David Rosen
A team of professional paranormal investigators are running experiments at the Alki Homestead, a historic West Seattle fixture that shut down in 2009 after a fire. PLEASE CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE OR SEE BELOW THE STORY FOR MORE.

Spooked at the beach: The paranormal investigations of Alki Homestead

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The Alki Homestead, a Seattle Landmark Building at 2717 61st Ave. S.W. just south of Alki Beach, oozes with old-timey charm from the outside with its Douglas Fir log walls and cobbled-stone chimneys. The structure’s inviting nature diminishes upon closer inspection, however, with yellow caution tape blocking the entryways and plywood boarding up windows: the result of a fire in 2009 that severely damaged the innards and put an end to several decades of family-oriented dining.

The building has sat vacant ever since with its future in limbo, but beginning in January of this year a group of paranormal investigators, armed with high tech surveillance equipment, have taken an interest in the Homestead: not for the lip-smacking fried chicken made famous by Doris Nelson in the 1960s, but for the spirits that may roam its interior to this day.

A little history
Before delving too deeply into the paranormal side of things, it’s helpful to know a little history of Alki Homestead.

Long before the Europeans arrived in Seattle, the Alki area was home to the Duwamish Tribe. In 1904, according to HistoryLink.org, the building was erected and named the Fir Lodge, “one of the first permanent dwellings in an area dominated by summer camps and cabins.” The building changed hands several times over the next four decades including a private gathering and eating establishment for the Seattle Auto and Driving Club, a private residence and a boarding house.

In 1950, the Lodge was purchased by Swend Neilson and Fred Fredricksen, according to HistoryLink, who turned it into a restaurant and renamed the building “Alki Homestead.” Walter E. and Adele Foote purchased the business in 1955, and sold it to Doris P. Nelson in 1960.

Nelson turned the Homestead into the place many have fond memories of today: “an old-fashioned dining room, decorated with antiques, offering simple down-home cooking, served family style,” in the words of HistoryLink. It became a staple destination of Seattle families for decades to come.

The City of Seattle deemed the Homestead a landmark building in 1995, and Nelson continued to run the show until her death in 2004. In 2006, developers Tom Lin and Patrick Henly purchased the Homestead for $1.2 million, leaving a good thing as is by keeping with Nelson’s interior decoration and hearty menu. As fancy condos emerged and Alki began to modernize, fried chicken orders kept flying out of the kitchen as families flocked to the Homestead for its inviting ambiance hearkening back to simpler times.

In late 2008, Lin and his partner were searching for a buyer to purchase the restaurant while they would keep ownership of the building. They found one, but before the deal could be sealed, tragedy struck.

On January 16, 2009, fire broke out in the Homestead. Firefighters responded and put out the blaze quickly, but not before the dining hall and museum-worthy collection of antiques and history were destroyed. Extensive smoke damage wreaked havoc on any nooks not touched by flame. Investigators deemed the cause to be Christmas lights plugged in overnight that overloaded the building’s aging circuitry. Luckily, no one was inside.

After the fire, as Lin toured the devastation, he found a large handprint imprinted in the thick soot on one of the walls. He thought it could have been a fireman’s hand, but he has always wondered.

Strange occurrences
“I saw this door just floating across the room,” one of Homestead waiters said.

Well before the fire, Homestead employees had begun experiencing otherworldly events, many of them seemingly connected to longtime owner and caretaker Doris Nelson. The scent of a woman’s perfume would hit people’s nostrils where there were no others to emanate it, and the scent seemed to travel throughout the building.

There was the time a patron having dinner noticed a picture of Ms. Nelson on the fireplace mantle and then, searching for the restroom, saw her in the flesh at the top of the stairs. He asked his waiter who the woman was, and was told she was the old owner, but had passed away years ago. Ms. Nelson lived upstairs for several years during her tenure at the Homestead.

When Lin told his employees he had found a buyer for the restaurant late in 2008, he said there was an “enormous uptick” of the unexplainable.

Two employees swore they watched the door of professional-grade kitchen refrigerator unhinge and “just float across the room,” before crashing down several feet away. One of them screamed, sending the staff to her aid in a frenzy.

The phone would ring incessantly on certain days, but when someone answered there was nothing on the other end. As soon as they hung up, it would ring again.

Lin said there were several occurrences where chairs stacked neatly upstairs the night before would be arranged in strange positions in the morning, often times in a circle, facing each other. One morning, after staff had ensured the building was empty and locked up the night before, a single, solitary chair was found perched at the top of the stairs.

While some believed Ms. Nelson’s spirit was at work, others, including the Homestead’s accountant Aleta Woodworth, felt if there was a haunting it would have to be the ancestral spirits of the Duwamish Tribe, whose land was taken away by settlers.

As ghost stories go, no one knew for sure.

One of the cooks was aware of a paranormal investigation group operating out of Seattle called AGHOST, or Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma, and gave them a call to find out if they would be interested in investigating the Homestead. AGHOST was interested, but their president and founder, Ross Allison was away in Rome at the time, causing a delay.

Before they had a chance to investigate, Alki Homestead burned.

Enter the professionals
Four years later, the stars aligned. Allison said he never forgot the stories coming from Homestead staff (he even mentioned it in his book of haunted Seattle hotspots, Spooked in Seattle) and hoped to see it for himself one day. Lin and Allison reconnected and, in early January, Allison came to the Homestead for an informal walkthrough, his first step before deciding whether to bring his investigative team and their equipment to the case.

Allison said he did a sweep with Lin to ensure there were no squatters hiding out (they make noise, too). His only solid lead at the time were the stories related to Ms. Nelson, so one of his fellow investigators brought a small bottle of whiskey, an offering to the spirits. They had heard that Ms. Nelson enjoyed a nip of the brown nectar on occasion.

They placed the bottle on a table upstairs, went back downstairs to look around, and then “we clearly heard someone walking upstairs, and it was loud walking.” Allison said the unknown source walked about for over a minute.

“I was in shock,” he said. “I’d heard people say you hear things walking around – you know Tom (Lin) had said he’ll be there and hear someone walking around – but of course being in this field with a scientific basis, to the investigator this is just a story. I want to believe people have these experiences when they tell us these amazing things, but of course without proof or support it is just a story.”

Unfortunately for Allison, he had just created another story. Without their full arsenal of recording equipment on hand, the experience had not been captured beyond hearing those footsteps in the moment.

Energized by the event, Allison and his AGHOST team made the Alki Homestead their top priority. A seasoned ghost hunter with 13 years of experience, Allison said he has done 500 investigations around the world, including far flung locales, crypts, insane asylums and abandoned castles in Romania, Turkey, Ireland and Prague.

He has experienced some intense phenomena in those travels, but said the clear-as-day footsteps just above his head at the Alki Homestead that night was one of his most memorable.

Joining the investigation
It was only fitting that the night in which a journalist (who tends to walk the other way anytime a haunting is mentioned) and his photographer cohort (far more excited by the prospect) were invited to join an AGHOST investigation at the Homestead on Feb. 12, the weather decided to play its part. Winds began howling an hour before our 10 p.m. meet-up with AGHOST, and the temperature steadily dropped with each gale.

Everyone arrived around 10, including Tom Lin with the keys, and we stepped inside through a rear door into the once-bustling kitchen. The building has no power, so trusty headlamps and flashlights were a basic necessity. The first sense upon walking in was the odor of smoke still deeply imbedded within the walls, four years after the fire. Winds continued to bash the outside world, forcing tree branches to scrape their wooden claws against the windows. With each big gust, the classic 1950s Alki Homestead sign perched atop the cabin gave out a deep metallic sigh. The only connection to normalcy was a woman talking loudly on her cell phone from an apartment balcony nearby.

The AGHOST crew included Ross Allison, June Nixon, Casi McAllister and Jonathan Thibodeaux. They carried briefcases stamped with AGHOST, laptops and strange electronic devices as they entered the Homestead with a matter-of-factness that said, “Just another night on the job.”

A quick aside:
AGHOST had already done five investigations since Allison’s initial walkthrough, and although they had yet to hear the footsteps again, technology picked up some interesting data.

On one occasion, while recording audio, the crew located a pile of makeshift bedding in a corner: the sign of a squatter. They discussed how someone down on their luck had made that spot their home. Later, while listening to the recording, a muffled, hissy feminine voice could be heard saying, “Sick,” amidst their conversation. None of the team had uttered the phrase, Allison said. He explained the phrase as EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, a way spirits may communicate with the living through electronic recording devices. Visual recordings had also picked up a few unexplainable orbs of light shooting through frames.

Allison said the building also gives off abnormal EMF, or electromagnetic field readings. Paranormal investigators believe spirits may emit EMF, just as nearly everything around us does - from electronic devices to other living things to inanimate objects. AGHOST will ask questions of the spirits and watch the LED lights of their EMF readers for significant jumps, possible indicating a EVP response they can pick up later.

Back to the investigation:
We followed AGHOST through the kitchen that seemed only a dead serious cleaning away from being ready for service. Dinnerware was still stacked up near the plating station with hints of porcelain white peeking through soot that settled long ago.

The reality of the damage that fire did to the Homestead wasn’t truly apparent until we made our way into the dining area. Through limited slices of light provided by our jerky flashlights and bobbing headlamps, it was clear a gutting had occurred. The once inviting red-brown of undulating log cabin walls was replaced with a deep black char. The smooth, hardy surface of a well-aged Douglas Fir had become dusty and weak. The only fixture to retain its stature was the one built for fire, a massive stone fireplace that, even in this decayed state, still brought the room together. A chandelier, blackened by smoke, still dangled from the ceiling.

The first order of business was getting geared up. Since the Homestead is powerless, AGHOST could only operate on battery power as they fired up a few laptops, high end video and audio recorders, full spectrum and infrared lights to give the recordings that night vision goggle-esque look that might pick up spirits where the human eye cannot, and EMF readers to scan the building. On the less-technological end of the spectrum, magnetic marbles, a "psychokenisis" board (an Allison invention similar to a Ouija board, only with a free-spinning needle to point to answers instead of a human-guided pointer), and various “triggers” of worldly comforts like whiskey and children’s toys to potentially bring spirits out.

Next order of business was to break out and search every corner of the Homestead to make sure we were alone, at least in the human sense. Each room, downstairs and up, was checked before the investigation began. Cell phones were turned off and other electronic devices were clustered together to isolate EMF readings.

The stairs leading the upper landing and once-living quarters of Ms. Nelson and others were still carpeted, as it appeared only heavy smoke and radiating heat made its way up. On the heavily-soiled and creaking hardwood floor upstairs, once-discernible artifacts of plastic and resin were now only melted masses stuck to the floor. A few miscellaneous chairs and desks still stood their ground, at the ready for work that wouldn’t be done anytime too soon. The sighing Homestead sign was only feet above our attentive ears now, heaving loudly with the wind.

Once the environment was secure, Allison split his team into pairs. For the next two hours the teams worked their way through the Homestead, making verbal notes and time checks anytime something potentially peculiar was heard or seen. EMF readings were tracked, including Allison and Thibodeaux stepping outside to make sure the strong reactions they would get in certain areas of the Homestead were not the result of nearby power lines or other external stimuli. They did not seem to be.

Magnetic marbles were spread out on the floor upstairs where the walking had occurred during their first visit, and motion-sensing cameras kept an eye on the scene. If a disturbance was to occur, the marbles, placed just out of range of each other, would come crashing together to notify the investigators.

EVP sessions were held on both levels of the Homestead where investigators took turns asking questions, sometimes talking to Ms. Nelson directly, and other times keeping it open as to who else might be inside. “Can you tell me your name?” “Is there a message you want us to get to somebody?” “Do you mind if we come visit you?” The cabin would moan with the heavy winds, sometimes seemingly in response.

After that night, AGHOST will dig through the audio to find out if any queries were answered.

Just as scientists enter their lab ready to test a hypothesis but not expecting a clear result every day, AGHOST ran through their experiments concisely until the battery life of their electronics drained. June Nixon said her camera, showing full battery life only minutes before, was suddenly sapped of all power (they believe this can be caused by high EMF radiating from spirits).

A few investigators sensed something or someone touching their hand or head, but there would be no clear signs of paranormal existence that night. The psychokenisis board’s needle did not spin in response to questions; the marbles never came crashing together. Careful examination of their recordings in the days and weeks to come may reveal evidence not discerned in the moment. Allison said much of paranormal investigation is being in the right place at the right time.

He draws a distinction between thrill seekers and paranormal investigators, explaining the latter are those who employ quality technical equipment and “are actually doing the research, tracking down the research of the place, tracking down information on the people who might be haunting the location. We are actually learning as much as we can about the world of paranormal phenomena and that’s where there is a big difference.” Thrill seekers, he said, are in it for the adrenaline rush.

Moving forward
“It is definitely an intelligent haunting due to the fact that when we try to capture EVP’s (electronic voice phenomena) we get reactions,” Allison said of his research so far. “There is an intelligence, it is female based on the sound of the voice that we captured. As to who it is, we can’t say for sure. It’s still early in the stages right now because, again, it’s all being at the right place at the right time”

Ghost hunters draw a distinction between intelligent and residual haunting. While residual might be a trapped memory on a cycle – an artifact of a past life, intelligent spirits are believed to be capable of responding to and interacting with the living.

So what keeps Allison coming back?

“For me, I am just fascinated with the field and I do seek answers for what is going on out there, what we can do to try to communicate with the spirits to prove true phenomena rather than just stories.”

As for the possible spirits roaming Alki Homestead?

“What is it? I’m not sure yet, and no one really knows what’s going on out there … until we can actually sit down and have intelligent conversation with the other side, we are going to keep making this a guessing game,” he said.

“It’s an amazing place and I would love to see it come to life … for the living, not necessarily just for the dead.”

For owner Tom Lin, he said bringing the Homestead back for the living is his top priority. It’s a tough road, with Lin estimating $2.6 million in restoration costs he’ll have to raise. Banks are not lending, so he is exploring fundraising avenues to help the cause. He hopes to one day reopen the Alki Homestead restaurant just as it was when Doris Nelson ran things, with a cozy atmosphere and warming meals.

As one fundraising option, Allison and Lin are currently discussing the possibility of opening up the Alki Homestead for limited paranormal tours as part of Allison’s Spooked in Seattle business.

“My conclusion is that Homestead is a very special place and I think we have to try to keep it up one way or another,” Lin said. “The building needs to maintain its character and the restaurant needs to come back … it needs to come back as the Homestead Restaurant, not as (a restaurant serving) fancy French food or dim sum or whatever it is.”

The Homestead and field of paranormal investigation share a commonality in that they both have their skeptics. Just as some question the revival of the Homestead, others question the existence of ghosts and spirits.

“I’m one of those ghost hunters that can’t tell you that ghosts exist, and I don’t try to tell you that they do,” Allison said, “I just try to at least open your mind to the idea that they could exist, that there is something out there, that we are not wasting our time.”

As the AGHOST crew packed up their equipment and we said our goodbyes, Alki Homestead was locked and left alone. The winds seemed to settle as the night came to a close.

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To read more about the Homestead and efforts to restore it, please check out the following stories:

Public buy in may help rebuild the Alki Homestead; Restoration will cost 2.6 million

The Alki Homestead is on the road to restoration

Alki Homestead nearing pivotal decision; RAFN Company chosen to oversee process

SLIDESHOW: 'This Place Matters' highlights the historic significance of Alki Homestead

To read about another potential haunting in West Seattle, please check out our story on the Heartland Cafe.

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