– by Adrianne Montoya
One of Denver’s grand old buildings, Union Station, has been beautifully restored and updated to serve as a modern transportation hub. The city didn’t always have such a fine space, though. From 1872 until Union Station opened in 1881, passenger trains pulled in at a much more modest brick depot at 21st and Wazee; that’s just about under home plate at Coors Field today.
The Station Agent at the old depot was a man named Frank Pierce, and he took his job seriously. As a tough new western town, Denver presented all kinds of possibilities for disorder, but the thorn in Pierce’s side was all who spit on the floor. It was more common then to chew tobacco, and so there was considerably more public spitting going on. So Pierce put out spittoons, he hung signs reminding people to use them, he cleaned up, and he did it all again, but the nasty, spitty conditions persisted.
Frustrated, Pierce bypassed what remained of his politeness and went for indirect threat. He grabbed a shovel, made his way to Mount Prospect Cemetery—that’s Cheesman Park to you, your dog, and your volleyball league—and came away with a human skull. He mounted it next to the ticket window with a sign that read, “This is the last man who spat on the floor.”
The public was spooked into minding their manners at the depot and those green-black gobs made their way directly into the spittoons provided. Problem was, now they had another kind of spook on their hands.
Pierce didn’t believe in ghosts or hauntings, so he hadn’t thought through any other implications of displaying human remains on the train depot wall. When the terrified night agent reported hums, whistles, chatter, and a thin, shadowy figure lurking in the station, Pierce reminded him there’s no such thing as ghosts. When the agent complained again, Pierce placated him by putting a hunting cap on the skull, theorizing that the (fake, to him) ghost might be cold. The night agent quit, and the new hire had the same complaints.
Pierce stuffed a cigar in the skull’s teeth to stopp the chattering noises. This resulted in a creepier looking skull, a more agitated ghost, and a string of short-lived night agents. In some stories the ghost wandered to lurk in saloons near the station, even following passengers from their trains.
After a while Pierce left to work elsewhere, and the skull, once disrespectfully disinterred, was reburied. The noises stopped, but the slender shadow remained. It was said to spook late-night passengers and saloon patrons, draining their drinks when they turned their backs for too long.
For better or worse, the ghost didn’t migrate to the new, more glamourous Union Station we know today. That spirit may finally be at rest, or it may be enjoying a Rockies game and a brew. Think about that before you spit in the stands.
Adrianne Montoya is a member of Denver Horror Collective and shares spooky history and weird west stories through her podcast, Southwest Gothic.