Spring is in the air. Everywhere high school seniors are graduating and saying good-bye to the place that has been a home away from home for four years. Now that Dorothy and I have finished our spring round of talks, I thought I would give our readers a new ghost to contemplate – a complete story, so pardon the length.
Whenever I meet people and they hear about In Search of Maryland Ghosts: Montgomery County, they frequently ask if the book includes their favorite haunted place. If I’m lucky, they will ask about something I’ve never heard of, a lead to a new story. A frequent mention is Gaithersburg High School. As far as I can ascertain, every student and teacher that has been at that school believes it is haunted. Stories abound. Unfortunately, Gaithersburg is one of those stories that we left on the cutting room floor, a victim of the need to make the book shorter. But, before we decided that it had to go, I took the opportunity to tour the old building before it is gone (a new school building is under construction at this very moment) and see the places that are part of the school’s mythology.
The most popular, and gruesome, is the chemical spill that occurred in the 1970s in Lower C Hall (the school is a warren of hallways due to the many additions it has had over the years), killing nine students and a teacher. At night, their death screams can be heard coming from that area, which has been blocked off because of the dangerous nature of the accident. The smell of chemicals are often emanating from behind the locked door.
Then there was the boiler explosion that took place, possibly in the early 1900s, killing the school’s janitor. This gentleman, Mr. Wims, has been seen by many of the track athletes and their coach after school hours wandering Halls C and D – a man who “has peppery black and gray hair with a navy blue uniform on and a lot of keys on his belt loop that jingle.” The jingling keys can be heard long after the figure has disappeared.
And now for the somewhat different truth, something one would expect from stories that have gone through many generations of Gaithersburg students. Lower C Hall, the site of that deathly accident does not exist, at least not as classroom space. It is the basement area below C Hall and was never classroom space. The piled up desks that can be seen through the windows are there because, as happens at a school, things get old and worn, but are rarely thrown out. At GHS, they are banished to the basement, creating ample fodder for a deliciously frightening ghost story. The chemical smell, it comes from the cleaning closet that is kept locked during school hours. The bricked wall, well that presents a more complicated, and amusing aspect of the school which has long outgrown its anticipated student body of 800.
With that growth sometimes laughable blunders occur. The wall in question is in one of the stairways in Hall E (if I am remembering correctly), an addition to the school. The architect erred and put the stairs going the wrong direction, forcing people using that stairwell to go from the second floor to the basement and then up another set of stairs to reach the first floor. That brick wall, supposedly a bricked up entrance to Lower Hall C, is simply an annoying mistake.
What about poor Mr. Wims and that boiler explosion. The current school has never had a boiler explosion, or fire of any kind. However, the original school building, the old-old Gaithersburg School, was destroyed by fire in 1895, fortunately no one was injured. (The old Gaithersburg School, which housed grades K-12, was built in 1905. The soon-to-be-old Gaithersburg High School opened in 1951, leaving the original building for the lower grades.) Perhaps the story carried over and became sensationalized over time. Poor Mr. Wims did die a tragic death, a car accident in Frederick County killed him and his wife (not yet verified). Wims was the first building manager for GHS, devoting thirty years of his life to the school (in fact, the school is only on its third building manager since opening). Ghosts are known to haunt places that have great meaning to them, where their spirits are at home. Mr. Wims has been seen and heard by many people over the years. Perhaps he is as dedicated to the school in death as he was in life, eternally roaming the halls, making sure the school is ready for its students and teachers.
One can only wonder what he’ll do when the old school is torn down…