Gather round the fire for this tale: Twenty-six years ago, the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce was brainstorming ways to bring tourists to town in the colder seasons.
Someone brought an article about a woman named Emma Crawford — who died in 1891 from tuberculosis in the mountain town — to a Chamber of Commerce meeting, inspiring plans to host a coffin race in her honor. It also inspired the historic committee to offer a ghost tour.
And so a one-night event was born. For the first 24 years, the Ghost Stories of Old Manitou walking tours were held on the evening of the Emma Crawford Coffin Races. The tours featured volunteers acting out spooky scenes based on historic events, including the life of Emma Crawford.
“As you can imagine, it certainly wasn’t well produced,” Neale Minch, the Heritage Center’s vice president, said of those early tours.
But it was popular. The walking tours always sold out.
“You almost build up a brand after a number of years,” he said. “Year after year, a following developed.” Last year, the Heritage Center teamed up with Theater D’Art to make the event better. With the help of the theater’s actors, the walking tours grew to two nights.
This year, it’s growing again. The Ghost Stories of Old Manitou will be held on seven nights over four weekends. Twelve tours will be held each night. “Now, it’s like a real theater experience,” Minch said.
Tour groups will be limited to 10 people to follow safety guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For each 45-minute tour, a “spirit guide” leads the group from the Heritage Center to Memorial Park where a series of scenes are played out.
One is based on the story from 1911 of the Skinners, a couple from Texas that died near the summit of Pikes Peak. Their bodies were found frozen under a foot of snow.
Theater D’Art staff members write the scripts for the tours to add some “theater embellishment,” Minch said.
“In general, it’s a humorous spin,” he said. “It’s not about making it super scary. Just making it funny.”
The stories draw people in because there’s a “touch of realism,” he said.
“These aren’t just fantasy and made up,” Minch said. “I think people find them more interesting because they’re true stories.”
That’s what makes a similar event — the Ghosts of Downtown tour in Colorado Springs — popular as well. That event, featuring real and fictional stories penned by members of the Pikes Peak Writers Guild, has been sold out since mid September.
While this weekend’s tours in Manitou Springs have sold out, tickets remain for those later this month. Minch says interest could be higher this year with other Halloween events such as the traditional Emma Crawford Coffin Races being canceled.
“This is one of the few activities still happening,” he said.