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A walk through Jacksonville’s spirited history

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Carolyn Embry, a tour guide with Historic Jacksonville Inc., stands on the staircase of the 1883 Jacksonville Historic County Courthouse.
Historic city’s tours of haunted locations return

JACKSONVILLE — Gearing up for what they hope is a season unaffected by pandemic, fires or other unforeseen circumstances, a tour season filled with tales of “woe, sorrow, and regret from the spirits who still linger in Jacksonville’s historic buildings” are returning to the city.

A huge hit with tour-goers, Jacksonville Haunted History Walking Tours will run an extra-long season through Sept. 9. Tours leave from the Jacksonville Visitors Center at the corner of North Oregon and C streets and last about an hour.

The tours, which are scheduled on the second Friday of each month, feature two time slots each night.

The Courthouse Tours, highlighting brothels, epidemics and hangings, start at 7 and 7:30 p.m.

The Britt Hill tour, stepping off at 7:15 and 7:45 p.m., will highlight arson, saloons and Oregon’s oldest Chinatown.

In October, tours will be offered on Fridays and Saturdays.

Carolyn Kingsnorth, a local historian and president of Historic Jacksonville, Inc., said the upcoming season would be longer than in years past, in hopes of achieving a full season of tours despite possible interruptions or forces of nature.

“When tours happen at dusk or after dark, tour-goers can plan to carry lanterns or flashlights to help them see. It’s likely the night lighting will offer up an even spookier effect, not that some of the tales to be shared could be much spookier,” she said.

Weathering everything from the pandemic to wildfires, the tours have been in flux in recent years. A sign that fans of the tours are ready to be back, a slew have dates had already started to fill up even prior to the schedule being officially posted.

Running through Halloween but plenty scary for year-round spookiness and some colorful insight into history, Kingsnorth said the tours are not recommended for the younger crowd. Age 6 and younger are a definite no-go.

“These are not your typical ghost tours with special effects and role-playing, but are history tours about real hauntings resulting from past events, and the spirits are still very active,” Kingsnorth said.

“People love the tours, and they really seem to bring out people that would not necessarily come to history-themed events. We look for ways to share history in the sense of what history really is — people and their stories.”

Costumed for an upcoming tour on a recent visit, docent Carolyn Embry looked very much the part of a former resident in period dress on the lawn of the 1883 courthouse, now home to Jacksonville City Hall.

A tour-goer favorite, Embry’s courthouse visits include a slew of stories about the old courthouse, the jail site and the site of the gallows that once stood between the two buildings.

Embry shares a tail of the Chinese miner named Tom accused of unethical behaviors. Prior to hanging himself, he shredded pieces of newspaper and formed Chinese characters to proclaiming his innocence.

Five years later, in 1886, the miner’s ghost is said to have haunted condemned murderer Louis O’Neil, the last man to be hanged in Jacksonville. O’Neil complained of a Chinese ghost keeping him awake at night.

At the time, the Ashland Tidings reported that the dead miner was playing pranks in his cell to get his bones dug up and sent back to China to finally allow eternal rest.

Worth a shiver or two, the former site of the gallows, between the courthouse and the fourth jail to sit on the site, was once a circus-like atmosphere where county officials, who set up fences to “keep gawkers out,” sold 200 tickets to profit from the event, Embry explained.

Across the way, the Magnolia Inn was once a sanitarium, relinquished in later years to serve as low-cost housing for the indigent. The ghost of a little girl reportedly peeks out a window at the former coroner’s office, diagonal from the courthouse.

Kingsnorth said stories worthy of sharing are in endless supply. She reiterates that the stories are very real.

“There is a lot of activity here, and the stories have been around for a lot of years. One of our docents who grew up here, when she was docenting as a teenager and the jail was the children’s museum, she was sitting and reading alone when she suddenly was moved three feet … that was the end of her docent career,” Kingsnorth said.

“We tell about these restless souls who were here before us and the things they went through. A lot of them … are still here.”

If You Go

Reservations for the summer tours offered by Historic Jacksonville are first-come, first-served. Organizers say space is limited, so book early. Most of the tours are $10, with one walking tour, on Saturday mornings, offered for a recommended donation.

Summer offerings, include:

Victorian Days: Third Saturdays, through Aug. 16

Walk through History: Every Saturday, May 28 through Sept. 3

Beekman Bank “Behind the Counter” Tours: Every weekend, May 28 through Sept. 4

To book tours online, see historicjacksonville.org/haunted-history-tours/

For more info, email info@historicjacksonville.org or call 541-245-3650.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com