Haunted high school

Lee Williams High School in Kingman, Ariz., has taken the idea of school spirit to a new level. Many believe the place is haunted, and Principal Steve Elwood has heard all the stories. (John Glionna, Los Angeles Times / May 26, 2013)

Principal Steve Elwood enters the narrow passageway where nobody else at Lee Williams High School dares to go. He leans low to open a half-sized hallway door, leading the way into a musty windowless chamber the size of a small tomb.

Light pours into the cramped space, illuminating the dust that rises from the gravel floor like at an exotic archaeological dig. Even though it's mid-May, there's an odd chill to the air.

The room isn't used for anything, yet it was somehow included in the building plans for the new school. Nobody knows why, and most are afraid to ask.

"This place gives people the creeps," Elwood says. "We tell the kids this is where we're going to send them for detention."

Talk about school spirit.

Some believe the campus is haunted by restless phantoms from a previous century, when Kingman was a frontier town and Arizona still a territory. The ghosts have reportedly appeared at graduation events on the football field — women in prairie gowns and men in fancy wear — specters said to be displeased that their final resting place was paved over in the name of progress.

In the school building, there's the quiet fellow in a bowler hat and long coat who lurks in the hallways. And the little girl who calls out at night that she just wants to go out and play. And don't forget the disembodied footsteps, the lights that flicker, or the alarms, hand dryers and motion detectors that go off seemingly at will.

Many in this Mohave County seat of 66,000, 95 miles southeast of Las Vegas, liken the alleged sightings to hair-raising tales kids tell around campfires.

But high school janitor James Miller believes.

"Some nights I hear footsteps. Last fall, I was [cleaning] in the girls' bathroom and I heard someone going into the boys' lavatory," he said. "I hear voices coming from some rooms, little kids mumbling. I can't really hear what they're saying. It's kind of freaky, but it really doesn't bother me. I just tell them all to go home."

In Kingman, a historic mainstay along old Route 66, there are other buildings with strange phenomena, such as weird knocks on the wall and glasses that spill by themselves, officials say.

"In any old town like ours, especially one that involved mining, railroad and cattle, things don't always go so well," said Diane Silverman, a supervisor at the Kingman tourism office. "People die for all kinds of reasons. And they don't all go away happy."

Indeed, America has plenty of so-called haunted places: old hotels, mansions, ships like the Queen Mary. But a modern high school teeming with teenagers?

Part of Lee Williams High sits atop the former site of the old Pioneer Cemetery, which spreads beneath a portion of the school's football field and a set of bleachers, near a memorial stone honoring the 350 deceased settlers once interred there — ranchers, miners, railroad men and Hualapai tribal members. Many call it the scariest place on campus.

Historians say Kingman was the scene of battles between Native tribes and settlers who arrived after the U.S. annexed the area from Mexico in 1848. A U.S. Army fort was built nearby to protect newcomers who included

gold-scouting miners, Mormons sent down from Utah and cattlemen drawn by the lush grasses. The city was founded in 1882, named after railroad surveyor Lewis Kingman.

"People needed the water at the springs where the tribes lived," said Peter Bungart, an archaeologist for the Hualapai. "It didn't take long for conflict. Bad feelings turned into violence."

Many town founders were buried at Pioneer Cemetery along with more than 70 Hualapai, some in unmarked graves, tribal historians say. In death, if not in life, the two sides were finally able to coexist.

In 1944, the burial ground was relocated. But there was a catch: A $45 charge — nearly $600 in today's dollars — was required to move a person's remains, a near-impossible sum for wartime Americans.

So an untold number of unclaimed bodies were left in the ground, covered over for the first of many schools that would eventually inhabit the site.

For decades, unexplained sightings caused many to look over their shoulders. "When I was a student there years ago, I had to walk by there a lot," said Kay Ellermann, a research librarian at the nearby Mohave Museum of History and Arts. "It was always so spooky to me."

Two years ago, during construction of the new high school, the strangeness rose to a new level.

Fifty workers digging a trench behind the bleachers unearthed 11 grave sites and seven coffins, along with such artifacts as cuff links, a brass nameplate, a medallion and jewelry.

Excavation came to a standstill. "The guys were uneasy digging in an old graveyard," said Oz Enderby, former director of construction for the Kingman Unified School District. "The idea of handling remains made many of them kind of queasy."

While archaeologists dealt with the remains, officials consulted with the nearby Hualapai Cultural Center. "We believe it's a taboo to move or disturb a body, because the spirits become unrestful," said Drake Havatone, 56, a tribal elder. "Many will be angry."

So Havatone performed a ceremony to pacify the spirits. Because it was impossible to tell which remains were Native American, he blessed them all, along with the workers who had disturbed the graves.

"He said spirits will sometimes go home with the person who disturbed them," Enderby said. "When he cleansed me, he said something about the spirits going back to the West, and I figured he was talking about California," he joked.

But Enderby and the others took the ceremony seriously. "We figured this was a good way to ensure these spirits, if there were any, didn't follow us home," he said. "A lot of guys felt better about working there after that. I know I did."

Principal Elwood says the history beneath his campus will help educate students about Kingman's past as the school continues to cope with its supposed spirits.

But staffers believe they have special protection from Kingman's ghosts. The school is named after Richard Lee Williams, a firefighter and principal who died in a 1973 propane tanker explosion.

"I'd like to think Mr. Williams is still here, keeping watch on the school," school nurse Dana Anderson said. "Anyway, when people talk about spirits, they always assume the things are malevolent. But those who walk among us aren't always here to hurt us.

"At least that's what I keep telling myself."