The Exchange Hotel: A Haunting in Gordonsville

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The year is 1860 and you’re a passenger on the Virginia Central Railway, making its usual stopover in Gordonsville, where you will “exchange” your ticket for the next part of your journey. When you get off the train you see a brand new hotel with wide verandas and stately columns. Aptly named, “The Exchange Hotel” (HGI) you find it a welcome respite on your journey—a place where you can have a meal or spend the night, enjoying southern hospitality at its best.

 
In 1860, there were probably 150 establishments like HGI throughout the country and they all were essential stops along the train route at a time when the only amenity you had on a train was a restroom. There were no diners, no Pullmans or Sleepers, so if passengers wanted to eat or sleep, they had to stop.
 
The hotel, now known as the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel, was so named because the word  “exchange” meant exactly that—you were changing trains. The trains had to refuel with wood for the fireboxes and water, so they’d stop in towns like Gordonsville.
 
In its heyday, The Exchange Hotel was like an upscale Radisson; at the higher end as far as hotels are concerned. Approximately 150 people used the hotel’s facilities daily, some staying overnight in one of eight private guest rooms. Unattached gentlemen would spend the night in the Tavern Room, while rooms upstairs were strictly for ladies, couples and families.
 
Rooms were not shared, as they were in Colonial times. When you got to your room, it was yours, but there was a price to pay–$1.25 per night—which was a lot of money in those days. 
 
But despite its elegance and popularity, the looming Civil War would change the fate of the hotel, not only for those living and working there in the 1860s, but for today’s visitors who have been known to encounter some of the residents who died over 100 years ago and haven’t left the premises since!
 
The transformation began in March of 1862, when the Army of the Confederacy turned the Exchange Hotel into the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital. Instead of bringing in waist-coated gentlemen and hoop-skirted ladies, the trains now bore the wounded and dying from nearby battlefields.
 
The Exchange Hotel was chosen as the site for a hospital because it was the northern most hospital and located at a prime juncture for north-southbound trains.  The Confederate government “leased” the hotel and 125 acres of farmland to accommodate 111 different structures—from 14’ x 14’ hospital tents to ward buildings measuring 120’ long and 24’ wide. 
 
These ward buildings were the primary patient care facility, but the facility also housed a blacksmith shop, combination carpenter/cooper’s shop; a couple of buildings used for laundry; a separate surgical building; and the death house where the bodies are prepared for burial. 
 
Thanks to the meticulous records of the hospital administrator, the hotel/hospital’s history can be accurately reconstructed.  Records indicate the hospital cared for as many as 1,000 patients at a time and that it developed an efficient system of dealing with the incoming wounded.
 
HGI is considered to be America’s first triage hospital. The wounded were evaluated as they came in. The non-ambulatory would be laid in rows on the front lawn and the doctors would decide whether they would be checked into this hospital or moved on to Charlottesville, Lynchburg and Richmond hospitals.
 
When there wasn’t a battle or major outbreak of contagious diseases, the staff would normally consist of 4-6 doctors, 30-35 nurses, plus hospital stewards, laundresses, cooks, and other ancillary staff. If they got word that more wounded were coming in, they’d telegraph the larger hospitals and ask for additional staff, swelling their numbers to 125, with 17 doctors.
 
Over 70,000 men were treated at the Gordonsville Receiving Hospital—with an astonishing low number of fatalities:  662 Confederates and 33 Union. It is remarkable when you consider that death from Gangrene alone was in the tens of thousands on both sides, yet the number of deaths from Gangrene at the Exchange was only seven—five Confederate; two Union. The hospital’s unprecedented one-percent mortality rate can be credited to its use of sterile bedding and more importantly, the miraculous formulas made from homeopathic remedies that were supplied by the African-American, Monacan Indian, and mountain people who staffed the hospital.
 
Although HGI was primarily a Confederate facility, the hospital took in wounded from both sides and became known for its equitable treatment of Union soldiers. The hospital remained open until the end of October 1865, almost six months after the war was over. The last patient to leave was a Union corporal from Pennsylvania.
 
Well…not exactly. 
 
Ghost Sightings
Today, visitors view Gordonsville’s history through medical, military, town, and hotel exhibits. On occasion, however, they may experience something that’s not part of the regular exhibits—such as apparitions and strange sounds. Paranormal activity at The Exchange Hotel has been well documented, and while brave souls can request an after-dark tour, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.
 
Reports from former staff members include stories of employees who refused to stay in the building after dark and who wouldn’t go into the summer kitchen building at all. One former staff member said there were about 80 recorded incidents since 1989 and while he personally never saw anything he did hear things, like doors closing or something heavy, like a chest or trunk, going across the floor and then it’s dropped. Guests have heard that as well and the hotel has a number of cold spots. 
 
While staff has been trying to figure out who is the spirit or spirits responsible for the ghostly goings on, one said he was fairly certain one of them is Anna, the cook. There are diary entries indicating that an African-American woman named Anna was connected to Margaret (Meg) Crank, the second wife of the hotel owner. Although it is not certain whether she was freeborn, there is evidence she grew up as Meg’s best friend. Meg brought her to the hotel to run the summer kitchen. The diary entries describe her as having moderate complexion, 4’11 with an irascible nature and ungovernable temper.
 
Anna’s ghostly apparition is most frequently seen going from either one of the doors in the summer kitchen to the main building, which has scared more than a few witnesses. “Anna the cook has been seen and recorded,” said Christopher Stephens, HGI Vice President.  “When she was asked “What are you cooking Anna?” her response was, “I cook fried chicken.”
 
But Stephens said that Anna’s not the only one whose spirit never leaves the hotel grounds. “A few years ago three women visitors came upon a gentleman sitting on the edge of the hospital cot,” he said. “They carried on a 15-minute conversation before returning downstairs. They thanked the bookstore operator and said the re-enactor was quite helpful. The bookstore operator said, “There is no one else here but me.” They all went directly upstairs to find the gentleman missing.” 
 
Some hospital workers found the conditions so depressing that they were overcome with despair and took their own lives. The hotel/hospital had four confirmed suicides during the Civil War. Two were female nurses who lived in boarding houses on the grounds.
 
“Many people have caught the nurses, dressed in black, climbing the stairs and going room to room,” said Stephens.
 
Some of the ghostly guests are less than cordial. Stephens said one in particular, who can be found above the room where Anna cooked, is a  “not so nice” gentleman named Major Quartermaster Richards. “He killed his wife (for an affair with a surgeon), buried her in the woods, then hung himself,” said Stephens. “He keeps her hostage for what he says is eternity. He has pinned Patti, our president, twice against the wall and pushed me down the stairs. He has also assaulted a couple of investigators when provoked.”
 
But adults are not the only ones to haunt the Exchange. There is a tale about a 14-year-old boy who was “leased” from a local farmer to work at the hospital. While he was never physically or verbally abused at the farm or at the hospital, the conditions he witnessed drove him to suicide.  Sometime in late fall 1862, he tied a rope on to something on the second floor and the other end around his neck and jumped out the window. The confederate hospital guard grabbed his shoes and tried to stop him, but the boy kicked free. 
 
It appears this sad little boy has a little friend named Emma to “hang” out with.
“We had no idea there were little children in the museum until last Christmas,” added Stephens. “We were mopping the wood floor before our Christmas opening. As we mopped the halls back to the stairs, we turned and found barefoot tracks in the water of what seemed to be a child of about nine years of age. Another group has captured a photo of her looking out the valance of the second floor door. We have also recorded her laughing and singing.”
 
“I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost!”
As a haunted place, HGI has been documented by the Virginia Ghost Hunters who admittedly recorded some “astonishing stuff.”  In 1997 A&E and the History channel listed The Exchange Hotel as 15th on the top 100 most haunted places in America. Mediums have visited the hotel and been impressed with their findings. 
 
“Last October the board decided to open the museum at night on weekends for paranormal investigations,” said Stephens. “We had over 250 people visit over the last 45 weekends. We have over 1,000 EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena), hundreds of pictures and video showing unexplained objects.” 
 
Details can be found on nighttouratexchangehotel.weebly.com, where you can hear some of the captured EVPs and see photos taken during one of the investigations. 
 
“I myself was a skeptic until my night tour,” Stephens admitted. “I’ve seen two apparitions (one full bodied and one half body) in the last month. No one has left there and said “nothing here!” We’ve been told that the famous haunted “Stanley Hotel” and the “Queen Mary” don’t hold a candle to the haunting at the Exchange Hotel.” 
 
Some of the videos that investigators have made have been posted on YouTube (type in “The Exchange Hotel”).
 
It is appropriate then that at this “spooky” time of the year, the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel sponsors ghost walks. This year marks the 10th annual history/ghost walk, which will take place on Saturday, October 22 and Sunday, October 29 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. The cost is $25 for a family of five; $10 (13 to adults) and $3 for children 12 and under. 
 
Whether you’re interested in history, medicine, architecture—or ghosts—The Exchange Hotel at 400 South Main Street in Gordonsville, is the place to be.  The Hotel is open to the public from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday; and from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $7 for adults; $7 for seniors (55+); $3 for children 6-16; and free for children under 6.  
 
For more information call  (540) 832-2944 or visit www.hgiexchange.org.
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