Briarhurst Manor scene of ghostly sightings: The Manitou Springs castle is among the area's most haunted of houses

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It seems only fitting that the world's most popular coffin race - the upcoming Emma Crawford Coffin Race - takes place in Manitou Springs. It also seems appropriate that one of the state's most storied haunted houses is also located in the quaint little town.

The elegant Briarhurst Manor Estate, situated along Manitou Avenue, apparently is home to a number of ghostly spirits. These spirits, by all accounts, are as friendly as Casper.

But before we get into the tales of ghoulish haunts and laughing children who go boo in the night, it is important to get a little background on the Briarhurst Manor.

The history of the Briarhurst is quite amazing. The current Briarhurst was built by Dr. William A. Bell in 1889 upon the ruins of his former residence, which burned three years earlier.

Dr. Bell is known by many as the “Father of Manitou Springs,” which he founded in 1872. His luxurious Briarhurst Manor Estate is an elegant reminder of the Victorian Era.

But what most people don't know is that Dr. Bell was a key player in the early development of Woodland Park.

Dr. Bell was already making waves in what would be Teller County several years before Daniel Steffa platted his ranch in what would eventually be called Woodland Park. Dr. Bell's Manitou Park was an area about 14 by four miles, located about eight miles north of Woodland Park. In 1870, Dr. Bell and Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer purchased 26,000 acres from the government and developed the first area resort with a hotel built in 1873. Manitou Lake featured a nine-hole golf course, swimming pool, bowling alley and a horse race track. Today's Manitou Lake still exists along Colo. 67 and remains a popular tourist destination.

But it was in Manitou Springs where Dr. Bell left a lasting legacy in Colorado. Known as the “Saratoga of the West,” Manitou Springs combined summer social ritual with health renewal. Well-to-do travelers arrived by rail for the season, staying the whole summer in one of the turreted and many-gabled inns.

Construction on the original Briarhurst Manor began in 1872. Dr. Bell left for England to marry a woman named Cara Scovell, who agreed to live with Dr. Bell in Colorado as long as her children were born in England.

Under Mrs. Bell's direction, Briarhurst Manor became the social center of the community, hosting the internationally famous of the day. One winter night in 1886, while Dr. Bell was away on business, Mrs. Bell awoke to a bedroom filled with smoke. Burning embers escaped from a fireplace in Briarhurst. She woke the children and servants.

The family escaped safely, but lost all of their belongings and went to England. They returned to Colorado in early 1887 to begin reconstruction of a second, more elaborate Briarhurst Manor, complete with schoolroom, conservatory, cloister and a library with a special alcove to display the “Mount of the Holy Cross painting,” which Mrs. Bell had saved during the fire.

Today, five acres of the original Briarhurst estate is a restaurant and event venue. The restaurant seats over 400 guests and features fine Colorado cuisine.

The Briarhurst has an almost magical quality from the moment you arrive in the parlor catching a glimpse of its grand stair case. That is where, some say, children from days gone by have been seen running down the stair case chasing a ball, and then suddenly disappearing.

The Briarhurst's ghostly guests have made an impression on visitors for decades. The master bedroom, for example, is one of the most active areas in the mansion for paranormal activity. Briarhurst guests have reported seeing small footprints leading out the door and down to the bedrooms where the Dr. and Mrs. Bell's children slept.

Other eyewitness accounts include hearing chimes in the upper floors or in the basement. Some visitors claim they have been bumped, touched or tugged at. Others have said they've heard strange noises and voices, experienced drops in temperature, and music playing.

The downstairs dining room is used as the restaurant today. Over the years, many patrons have reported seeing children - apparently those of Dr. and Mrs. Bell - playing outside. Many diners claim to have seen a little red head girl in a bonnet amusing them while they eat. Others have said they've seen the ghost of Mrs. Bell and an unknown skeleton woman in white roaming throughout the estate.

Briarhurst president Ken Healey claims to have experienced many ghostly encounters, including disappearing wine bottles, and glasses that seem to multiply when nobody is around.

Whether any of these accounts are real is probably up for you decide. The best way to find out is to head down the Ute Pass and have a look. But if a little red head girl in a bonnet tugs at your coat, you may not want to ask too many questions.

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