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Kindred Spirits: Austin’s Haunted Bars
Secrets, rituals and a deliciously dark side of the city’s history
By Laurel Miller
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Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there’s something to be said for a great story. I’m a skeptic by nature, but ubiquitous fascination with the paranormal reassures me I’m not the only one who enjoys scaring the bejesus out of myself.
There’s something deliciously creepy and thrilling about metaphysical events that defy explanation, but I also love stories with a strong historical narrative. Austin’s best-known haunted bars fit this description perfectly.
Bar employees often work alone into the early hours of the morning, which is why they often report spectral activity (real or imagined – I’m not here to judge). I’d always dismissed these tales until I worked in the industry myself and found myself suitably creeped out during closing duties, simply because I was in an otherwise deserted building.
Austin’s most famously haunted bar, The Tavern, was established as a Prohibition-era brothel. It’s said a murdered prostitute (or the madam’s daughter; take your pick) named Emily roams the premises, manifesting as an apparition or playing pranks. Unsurprisingly, bars that report paranormal activity tend to be located in old buildings. Perhaps the ghostly inhabitants are the result of a decidedly darker past, since so many haunted spaces were originally brothels, saloons or gaming halls.
Curious, I decided to investigate the lurid history of Austin’s haunted bars, starting with a downtown Ghost Walk with Jim Miles, founder of Walking Tours of Austin. The stops include some of the city’s most historic buildings, which today house bars like The Capital Grille, Speakeasy and The Driskill.
Miles is a former history teacher with a master’s degree in Southern History. His passion for storytelling goes back to his childhood in Georgia. “I was blessed to have a grandmother who fed me a steady diet of ghost stories,” he says. “It led to a lifelong fascination with the power of a great narrative. But on some level, we’re all fascinated with the topic of death; that’s human nature.”
The Capital Grille (formerly The Old Spaghetti Warehouse) on West 4th Street is Austin’s original railroad depot, built in 1871. Past and present employees and customers have reported spectral figures in Victorian dress, bar glasses that rearrange themselves, shelves in the basement storage area shaking violently and unexplained temperature plunges.
The eight square blocks surrounding the depot were known as Guy Town. A bustling center of commerce by day, it was Austin’s red-light district at night, where gun fights, mayhem and murder were regular occurrences. “Ghost sightings usually occur in places with many deaths,” says Miles. “The introduction of the railroad in the late 19th Century introduced a new element to the population: transients, which led to a surge in crime and violence.”
Dumont’s Down Low, a whiskey bar not currently featured on Miles’s tour, is near the old depot. Originally an opulent brothel run by madam Sallie Daggett, the bar’s paranormal activity is so frequent, current owners FBR Management (Mean-Eyed Cat, Lala’s Little Nugget) made a short video about it.
“Everyone from maintenance workers to a muralist we employed have had experiences, sometimes more than once,” says co-owner Max Moreland. Moreland had his own spectral encounter at the Mean-Eyed Cat, which is located in a 150-year-old building originally thought to have been a church. In the mid-20th Century, it housed Cut-Rite Chain Saws (sic), owned by a man named Bill Taylor who is now believed to be the resident spirit responsible for ghostly footsteps, sliding bar glasses and rearranged bar stools.
While alone one night, Moreland left his keys in the office door to attend to an errand.When he returned, they were swinging wildly. After observing for a full minute, he began filming them with his phone. “I recorded it mainly to prove to myself that it really happened,” he says.
Fun fact: Moreland says that Taylor’s shop was one of the inspirations for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Filmmaker Tobe Hooper had already developed a plot loosely based on 1950s serial killer Ed Gein, who was known for skinning his victims. While servicing his chainsaw at Taylor’s shop, Hooper realized the machine would make the ideal weapon for his fictional killer, Leatherface.
One of the most haunted buildings in Texas is The Driskill, although most of the activity is centered around the fifth floor and grand staircase. Following the accidental death of a politician’s little girl in the 1880s, there have been countless reports of ghostly laughter, apparitions and pranks, but the hotel has also been the scene of a suicide and other deaths, to which other paranormal phenomena have been attributed. Miles includes a drink at the (also haunted) Driskill Bar on his tours, enjoying the “camaraderie and theories” that result when his guests start sharing stories about the inexplicable.
It’s impossible to include every haunted bar in Austin here, but I’d be remiss to exclude Buenos Aires Café’s basement bar, Milonga Room. You can hear the details on The Night Owl Podcast, which examines paranormal activity at Austin landmarks. Argentinean owner Paola Guerrero-Smith has told me about her experiences with the four resident ghosts. A staff favorite is Armando, who is named after a former employee believed to have worked and lived in the 19th-Century building (it was a tortilla factory and a suspected brothel).
So beloved are their fantasmas, the Milonga Room has this year dedicated a special cocktail menu to them called “Hidden Spirits” (launching October 23). Armando’s drink (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Fernet Vallet, Crème de Cacao, Vecchio del Capo and mole bitters) is a riff on his weekly offering – whisky and a cigarette – left by Guerrero-Smith.
“I believe in leaving gifts to spirits and ancestors,” she says. “It’s a way of acknowledging their existence, and (helping) them remain strong in their realm and help us, as well. Patrons leave him money, shots, handmade cigarettes, but he doesn’t like it when things are taken from his shrine. One time a guest started smoking one of his cigarettes and we immediately experienced a water leak in the building.”
I’m charmed by the Guerrero-Smith’s stories, but I also agree with Miles, who says it’s the lack of definitive proof that makes the paranormal so alluring.
“At the end of the day, it’s impossible to prove a ghost story. Regardless in your beliefs,” he says, “there’s power in the stories themselves.”