As far back as the 1900s, residents of Waterville have known this building was home to unearthly spirits. In fact, the Columbian House’s reputation for being haunted is often the blame for its history of changing hands and sitting empty and neglected for long periods of time.
This three-story structure was built by John Pray, the founder of Waterville, in 1827 (according to the Toledo Blade, but 1828 according to other folklorists).
The Columbian House began life as a trading post, tavern, and inn. As one of the few establishments of its kind in the area and due to the influence of its owner, it quickly became the hub of the community. Many aspects of social and commercial life revolved around John Pray and the Columbian House.
The building became such a focal point for Waterville’s daily life and operation that a jail room was even added to the second floor of the building. This room was routinely used to house prisoners overnight as they were being transported by stagecoach to the courthouse in nearby Maumee. It was served as a convenient place for many of the town drunks to dry out and sleep it off.
One of the first tragedies to take place in the Columbian House, and in turn become part of its ghostly reputation, involved a one such local drunk who would often be locked up in the jail room due to disorderly conduct.
As the story goes, he would often protest and bang on the jail room door to be let out. It was such a common occurrence that most learned to just ignore it until he either passed out or fell asleep. Well, fateful one night, he didn’t stop banging on the door. He pounding and screaming, screaming and pounding, saying he was ill and needed a doctor. Thinking this was just another ruse to be released, people did what they normally do – they ignored him.
He was found dead inside the jail room the next day. Dead, but perhaps not gone.
Claims quickly began to surface among staff and patrons that, on certain nights, you can still hear a banging sound coming from the jail room, even when it’s empty. When people go to check on the source of the sounds, they find the room quiet and still, no one around. Strangely, they also find that the jail room door won’t stay closed. Someone, or something, wants the door to stay open.
When John Pray passed away, it was like the charm of the Columbian House faded away with him. It slowly began to lose some of its importance in Waterville’s daily life. It was also no longer the only venue in town. Waterville was flourishing and the traffic along the Miami-Erie Canal was attracted more businesses to set up shop. Without Waterville’s founding father to guide her, the Columbian House became a shadow of its former self.
The building was sold and re-sold, changing hands quickly and often. It was a drugstore for a while and then a dressmaker’s shop. It even served for a while as a schoolhouse. But, nothing ever seemed to prosper there for long. Town gossip blamed it on the building’s reputation for being haunted. More rational minds just chalked it up to the fact the building was falling apart.
The Columbian House stood empty through much of the early 1900s and this once great establishment quickly became a community eyesore. The windows had been broken out, the roof was sagging, and the interior had been brutalized by vandals and scavengers. Nearby residents finally had enough. The building had grown to become a hazardous blight. They wanted it torn down.
And, they almost got their wish. But, in 1927, a Toledo-area antique dealer, named Charles Capron, fell in love with the old, abandoned building and decided to buy it. He felt it would be the perfect place to display his antiques collection.
Almost immediately, Charles was introduced to the building’s ghostly inhabitants. Every so often he would be awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of footsteps outside his bedroom door. Or, he would hear soft cries for help coming from areas of the building he knew were empty. Sounds of movement on the floors above him, moaning, and the feeling of an unseen presence that followed him from room to room.
He persevered and put those odd incidents out his mind, and spent the next few years focused on restoring the building to its original condition. Eventually, though, he had had enough.
Charles, his caretaker, other staff members, and even many of his guests could no longer ignore the ghostly events that seemed to take place with greater regularity.
So, once again, the Columbian House stood empty. Once again, and with no one to care for it, the building began to crumble apart and fall victim to vandalism. And, once again, it was saved from the cruel fate of demolition at the last minute.
In 1943, Mrs. Ethel N. Arnold fell in love with the property and acquired it. Over the course of the next five years, she and her husband, a retired cabinet maker named George, restored the Columbian House. By 1948, they had finished the first two floors and in June of that year opened its doors as a fine dining establishment.
Ethel and George ran the Columbian House for the next several decades and, despite its reputation for being haunted, they never reported anything odd whatsoever. Ethel was never the type to believe in such things, but her son and his wife were more than convinced.
In the 1970s, Ethel passed the property to her son, George, and his wife, Jacqueline. Whether Ethel believed in ghosts or not, whether she experienced strange incidents or not, it’s apparent that the haunting activity never really went away.
In a 1980 interview, Jacqueline admitted, “We’re haunted.”
The moans, the presences, banging and pounding, the phantom sounds of footsteps, all of it. It had seemingly never went away. It just wasn’t talked about. Bad for business, it seems.
Jacqueline and George both admitted to experiencing strange phenomena in the building, even when it was still owned by George’s parents. Even the staff and many of their guests began stepping forward to tell of their personal encounters.
Many tales have since spilled into the public consciousness. All the activity found inside the building, at one time or another, has been blamed on any number of tragedies which are said to have occurred here over the years.
From the ghostly drunk banging on the old jail room door to the eerie footsteps of a murdered guests. And, then there’s the oft-reported sounds of a child crying for help coming from the stairwell and hallway.
In September 1993, Tom and Peggy Parker bought the Columbian House, well aware of its paranormal reputation.
In a Toledo Blade article, Peggy remarked, “I’ve never been a believer in ghosts, spirits, or anything like that, but when I came here, I changed my mind.”
For 189 years, this old, historic building seems to have made believers out of a whole lot of people. Will it make a believer out of you?
The Columbian House is located at 3 North River Road in Waterville, Ohio.
“Ancient Hostelry Again Gives Ghosts The Pitch; Gets New Lease On Life,” by Jean Douglas, The Toledo Blade, 28 June 1948, pgs. 22 – 23
“Haunted Ohio III” by Chris Woodyard, 1994
“Haunted Toledo! We’ve Got Ghosts!,” by Natasha Rafi, The Toledo Blade, 29 October 1995, pgs. F-1 and F-2