was no one there.”
Tatusko can’t remember the coach’s name — it’s been a few years — but the guy acknowledged that he’d had a few drinks before he ran into the guest who disappeared in the blink of an eye. “Before you even go to Scranton, everybody talks about the hotel, so everybody already has something made up in their minds and is already scared,” Tatusko says. He might have a point — mind over matter, and all that. The Paranormal Activity film franchise was going strong around that time, too, so stories about unexplained disturbances were on the pop culture radar. But there are other anecdotes about players who encountered flickering lights and phantom staffers at the hotel. You wonder if grown men would really bolt from their rooms if there was nothing more here than whisper-down-the-lane tales.
Maybe the answer lurks in the basement — where they kept the morgue.
AS THE NAME IMPLIES, the Lackawanna Station Hotel wasn’t always a hotel. Scranton was a coal-mining mecca in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and demand for rail lines grew as the city’s population surged. Work began on a new $500,000 passenger station in 1906. When it was finished two years later, Lackawanna Station was a work of art, much of which has been preserved.
Walk into the building today, and you can imagine how awestruck its first visitors must have been gazing upon the lobby’s shimmering marble walls, its vaulted Tiffany stained glass ceiling, the faience displays of scenes from the train’s rural routes that line the room’s perimeter.
“It’s a grand, sweeping building. It just dominates the end of the cityscape in Downtown Scranton,” Sarah Piccini, the assistant director of the Lackawanna Historical Society, says in a cheerful voice over the phone. But I didn’t call her to talk about architecture. “Whenever we do anything near the hotel,” she says, “the first question is, ‘Is it haunted?'”
There was a morgue in the hotel, once upon a time. This much I’d already learned from a travel blog called Retro Road Map, which posted photos six years ago of the entrance to the old mortuary — a weathered white door that gave way to a pair of narrow brown ones that were split in the middle. Five words had been scrawled across them in orange: “DO NOT DISRUPT THIS ROOM!”
During World War I, Piccini explains, trains that transported the bodies of fallen soldiers would stop overnight at Lackawanna Station. The human remains were stored in the morgue until the following morning. If you were inclined to believe that a building could be home to some kind of spiritual energy, the presence of the morgue would probably seem like Exhibit A.
The station was shuttered in 1970. In the years that followed, squatters made their way inside, and locals wondered if the building would ultimately be torn down. Instead, it came back to life in 1983 as an opulent hotel. It’s a featured destination on a walking tour of other supposedly haunted properties in Scranton that the historical society leads every October. Piccini says the society hired a team of paranormal investigators a few years ago to examine the buildings on their tour; they were barred from entering the hotel by management. Those who embark on the evening walking tour hear stories of guests who claimed they were pinned down on their beds by some unseen force, or were visited in the night by a long dead bellboy. Some laugh. Some check their watches. Some go wide-eyed with wonder and a hint of fear.
I ask Piccini if she’s ever considered checking into the hotel for a brief stay. “Um, I don’t really know if I would,” she says. “I know too many stories.”
I WALK INTO THE hotel’s bar, Trax, a little after 6 p.m. The name is a nod to the train tracks that would’ve run straight through the rectangular room where people are now clustered around tables, talking quietly over dinner. Glimmering crystal chandeliers hover overhead, casting soft yellow light on copper colored trusses and a wall of lime green tile that runs the length of one side of the room.
There’s a bartender named Marie who’s encouraging the men at the bar to look up from their phones long enough to make eye contact with one another – nod your head, say your name, yell out where you’re from. She’s been working here long enough to remember when she didn’t have to coax people to introduce themselves like kids at summer camp. Bruce Springsteen is gargling through the sound system about his city of ruins, followed by Neil Young yowling John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “I hope someday you’ll join us,” Neil sings, and then Pink Floyd moves in with “Wish You Were Here,” and it feels like a theme is starting to develop.
A middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat and black leather vest knocks over his glass, which tumbles behind the bar and into a cooler. He drunk-splains that he didn’t mean nothing by it and staggers off. I’m working up the courage to ask Marie if she’s ever seen any ghosts here. It still feels slightly ridiculous, even though I’ve come all this way. But on some level, isn’t this is a topic we’ve all toyed with at one point in our lives or another? Maybe not disembodied voices or shadows on the wall per se, but certainly the larger question of What Comes Next.
I mulled it over quite a bit growing up, watching helplessly as one relative after another was felled by different forms of cancer. I came to think of the disease as a faceless stalker who showed up every couple of years to claim another pound of flesh. Maybe they all ended up in a bright, happy place, as some religions suggest. Maybe the afterlife is like a WiFi signal, something you know exists but can’t exactly see or touch, and the signal just happens to be stronger in certain places. Places like this hotel.
Ah, what the hell. I ask Marie if she’s ever had any ghostly encounters here. She hasn’t. I talk with her manager, Amanda Kluxen, who acknowledges that a young bartender was left plenty unnerved by a pair of experiences she had a few years ago. One involved an older man who peeked his head into the bar when the bartender was wrapping up her shift. She looked up, and he vanished. He was nowhere to be found outside. “She was kind of rattled,” Kluxen says. Another time, the woman was in the basement and claimed she heard a child screaming from somewhere nearby. “So she ended up running out of the basement,” Kluxen says, trying to move the conversation along as politely as possible.
I end up wandering around the hotel after midnight, looping through the lobby and down darkened hallways, and then into the basement in an unsuccessful attempt at finding the morgue. I suppose a room like that isn’t easy to find by design, and I can’t imagine guests have carte blanche to poke around the hotel’s bowels to their heart’s content. The building’s quiet, but not still; hotel staffers are tending to odds and ends, and a couple of guests trickle in and out. A little crestfallen, I decide to head back to my room. A cynical inner voice points out that it would have been a little too convenient to find a willowing specter that easily. I’m wide awake when I finally climb into bed. The sconce on the wall rattles slightly, and there are other unexplained noises that I chalk up to the building being more than a century old, even though the rooms did recently undergo an expensive makeover. When I finally drift off, a bizarre dream follows of being awake in the hotel room but kind of frozen, unable to move my arms.
The next morning, I ask a woman at the front desk to take me to the old morgue. She doesn’t think that’s doable, but she picks up a phone and asks her manager, who emerges from an office to tell me she asked her general manager, who absolutely, positively won’t allow it. We make small talk about how lovely the hotel is, and how nice it is to see the trees finally changing color.
I pack up and head back onto the highway, leaving the Radisson Lackwanna Station Hotel and its boxy smile behind. I really wish they would have let me visit the morgue. It’s unlikely anything life-altering would have happened, but it would’ve been nice to peer into the past for a minute and wonder if someone — or something — was staring back. But I get the hotel management’s reluctance to play along. Not everyone likes ghost stories.
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