Category Archives: Gaithersburg

Haunted High School

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.

GHS_AWhenever 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.

The real Lower C Hall

The real Lower C Hall

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.

A jumble of chairs in Lower C Hall

A jumble of chairs in Lower C Hall

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…

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Headless Horseman of Game Preserve Road

2012-11-07_15-43-09_240Dorothy and I are frequently asked if the stories in our book are scary. By and large, we have pretty tame ghosts in Montgomery County: Lily who leaves the scent of lilacs and lip prints, Nanny who helped rock the babies, and Boo who was a playmate for the children of the house; these are just some of the friendly spirits that haunt the County. But there are a few stories that are scary. The Headless Horseman of Game Preserve Road is one such spirit.

Today, the Horseman haunts the stretch of track by the railroad bridge across Game Preserve Road. The ghost presumably predates the bridge, and the railroad, as it is attributed to a Civil War soldier who met an unfortunate end. (The Metropolitan Branch of the B & O Railroad didn’t come through Montgomery County until 1873.) He is also one of the few ghosts with a long, documented history. And so, while I won’t take the time here to tell you all the things that have happened on that unfortunate stretch of track (you can read the book for that), I will excerpt the 1876 article from the Montgomery Sentinel that first introduce me to this fearsome spirit:

2012-11-07_15-42-29_520Montgomery County Sentinel, 17 March 1876

The people in the neighborhood of Clopper’s Mill in this county have been very much excited for several weeks past by a mysterious occurrence which transpires nightly about 9½ o’clock upon the railroad bridge over Big Seneca Creek. It is reported by those who have witnessed the strange scene that about the hour named a lantern which is upon a post planted at the bridge is suddenly darkened, the light being entirely shut off and a flame like a flash of lightening shoots straight up into the air while another of a similar character flashes directly across the bridge.

We have not witnessed it as we know not whether it ‘be a spirit of health or goblin damned’ and do not care to trust yourself in the presence of such ‘questionable shapes’ but you who are not afraid of ghosts would doubtless be repaid for a visit to it. We hope that a solution of this affair will soon be discovered and a cause of terror be removed from the superstitions of that vicinity.

Postscript: Reader and local historian Jack Toomey sent more clarification regarding the viaduct seen in the picture above:

The photo used in the story is the viaduct or tunnel that allows Game Preserve Road to pass under the railroad tracks. It is not a “bridge”.

The bridge that is referred to in the Sentinel story was a long rickety wooden bridge that allowed the railroad to pass over the Seneca Creek valley. It was later replaced by a steel bridge and finally a viaduct that exists today. The foundations of the earlier bridges can be found in the woods along the creek.

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