There are two kinds of ghost stories coming out of the amusement park in Silver Springs, Florida. One shows up in different forms in books and online pages, morphing and borrowing bits of narrative from other tales and redefining itself with each generation. It’s somewhat forgot but those who work there, but each version is sworn to be true by each person that shares it. It’s nonspecific and familiar and has roots in actual locations you can see and feel. Its stretches through centuries and trying to unlock what might be true and what might be legend can get you caught in rabbit holes and Internet threads.
Then there is the other kind of ghost story. This one is more subtle and shared only between the people who work there. They’ll tell you them if you ask, and everyone seems to have one, but people have stopped asking. They are modern and oddly accepted by the people who have lived through them. They are anything but legend.
All through the years though there have been the stories. Whether they are used to try and rationalize what happens there or just a living commercial, they have offered the park its heartbeat. The beauty of the legends at Silver Springs is that all you need to do is decide what kind of love story you like. They’re all tragedies in their own way, but some are more poetic than others.
Take the published account spread by the park itself; or at least for a while until it played itself out. That story involves two young lovers and an old woman who used to work at the park telling the tale. The old woman’s name is Aunt Silla and she knew the young lovers and would sit at the park and tell their story. Claire Douglass was the son of Captain Harding Douglass, a hard man who was tough on his men and then tougher on his employees when he took over cotton fields in Florida. He considered it well below their station when his sensitive son fell in love with a beautiful woman named Bernice Mayo. The two had met on the shores of what is now Silver Springs and immediately fell for each other. For quite some time they walked the banks and traveled on the water and allowed their passion to drown out the protests of his father. He eventually promised he would marry her and gave her a family heirloom bracelet until he could get her a real engagement ring.
Captain Douglas found out and shipped his son off to Europe under supervision hoping Claire and Bernice would forget each other with the distance. Bernice, who had always leaned on Aunt Silla as a healer and adviser, not spent long stretches of time with her, slowly becoming more and more sick. Claire wrote every day, but his father intercepted the letters, and with each day without word his lovers health got worse. One the day she realized she was going to die she begged Silla to row her body out into the Springs and be buried in what came to be called The Bridal Chamber. At first the old woman disagreed, but when refused to concede and even went so far as to but a curse on her friend should she not comply, Aunt Silla promised. That night, under a full moon and with Bernice’s dead body on the boat, she rowed out and gently placed the young lady’s body in the water. The Bridal Chamber seemed to open up and suck her in.
The next day, the day he had promised to return and marry her, Claire came back and demanded to see his bride to be. Eventually Aunt Silla gave in and rowed the boat out to where she had dumped Claire’s body. As he watched the water and cried he saw a hand rise from the rocks with his bracelet on it. He dove into the water and swam down to his beloved, trying his best to raise her body to the surface. When he realized he could not, he gave in to the water around him and embraced the woman he loved forever.
It has all of the elements of a true love story, even if they maybe a bit overly familiar. For the decades she worked there, Aunt Silla would tell the story, and as Silver Springs grew in popularity it promoted Bernice and Claire’s love as part of the attraction of the park, even including it in their promotional material. After seeing the enormous snakes and man-eating Alligators you can hop on a glass bottom boat and see their watery grave and maybe even see their ghosts. People talked of seeing lights in the water at night and even a ghostly boat making its way to the Bridal Chamber.
Yet the story is hard to prove, which either adds to impact or frustrates if you look too hard. There are no birth or death records of Bernice, Claire, or Captain Douglass, which is especially off considering Captain Douglass was a wealthy man who owned vast amounts of property. The story is presented as true, and Aunt Silla, who was a real woman who worked at the part, solidifies it for the people who remember hearing about it.
“Yeah, us older people know that story, “ said one of the captains who remembers a time when they told the story. He also remembers how the story would always be changing depending on who you heard it from. “Even the captains changed it a little and it gets confused. That’s why you find five different legends out there. Everyone’s got their ideas about it.”
It’s hard to tell when the desire for a new story came around and why it was needed, but people shifted away from Bernice and Claire. It may have been because Aunt Silla passed or because one of the many shifts in ownership though it had a different mystic, but a new narrative was written. People who work at the park attribute it to a changing management and the emphasis on Ross’s Seminole Village.
A young man named Navarro from the Tequesta tribe fell in love with a beautiful lady from the Muscogee tribe named Tululah. The tribe’s chief, a man by the name of Satouriana determined the best course of action would be to send the young brave to the land of the Creeks to report on their power. But there was a bargain made behind Navarro’s back, and when he arrived he was captured and held for more than three months. Tululah was heartbroken and soon grew ill. She eventually died and asked to be buried in the deepest part of the spring, known as the Bridal Chamber. She sunk to the bottom and was engulfed by the rocks. Not long after, her lover returned to hear of her death. He rode out and the bottom of the Bridal Chamber seemed to open up for him enough for him to see a glimpse of his would-be bride. He jumped from the boat, and as they embraced the rocks swallowed them up.
If tracking down the real people in the first version is almost impossible, proving this version is false is fairly easy. There is no written record of the tale of Navarro and Tululah until it appears in the Ocala Evening Star in 1907. It’s author, who was on loan from Talisman, the newspaper for the Women’s College of Florida which became Florida State University, was Nettie Lisk. Lisk, it seems, was a fiction writer and poet for most of her career, so it is unclear whether she had heard the legend and wrote it or whether she merely created it herself. Also, the tribe identified in the story, the Tequesta, is located more than two hundred miles from Silver Springs. The Muscogee might have been in the area around the time of the founding of the park, but not much before then. In fact, the Muscogee are actually part of the Creek, so it seems odd Navarro would be asked to spy on tribe his girlfriend belonged to and that they would then hold him prisoner, especially when there is no evidence in the story that her family did not oppose the marriage. The legend, however, persists and is said to be the cause of the unexplained activity on the water.
There might be another story to explain what the rangers see. This one again involves love and is even more tragic and gives parts of the area their names. Oklawaha fell in love with the beautiful woman Winona. They were both the children of their tribes chiefs felt revealing their love might lead to war. They instead decided to run away with each other to the Chattahoochees, although there is no tribe by that name. It might instead be a reference to the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. Someone found out about them leaving and decided to prevent them from leaving. They tracked them through the woods and backed the lovers onto a bluff overlooking Silver Springs. Knowing they would be caught and kept apart, they held each other close and jumped from the cliff.
They say both sides immediately realized they had made a mistake in trying to keep them apart. They named the river that flows into the spring Oklawaha in his honor and a Lake nearby after her. They also say the green moss under the water is Winona’s hair.
Who is the “they?” It’s hard to tell because no one who currently works at the park has ever heard of the two lovers. And there is no bluff that overlooks Silver Springs. Nettie Lisk specializes in fiction.
If you haven’t had enough of love and suicide there is even another story spread by locals and recorded in the book Florida Ghost Stories by Robert R. Jones. This tells of another set of lovers, this time named Mourning Dove and Running Fox. For a long time Silver Springs was called the Peace Camp and the different people around it would put their differences aside and compete in Olympic-type games. It was there the two met after Running Fox, who was well known as the best athlete at the games, saved her life from a poisonous snake. She was taken by him and took him home to meet her father who also took an immediate like to the man. So the story has a happy ending? Not quite. Another man, Brown Dog, became jealous and angry Running Fox had beaten him in the races and struck him with a stone on his way to see his lady. As Running Fox laid dying, he put an enchantment on Silver Springs. Anyone who met and fell in love under the “twisted palm” where they had met would be in love forever. When Mourning Dove took his body out to the Bridal Chamber to bury it, she added to what her lover had said. Anyone who took the flowers from the water and walked with one in each shoe would find love, and putting the flowers in one shoe would get rid of someone who was causing them trouble. She then wrapped the vine and stone which acted as an anchor around her neck and threw herself into the water.
While the legends fade, those who work at the park can tell you it still is one of the most haunted places in Florida. It has been for years. Gina has worked there for most of her life and has seen and felt a ghostly but friendly presence. “There’s a ghost in our shop. One of the old maintenance mechanic maybe. I go in there to find something and I’ll hear a noise and turn my head, and there’s what I’m looking for. Just enough to turn your head to get to the part.” Over the years this has happened to her quite often, but like many of the people who work at Silver Springs, she understands it’s all part of the job.
“There is something about the park that is so creepy at night, “ says Kasey, a newer employee to the park. “ There are rangers that live here and they at night there is something that doesn’t feel right.” For her the most haunted place on the property is the ballroom. “There supposed to be a ghost that hangs out of the top floor of the ballroom. I’m not sure of everything that goes on, they just say it’s haunted. The managers have their offices upstairs and they always say they have things happen. “
She had her own experience there shortly after she started. She was closing up for the night and turned all the lights on the bottom floor off. As she went to leave, all the lights came back on and then flickered, although there was no one around to play with them. Her friend, Crystal, talks about an experience they had together late one night in the ballroom.
“We were cleaning in the back, doing dishes. I saw it first and it didn’t move for like five minutes. I was walking in near the window. The lights (from the signs) give it some luminescence. For some reason I felt something and turned and looked. There was this face. It was floating in the window.” Both ladies describe it the same way. They could make out the different features of the face, but not give many details. Both describe it as being there but not there, and for some reason the ear stand out in their memories.
We went there to see some of these locations for ourselves and see what all the legends were about. After hearing the story of the ballroom, Natalie went into a breezeway full of displays. Some were of the original dioramas created to promote the park that were sent to the World’s Fair while others are models of the old boats and artifacts from the Seminole Village. Near the entrance is an actual canoe said to have been pulled from the springs years ago. We spoke to several employees, and after using the ladies restroom, Natalie noticed an odd scratching near the bathroom door. We commented that there might be something with us as this scratching had happened several other times during a ghostly encounter. The bathroom door opened in response. We began filming and the door continued to open in response to some of our questions.
Taking a step back, the door may have been opened due to wind in the bathroom, which has an entrance on the other side as well. The door, however, had not moved the entire time we were speaking to people in there, including an interview with a ranger right after, and stopped as soon as another person walked into the hallway.
Crystal offers another theory. “They say there are Native American spirits in that breezeway. They say it’s a woman that hangs around there. Between the old village up near the staff parking lot and all the stuff they have in there, it makes sense.” She has heard several people talk of the ghosts there and offer the Native American explanation for it. “My boss is sometimes back there late at night, like two o’clock at night. H says he hears that bathroom door open and then slam shut.”
Her belief in the spirit was confirmed by a story one of the newer workers told who did not know the history of the hall. “The lady went into the female bathroom. It was later in the day. I think it was the back stall that is closed. She said she went in there and the lights started to flicker. She comes out and was washing her hands and she hears a woman. She turns around and there was nobody there. She went back to washing her hands, drying her hands. She turns around and there’s an Indian standing there, right where that broken stall is. She ran out of there and she’s never been back. She refuses to go there.”
Check out Christopher Balzano’s books, including the newly released Haunted Ocala National Forest
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