If These Walls Could Talk: Historic, Haunted Places Around Tacoma

Western State Hospital has been a longstanding piece of Pierce County history. Photograph courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society.

By Margo Greenman

Tacoma is brimming with beautiful architecture, historic homes and iconic landmarks. But, while admiring the many impressive buildings and landscapes of our locale, some mysteries seem to fall through the cracks. Discover the paranormal history lurking behind some of the South Sounds allegedly haunted places, and decide for yourself whether these places are local haunts, or merely hosts to myth and legend.

Thornewood Castle in Lakewood served as the set in the Stephen King TV miniseries, "Rose Red."
Thornewood Castle in Lakewood served as the set in the Stephen King TV miniseries, “Rose Red.” Photograph courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society.

Thornewood Castle
Stephen King fans will love spending a spooky night in one of the rooms at Thornewood Castle – the set of the spooky miniseries, Rose Red. The miniseries, which was filmed in 2000, follows a fictional psychology professor and her team of psychics as they set out to collect data proving paranormal activity exists in a presumably haunted mansion.

While the movie is strictly fictional, rumor has it that Thornewood Castle, located in Lakewood, has had its own encounters with the paranormal. Accounts of strange figures, footsteps, flickering lights and other strange occurrences have all been documented, suggesting that the more than 100-year-old mansion serves up its own set of thrills.

Pacific Brewing and Malting Co.
Pacific Brewing & Malting Co., Tacoma’s oldest brewery, opened in 1897, only to be shut down less than 20 years later during Prohibition. In 2014 the historic brewery was resurrected in the building which was formerly Downtown Tacoma’s police station, located next door to Old City Hall.

The two buildings, which were joined by a jail cell, have been rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a serial killer named Jake Bird.

Bird, who was arrested after murdering two people with an axe, was sentenced to death after confessing to more than 40 murders. During Bird’s trial he put a “hex” on the men who arrested and sentenced him to death. In the two years leading up to Bird’s execution, six of the men that he “hexed” died. It is believed that Bird still haunts the building.

Western State Hospital
Established in the late 1800s, Western State Hospital has been a longstanding piece of Pierce County history. The hospital, which was built on the historic site of Fort Steilacoom, was originally known as the Fort Steilacoom Asylum. When the Fort was abandoned by the federal government in 1868, the territory of Washington purchased the abandoned post and began construction of the Insane Asylum of Washington Territory, which opened in 1871. In the years that followed, the number of patients being treated at the hospital increased and a larger facility was needed. Additional out buildings were constructed to accommodate the greater need and in the early 1900s the hospital was renamed Western State Hospital. The hospital was revered as one of the best of its kind.

Western State Hospital has been a longstanding piece of Pierce County history. Photograph courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society.
Western State Hospital has been a longstanding piece of Pierce County history. Photograph courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society.

In addition to the many advanced procedures provided at the hospital, Western State also offered some of its patients occupational therapy, working at the the hospital’s farm. In the early 1930s, the hospital erected Hill Ward, which served as housing for the more than 300 patients who worked on the farm.

However, as the years went by, concerns surrounding the hospital raised some red flags. There were more patients than the staff could handle, some of the hospital’s buildings began to deteriorate due to weather and lack of regular maintenance, and, up until 1952, patients who died at the hospital were buried at the hospital cemetery, their graves marked with nothing more than a number.

In response to this, the decades that followed included some drastic changes at the hospital. Outdated lobotomy procedures were replaced with more modern therapies including counseling and psychotropic drugs, patients who died were buried with graves indicating their name, birth and death year, and a deteriorating Hill Ward was partially demolished.

Hill Ward, which is located at Fort Steilacoom Park, remained partially demolished until the early 2000s. High school students and ghost hunters flocked to the ruins to explore the underground boiler room which was rumored to be haunted. However, around 2006, Hill Ward began attracting gang activity, drug use and other crimes. To combat the crime that was taking place at Hill Ward, more than $600,000 was donated by  Pierce County and the state to completely demolish the ruins of Hill Ward and create a memorial in its place. In 2007, the ruins of Hill Ward were obliterated.

While you can’t explore the allegedly haunted ruins of Hill Ward anymore, park-goers and hospital workers still claim to encounter haunted experiences while visiting the park or walking through the halls at the Western State.

The Rhododendron Garden Loop on the Five Mile Drive.
The Five Mile Drive and Pagoda at Point Defiance Park are both rumored to be local haunts.

Point Defiance Park
Those easily frightened may want to steer clear of Point Defiance Park’s popular Five Mile Drive around dusk. The spot – popular for walking, running, biking, picnicking and other outdoor recreation – is also rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a teenage girl.

In the mid 1980s, a Tacoma girl went missing. Her body was later found on the Five Mile Drive by a group of joggers. In the years that followed, eerie sightings of a girl on a bike began to trickle in from joggers, bikers and other visitors of the forested destination.

Point Defiance Park boasts another allegedly haunted location. The Pagoda, which was built at the turn of the 20th century, originally served as a trolley terminal. Now, a popular venue for weddings and other events, the Pagoda has been the site of many bizarre occurrences. Reports of mysterious sighing, the sound of footsteps, and other peculiar sounds and movements have all been made, and have been linked to the ghost of a 1920s widower who committed suicide in the Pagoda’s then trolley restroom.

You can learn more about Tacoma’s haunted places by taking a guided walking tour of some of Tacoma’s oldest and best haunts.

To explore more photos of some of Tacoma’s historic buildings and places, browse the Washington State Historical Society’s media library.

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