By Logan Hawkes
Historic Fort Brown is a landmark of Rio Grande Valley history. Wars have been fought there. At one time, the U.S. Calvary’s largest military hospital was housed on the grounds. During the years of a deadly Yellow Fever outbreak thousands of bodies were buried under what is now UTB-TSC campus, often multiple bodies in a single grave. A National Cemetery was once located on the Fort grounds. Some 3,800 bodies were removed in 1909 and relocated to a National Cemetery in Louisiana.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that so many stories and fables have developed down through the years that seem to indicate the old Fort is a very haunted place.
So widespread have been the stories of haunts and spooks of Old Fort Brown that in 2003 the Arnulfo L. Oliveira Literary Society published a popular collection of ghost stories centered around the historical UTB/TSC campus. It is titled “The Ghosts of Fort Brown: An Informal Study of Brownsville Folklore and Parapsychology.” Writers from the UTB faculty, staff, and administration contributed stories to the book, which garnered so much attention regionally that the campus had to be closed at night to curiosity seekers and ghost hunters who began flocking to the site in search of adventure and the souls of the lost.
Only last year has the University agreed to reopen parts of the campus for limited evening ghost tours, and only under the supervision of a professional ghost hunter and in conjunction with the Brownsville Heritage Society’s “History Tours of Historic Brownsville” program.
GHOST OF THE OLD MORGUE
According to the “Ghosts of Fort Brown” Web site (http://blue.utb.edu/ghostsoffortbrown), dozens, perhaps thousands of reports of strange ghostly sightings have occurred in and around the UTB campus and Old Fort Brown. One of the most haunted of buildings on the campus is the Old Fort Morgue. Still standing, this rigid brick building literally housed thousands of bodies, victims of Yellow Fever. A young Army Doctor, William Gorgas, who dissected bodies in the morgue to study the Yellow Fever disease in an attempt to find a cure. He convinced officials to release him after being arrested for disobeying orders to not have any contact with diseased patients.
Many now claim the building is haunted. By whom or what, no one can say, but according to the official Web site, many unexplainable things have happened here, such as electrical appliances being activated by themselves. Objects such as small bags of potato chips once leaped into the air. An employee has felt a tugging on her hair and a presence is regularly felt.
Between this building and the former Post Hospital, now the Administration building called Gorgas Hall, stands an eerie looking tree, or the “Hanging Tree”, where orbs and strange shapes have been photographed.
Gorgas Hall, which houses the UTB-TSC Administration department, is another building with a ghostly past. And not surprisingly considering the Hall was once the post hospital. Students, faculty members and university staff all have reported a number of odd happenings including faces looking out the windows at night, door knobs that turn by themselves, a spectral doctor, nurse and woman clad in black, and assorted noises and even smells that seem to originate out of nowhere.
Ghost hunters have photographed what they call little orbs of light floating in and around the Hall, and visitors often described “unusual” sensations when walking the halls of the old hospital.
Another structure said to be haunted is the old guardhouse, also used as a commissary just after the turn of the 20th century. According to the Web site, This Commissary/Guardhouse was built in 1904. The basement still has metal grated cell gates where prisoners were held. It is now used as an art building.
Many ghost stories originate in this building. Major grief has been heaped upon students who returned to find that art projects were missing or damaged after being left overnight in the basement. Cold chills, the sensation of being touched, strange orbs, faint voices, or the “feeling” of being watched by persons who are alone in the building have all been reported. Sounds such as metal scraping metal have been heard outside of the building.
No longer in its original location, Regimental House - as it is now known - once stood on the banks of the Rio Grande River nearby, about where U.S. customs maintains it’s office at the International Bridge. A former employee claims it was common to hear footsteps in the otherwise peaceful building, and the late Ken Fairchild, an avid ghost hunter, once snapped a photo from outside the building that many say expose a number of fingers grasping a blind as if someone inside were trying to look out the window.
One reason the Arnulfo L. Oliveira Memorial Library produced the book, "The Ghosts of Fort Brown," was to answer the most frequently asked reference question, "Is the library haunted?"
There's the story of the janitor who was frightened beyond measure when he opened the library's exterior door only to be confronted by a regiment of mounted cavalry. Soldiers were marching across the parade grounds nearby.
Former Senior Assistant Librarian Yolanda Gonzalez was often fond of putting together the unusual stories of ghosts that haunted the library and the old Fort Brown structures. So noted was her knowledge of the lore that many still refer to her as the "Ghost Lady". She often told stories about the ghosts that haunt the campus, including one about a man who lead her to an area trampled by horses hooves and showed her an old Army shirt button he had found there. The late Bruce Aiken (a well-known historian) examined it and confirmed it was indeed an authentic Army button.
Other people have reported seeing a young girl on the second floor of the library, about nine years of age and wearing an out of fashion dress. One person claimed this girl followed him home. Paranormal investigators claim there is a malevolent or hostile spirit of an adult male ghost on the second floor as well, and others have seen a dark shadow move within the building.
Are the ghosts of Old Fort Brown real? The students and faculty of UTB-TSC certainly believe that it is. And one visit in the dark of night is enough to convince you that not all the students on this campus are there for the education.
For the daring and the brave, there are occasional ghost walk tours of the old Fort, now the University of Texas campus.