Ghosts of Fort Robinson

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Western Nebraska MysteriesGhosts of Fort Robinson

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Most visitors spending time at Fort Robinson State Park do so on horseback, hiking, fishing, and learning its unique history. What many don’t know is some of its former occupants remain, only to be seen and heard during the quiet moments at the historic site. From phantom hoof clops to flickering lights to sightings of people long gone, Fort Robinson is full of the remnants of pain, suffering, and joy of those who lived there. Staff and visitors tell of ghostly soldiers, wandering Native Americans, and children who have chosen to remain forever at the site. 


| THE BARRACKS & THE CHEYENNE BREAKOUT

Lee Lawton, the maintenance technician, makes sure buildings are unlocked at the beginning of the day and locked at night. He builds and repairs items as needed, and has many stories to tell about the past, including former residents, who never leave.

One morning as he was opening the buildings at the barracks building where the Northern Cheyenne were imprisoned in 1879, Lee he heard someone walking across the floor.

“I turned around to say ‘good morning’ and no one was there,” Lee said.

He heard the footsteps coming across the stairs, but he was utterly alone. Right after that, he heard the faint sound of drums. He wondered what was going on. As soon as the sounds started, they stopped. There is no video equipment in the area for him to have his story verified.

Footsteps aren’t the only thing reported at the site of the Cheyenne Breakout. Each year, the Northern Cheyenne travel from their home in Montana to recreate the breakout. The youth would take turns running back to the reservation in a nonstop run back home. A few years ago, as the youth “broke out” of the barracks, the coldness of the night air revealed faces in their exhaled breath.

In another year, as the adults were beginning their prayers, coyotes could be heard howling in the distance to the west and out past the site of the former Red Cloud Agency. The sounds grew louder, and closer, to the fort. Many of the Northern Cheyenne commented that they had never heard the coyotes so loud. Their howls drowned out the sound of the prayer. Lee said it sounded as if there were thousands of coyotes nearby. “I listen to them every night and not once have they ever done that,” he said. “It’s funny, he was just starting to give the prayer when they did that.”

After the prayer and the Northern Cheyenne began walking from the area between the museum and the Lodge, the coyotes fell silent. The barracks are not the only place supernatural events have taken place.

| VETERINARY HOSPITAL

One day, Lee was in the veterinarian (Vet) Hospital working in the basement. He was turning on the water for Spring. As he came out of the basement, he heard horses and the sound of hooves clopping on the ground coming from the alleyway in the Vet Hospital. There are horse-drawn carriage tours at the fort and he recognized the distinctive sound of horseshoes on the asphalt. The tour always stops at the Vet Hospital to talk about its history and purpose as part of the fort. He stepped outside to see what was going on and to say hello.
“There wasn’t anybody around,” Lee said. “There wasn’t a horse in sight.”

He thought it was weird, but it’s not the only story of phantom horses. In October 2019, he was shutting things down for the winter and used the restroom at the Vet Hospital. The door was closed, but he heard the sound of horses right on the other side of the door. Again, there was nothing there.

“It feels kind of weird, but it feels like somebody’s watching,” he said. Lee feels some people are more attuned to picking up on the spirit world and he’s heard more than enough unexplainable things that he believes there is something to it. “I’m not sure everything survived the surgery in there,” he said. “But what I’ve heard is nothing remotely resembling human. It’s always an animal in there.”

RaNae Calder, former site manager at the Fort Robinson History Center and Museum, said twice when she opened the Vet Hospital, it reeked of horse crap. She said there is no reason for the hospital to ever smell like horse poop, but she doesn’t think there is anything malicious going on. “There haven’t been horses in there for 70 years,” she said. “I still talk to them and say ‘high babies.’”

| FORT ROBINSON HISTORY CENTER & MUSEUM

The Fort Robinson History Center, and Museum, are located in the former post headquarters. Many reports over the years of strange “goings on” in the building are passed to others who are intrigued by the mysterious happenings. In 2018, an employee went upstairs to make sure the building was empty so she could close up for the night. As she turned on the landing, a soldier was standing at the top of the stairs. People she told the story to said she must have seen the uniform on display at the top of the stairs. She insisted, it wasn’t the display, which is against a wall. The soldier was standing directly at the top of the stairs.

On another day, Lee was repairing a wall in the museum and saw something out of the corner of his eye. He thought he must be mistaken, but it happened again.

“I went downstairs to see if our archaeological guy, Mac, was down there,” he said. “It was a Sunday and no one was there except me.”

The basement of the museum also has lingering questions. Lee frequents the basement to conduct maintenance on the boiler where he’s heard footsteps and people walking upstairs. He hears people walking down the hallway from the back exhibit on the first floor above him. He heard doors shut yet he was always alone. “Mac heard doors shut, too,” Lee said.

Lee said staff hears all kinds of “weird stuff,” which they can’t logically explain. “The boiler makes noise, but it’s not a door shutting sound or footsteps,” he said. “There might be a creak here or there, but this is right down the center of the floor above you.”

On Dec. 6, 2019, Lee was putting up Christmas lights on the banister and railing leading to the second floor. He plugged the lights into the larger of the two rooms upstairs, but a four-foot section had no power. He thought the string of lights might be bad. He replaced the lights with another string and zip-tied them to the railing. He went down the stairs and put another set on the lower banister. When he returned to the top of the stairs, there was a four-foot span of lights out.

Frustrated, he went over to the stairs to cut the zip ties, so he could replace that set of lights and they turned back on. He cut the zip ties anyway and rechecked every string of lights to all the sockets in the museum and all the lights worked every time. Lee had also checked all the lights in the basement before he began putting them up that day.

He put the lights back on the banister and went back downstairs. When he returned, the same four-foot section was out again. When he looked a little later it was on, but another four-foot section on the first floor was out.

“I went downstairs and got more lights and now, when I got back, it’s back on,” Lee said. “I was about to say the heck with it.” Lee reached into his back pocket to grab a green zip tie, but they were no longer there. He assumed they had fallen out in the constant back and forth with the lights and would be strewn all over the stairs. “I turned around and there they are at the top of the stairs,” he said. “Like someone picked them up and put them neatly on the ground in a bundle.”

RaNae was working with Lee that day. She has had her fair share of run-ins with the resident ghosts at the museum. On that particular day, she and Lee had been trading barbs and joking around most of the day. RaNae said the ghost was defending her in its own way.

“He (the ghost) likes me,” she said. “You had been giving me crap all day.” As RaNae and Lee bantered back and forth, she commented how Lee is sometimes a jokester and thinks he’s hilarious. During this same incident with the lights, Lee was carrying books upstairs from the basement and decided to scare RaNae. After he did, the lights started to flicker.

“They are pissed that you scared me,” she said to Lee. “You have to tell them that you’re doing lights for Christmas and leave me alone.”

However, the ghost has never given her any trouble. On one memorable occasion, she had checked the museum twice after closing to make sure the building was empty and she could go home when she heard footsteps upstairs. Twice there was no one there. After hearing footsteps again, she went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled, “You need to stop. I have work to get done so I can go home.”

The sounds stopped. RaNae finished her work and went home for the evening. On one of the first times she closed by herself, RaNae heard a man laughing upstairs. There had been a gentleman visiting the museum and she thought he was on his phone upstairs. He left, but RaNae heard the same sound again coming from upstairs. She heard a deep, boisterous laugh she describes as something akin to Santa’s laugh. She thought to herself, there is nothing here and did a sweep of the building. She heard the laugh a third time, so she responded. “I said, ‘Look I have to go pick up my kid. I’m done messing around with you,’” she said. “And it stopped.”

It depends on where you go in the building as to what experience you will have. RaNae said the ghost in the basement is different from the ones upstairs. Although the building is old, it only has a musty smell when a ghost is around. RaNae and Lee agree, the smell moves around in the basement.

One time, RaNae was walking through the basement. She smelled lye and something else. “It was a musky smell like you would expect from a soldier,” she said. “I told Lee and he said, ‘Yeah that’s happened to me.’”

Shortly after she began working at the museum, RaNae went into the basement to the staff break room and placed her lunch in the microwave. When she returned to get her lunch, a large, heavy chair was in front of the doorway, just inside the break room. No one had been down there except RaNae. “It’s never anything evil or with malintent,” RaNae said. “It’s just a little unnerving.”

As RaNae was telling the story, Lee teased another female coworker who hasn’t seen or heard anything in her several years of working at Fort Robinson. He said the spirits didn’t like her. “That’s why you don’t see them,” he said. “It’s because you make fun of them, ” RaNae said that since working at the Museum could never hang paintings, or pictures, on the West wall because they would get knocked down. “I tried 4×6 pictures, giant posters, and large pictures,” she said. “It didn’t matter. It was getting knocked down.”

She has tried to locate old photos from when the building was in use by the military to see what was on the wall then in the hope of learning why the ghosts don’t want anything hanging there. So far, she hasn’t found any pictures. One morning just before RaNae opened up the museum, one stall in the women’s bathroom was locked from the inside. She thought maybe a child had done it, but after watching the video from the day before, no one had been in that stall and no children had been in the bathroom. “I had to climb underneath to unlock it,” she said.

After doing a sweep of the building another night to make sure it was empty, she locked up and left the building. Before she got into her car, RaNae noticed the light was on in the basement bathroom.

“The only way for the light to go on is for someone to be in there,” she said. “It’s motion-activated.”
She had been the only one in the building the entire day. Only full body movement when walking through the door turns the light on. “I thought, ‘Nope. I’m not checking that out,’” she said.

| THE ADOBE BUILDING

At the adobe building, which History Nebraska manages, there are reports of several strange activities over the years. The area which is now sectioned off with plexiglass used to be open. Multiple people have reported the organ playing for no reason at all.

RaNae’s mother worked at Fort Robinson 40 years ago when the adobe building was open to the public. Visitors would report hearing the organ playing and the kids’ toys would move around. One day, an employee asked RaNae if she could close up the adobe building for him. The employee said, “I saw a little girl sitting on the couch today.” RaNae thought the employee was messing around. She went and closed up the building. She didn’t see anything, but she always made sure to not look at the children’s room when she walked by. “Kid stuff” freaks her out.

The next morning, RaNae walked over to open the building. There was nothing on the couch. She walked past the children’s room and saw something. “There’s a little girl standing in the doorway between her room and the bathroom,” RaNae said. “I looked. She was standing there. I kept on going. ”She thought maybe her coworker put the idea in her head and she was just seeing things. No one saw the little girl for a couple of days, but RaNae has seen her standing in other places in the adobe building, including the living room.

On another night, RaNae was closing up the adobe building later than usual, around 9:30 p.m. She walked down the front porch and went around the building, walking down the hallway to shut the back door. Standing in front of the plexiglass, you can look down into the living room. On this night, RaNae saw the reflection of a person in the plexiglass but thought the reflection was a little weird.

“I turned around and there was nothing there,” she said. “I’m not sure if there was someone behind me.”
RaNae affectionately named the little girl Lizzy and says hello to Lizzy every time she is in the adobe building.. She is described as standing about three feet tall, with long dark hair. Lee said Lizzy is always wearing a white dress. She never waves. She just stands there looking at him. “I don’t look at her that long,” he said. “It still weirds me out a little bit.” RaNae said there is nothing scary about her. “I see her pretty regularly,” she said.

Lee has had encounters with Lizzy as well. He lives in the other half of the adobe building. One night, while laying in bed, he felt something on his right arm. He thought his cat, Clyde, was brushing his tail against Lee’s arm. Clyde was sleeping on Lee’s left side.

“It happened again the next night,” Lee said. “Clyde wasn’t even on the bed.” It happened again a month later. Lee doesn’t let it freak him out. Before Clyde passed away, Lee would see Clyde playing with somebody in the adobe building even though no one was there. Clyde always looked down the hallway like anyone would do when they are looking at someone. Lee insists Clyde’s behavior was different when Clyde played by himself. The incidents with his cat convinced him there is something there, especially since Clyde behaved the same way as he did when he played with Lee.

“He was playing with someone,” Lee said. “He’s running from them down the hallway and then back again.”
While Lee thinks his cat and the situation were odd, he doesn’t let it bother him anymore. He considers himself lucky that he can hear the ghosts once in a while. “I’ve been weirded out, but I don’t think there are any harmful ghosts here,” he said.

Lee said he’s never heard or seen anything in the granary, wheelwright, harness shop, or blacksmith shop, which he looks after as well.

| OTHER UNEXPLAINED OCCURRENCES

A friend of RaNae’s volunteers at the Fort Robinson Post Playhouse where people report the presence of an actor from Chadron State College, who passed away many years ago.

Comanche Hall has several stories, which are told often and have been passed on through the years. In one, an employee who was working at night received reports a light was on in the building and no one was staying there. He and another employee turned out the light and locked up the building. Later on, he noticed the same light back on. Each time he conducted checks of the building more lights were turned on. By 5 a.m., he said Comanche Hall was lit up like a Christmas tree and there was no way he was going anywhere near the building to turn the lights off.

Others have reported they always felt like someone was watching them in Comanche Hall. One person said they felt it when they were mowing the lawn outside.

Another coworker told RaNae the story of the night she slept in the apartments at the Fort. “Someone sat down in the bed with her while she was in the apartment,” RaNae said.

Around 2003, another friend came out for a visit and stayed in one of the brick buildings at the fort. “She felt an overwhelming need to leave,” RaNae said. “She felt like no one wanted her there, so she left.” The friend had her birthday at the fort and her other friends reported they were not spiritual or religious, but after spending an hour at the fort, didn’t feel right so they left.

| EMBRACING THE WEIRDNESS AT FORT ROBINSON

RaNae is also a therapist with a specialty in generational trauma. Growing up in nearby Crawford, her friends were Native American and she wonders if understanding their culture has had an impact on what she experiences at the fort.

“I don’t know if it’s because I was raised here, but I feel a heaviness at the barracks,” RaNae said. Many others throughout the decades have said they feel a sense of great sadness when they visit Fort Robinson.

“That place is filled with nothing but sadness, heartache, and pain,” said Hawk Buckman, Wyobraska Magazine Photographer. “I’d prefer to never have to go back there again.”

RaNae has never minded engaging with the spirits, or whatever they are, and talking to them. She is not alone in experiencing strange occurrences there. Stories of ghostly figures, flickering lights, and invisible horses will surely last for many more centuries to come and there will always be people like RaNae and Lee who embrace the “weirdness” and enjoy whatever Fort Robinson has to offer.


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| CREDITS & RESEARCH

Personal interviews with employees and volunteers of Fort Robinson State Park, Crawford, NE.

Story by: Irene North
Photography by: Hawk Buckman



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