Sun City SteamFest Part III: The Ghost Hunter
By Oisin McGillion Hughes
The ghost stood behind the gravestone, watching with curiosity. It was Friday, the first night of the Sun City Steam Fest, and Bonnie Juarez was pointing out the ghost in the photograph that sat framed on the wall of the Paranormal Society's headquarters.
“Culturally, we don’t talk about this kind of thing. And the first thing people tell us is ‘you’re not going to believe me,’ or ‘you’re going to think I’m crazy’.” Juarez said. “We will believe you. We don’t think your crazy. Because we’ve all been there. We’ve all had our own experiences.”
But the group doesn't just focus on the supernatural. “As a non-profit what we’re involved in is historical preservation and restoration. For example, we've worked in conjunction with Corcordia Cemetery for going on eight years now. We do tours there and we donate the proceeds back to the cemetery. Some of the places we work with don’t like to focus on the paranormal. And we respect that. So we’ll do a history tour. Because we’re all history buffs. And we have a very rich history in El Paso.” That rich history includes the building that houses the Paranormal Society.
The building is long and the ceiling extends upward two stories, thanks to the wooden second story floor being burned away in 2011. When the Society found it, the historical building “was being used for storage. It was piled high with cardboard boxes.” 108 East San Antonio Street was built in 1883 and christianed the Fashion Saloon. It was the first El Paso saloon with electric lights. In 1889 it was renamed the WigWam. The brothel upstairs was politely referred to as a Parlor Room. Notorious gunslinger John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895), who was a part owner of the WigWam, was shot a block away by John Selman, a sometimes bouncer and constable from Arkanas. Selman was himself fatally shot in the alley just outside the WigWam.
An excerpt from the El Paso Daily Herald archive, August 20, 1895:
“Last night between 11 and 12 o’clock San Antonio street was thrown into an intense state of excitement by the sound of four pistol shots that occurred at the Acme saloon. Soon the crowd surged against the door and there, right inside, lay the body of John Wesley Hardin, his blood flowing over the floor and his brains oozing out of a pistol shot would that had passed through his head.”
In the same spot a hundred and nineteen years later, the scene was a little different. Because, for one night at least, the ghosts of El Paso were mingling with representatives of a futuristic past that never was. Instead of pistols, the group brandished Steampunk laser guns. They sipped tea rather than whiskey. But this mix of real and unreal seemed like a natural fit to Juarez. “We dress up in Old West clothes, so we get it. It’s very close,” she said, her bright blue eyes smiling. In other words, it was a parallel shift through realities, rather than a vertical one through time.
For a while, however, it looked like the team-up was a lost cause. The city of El Paso had pulled their support and the budget was only hot aether. But local groups pulled together and saved the day. The Paranormal Society, including Juarez and fellow ghost hunter Henry Flores, opened the doors of the old saloon to the Steampunks. Then the Rock House Cafe & Gallery offered space for Friday night. Then local musical hotspot Tricky Falls donated a full free Saturday. “It grew out of what we though would be a failure into this,” Juarez said, indicating the growing crowd of chatting, costumed people in the room.
Then it was nine o’clock and time for the Steampunk delegation to parade its way to the Rock House on Overland. Kazoos were distributed. The paraders were a surreal sight that night, marching happily through downtown El Paso. People stopped to wonder and to ask what exactly they were seeing. And perhaps the ghosts of the city’s dead rogues and innocents were marching with them this night.
Juarez sees the event as part of an ongoing revitalization of downtown El Paso. “People are really trying to do new things. It doesn’t have to be this, it doesn’t have to be that. As long as people come downtown. I’ve always said that art is not just up on the wall. Art can be moveable. Art can be reenactments, dance and music. And this is art too.”