Ghosts of the Gulf
Believe it or not, the St. Pete Beach area has a spooky past. Read about several documented haunts in our special Halloween feature.
By Kimberly Rebman
Photos by Steven Kovich unless otherwise credited.
The Castle Hotel
401 Gulf Way St. Pete Beach, FL 33706 727-289-8767 Facebook page
Quietly nestled behind the large Australian pines sits a charming little beachside hotel. Built in 1906 by a minister, the Castle Hotel is the oldest consecutively running hotel on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The inn was very much ahead of its time. Unlike most hotels during the early 1900s, the Castle was built with a bathroom for each of its rooms, rather than just one at the end of the hall for guests to share. The two-story historic inn with its fourteen rooms and basement (a rare piece of architecture here in Florida, especially near the beaches) faces the ocean, offering guests postcard-worthy views of the surf, sand, and sunsets.
The Castle is not just a hotel, it is also a home to a few year round residents, including Bob and Geri Ruhlman, who are the current owners. The couple purchased the hotel in 1972 and have kept it in the family ever since. The Castle’s creaky screen door has opened and closed many a time over the past 111 years. Doctors, lawyers, senators and even a famous beauty pageant winner have all paid visit to the charming oceanfront hotel. Innkeeper Bob’s mother, Marian Bergeron, was crowned Miss America in 1933 at the tender age of 15 1/2, making her the youngest ever to hold this prestigious title. She continued her reign as Miss America for two years since there was no pageant held in 1934. Bergeron was also one of the most loved winners. She was a kind-hearted and compassionate woman who enjoyed helping and encouraging her fellow Miss Americas. Bergeron went on to further her career years after the pageant as a big band singer. She appeared with a variety of well known bands, including Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo. Later on, the talented Bergeron became an influential and inspiring public speaker.
On October 22, 2002, the former Miss America passed away from leukemia. According to Bob, in the last twenty years of his mother’s life, she would visit the hotel regularly and even resided there for a while. The Castle was a special place for her and may still be, along with a few other former guests who never quite checked out.
The Ruhlmans, as well as several guests over the years, have heard strange and unexplainable noises coming from the second floor. Bob believes that it may be his mother looking in on her family and hotel. Rather than feeling scared or unsettled, the owner is comforted by her calm and loving presence.
Bob’s mother may not be the only family member wandering around the Castle’s corridors. As one story goes, Bob’s 95-year-old aunt was staying at the hotel when she awoke in the middle of the night, startled upon seeing her younger brother who had died twenty years earlier.
Bob’s daughter, Cassie Ruhlman, had her own experiences over a decade ago. It was Christmas in 2006 and Cassie remembers sitting in the hotel’s lobby with her family, listening to holiday music from an antique radio behind the front desk. A favorite song of her dads came on, a Christmas melody he hadn’t heard for years. Bob asked for his daughter to turn the radio up. Cassie started to walk towards the front desk, when
suddenly the radio volume shot up, causing one of the speakers to blow with a loud pop. The sound level then lowered and returned to normal, but slightly louder than before.
During the summers of 2002-2006, Cassie managed the hotel while on break from college and stayed in room 13. On most nights, around 11 pm, Cassie would hear someone walking down the hallway towards her room. “Since the office closed at ten, I would assume it was a renter. I’d stick my head out to say hi to whoever it was, but always would find it empty. After weeks of assuming somebody was just being sneaky, I started leaving my door open at eleven. Finally, one night I heard the first creak of the stairs and looked out my door and down the hallway. Although I saw no one, I could still hear the footsteps getting closer until they walked right past me, down the back steps and were gone,” recalls the innkeeper’s daughter. Distraught and crying, Cassie called her dad while he was in North Caroline after 11 pm. Thankfully, he was able to calm her frazzled nerves by telling her that he too had heard the mysterious footsteps when he first bought the hotel. At the time, he and his wife Geri were staying in room 5. After talking with her reassuring father, Cassie feels more at ease and even now looks forward to hearing the phantom footfalls that echo the softly lit halls late at night.
One of the best told ghost stories of the Castle dates backs to the year 1921. A young couple had just exchanged vows and decided to spend their honeymoon stay at the hotel. The newlyweds checked into room 5,
which has always offered the least unobstructed and most breathtaking views of the sparkling Gulf waters. Just days after the couple’s arrival, the beautiful young bride drowned just yards away from the hotel while swimming in the ocean. Back then was much more difficult than it is today. There was no way for the man and his dead wife to return home quickly. Due to this complication, the devastated groom had to spend a night with the lifeless body of his bride lying in their hotel bed. Naturally, the distressed man found himself unable to rest, so he paced back and forth into the wee hours of the morning. Later that day, he was able to board a train back home with his departed love.
Several guests have reported hearing the sound of footsteps above them while sitting in the lobby below. The pacing footfalls, which seem to originate from room 5, are usually heard at exactly 11 pm, continue to midnight and then suddenly stop.
Another spine-tingling tale is that of a doctor and her twelve-year-old daughter who had been staying at the inn. The two were asleep one night in their room. When mom awoke early in the morning, she was surprised to discover the seat of the toilet was up. Unusual, she thought, since there were no male guests sharing their room and the seat was always down. When the daughter woke up, her mother questioned her about what she had seen, thinking maybe she had fallen ill in the middle of the night and had to raise the seat to vomit. The confused girl told her mother she had been asleep all night, felt fine and had not moved the seat.
Recently, a former guest of the Castle retold an encounter she had had not long ago while staying there. “I was staying in room 13 and kept hearing strange noises. I was spooked, so I left the room in the middle of the night and went outside too scared to go back inside. One of the owners had to encourage me to come back inside,” the young woman recalled. “I finally went back inside, but I didn’t want to go.”
The autumn air was crisp and cool when I visited The Castle Hotel. As I walked up the front steps to the old inn, a magical and palpable aura enveloped me. It was strangely comforting. Adam Lawhead, the hotel manager, was reading a book on the porch. We had a short bit of time to chat about ghosts just before he had to meet with Bob Ruhlman for their usual cocktail hour at 5 pm. Every evening, at the same time, the two men end their workday with Manhattans and good conversation.
As I sit and listen to Lawhead’s stories, a refreshing seabreeze blows through the wispy branchlets of the surrounding Australian pines, creating a soft rustling that mimics the sound of the soothing surf.
Law head’s ghostly tales of former guests and the innkeepers intrigued me, but it was his own personal story that I found most exciting. Lawhead has worked and resided at the Castle for 4 1/2 years and finally had his first paranormal experience.
It happened early on a Saturday morning just a few days prior to our meeting. Lawhead was getting ready for work and was taking a shower at 6:30 am. As he was drying off, Lawhead heard a knock at his door. Dingo, Lawhead’s puppy, began to growl and bark, something he is not known for doing. The hotel manager opened the door, only to find no one there. Another strange moment for Lawhead occurred shortly after this when he woke early in the morning. He heard his name being called out by a female voice. Thinking it to be a guest, Lawhead went to investigate but, once again, no one was there.
No doubt that this surfside structure has its share of spectral stories, but it also offers the best rates on the beach, awe-inspiring views and boasts a whole lot of character.
Before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Lawhead , and as I turned to look back at the inn, shadows softly falling upon its enchanting facade, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was taking a part of its energy with me. Creepy or not, with its guests or ghosts, The Castle Hotel makes for an unforgettable stay on one of the most historic and beautiful beaches in town.
150 John’s Pass Boardwalk, Madeira Beach, 33708
In a small town just five miles west of St. Petersburg, Florida, sits a rustic fishing village and marketplace called John’s Pass. The Pass is steeped in history and legend, including how it was created by a hurricane back in 1848 and tales of marauding pirates.
Many locals and tourists to the area have come to take leisurely strolls up and down the boardwalk at the Pass. Some prefer to cast out a fishing line, while others would rather wait in line to board a sightseeing boat. One can window shop at a beach boutique, cool off with an ice cream cone, or grab a beer with a buccaneer. With over 100 places to shop, eat and entertain at the Pass, there is always something to do. During the pre-Civil War days, however, there wasn’t much around except for water to fish from. On the western side of the Pass is the Gulf of Mexico, whereas Boca Ciega Bay flows in from the east. Many fishermen came here in their boats during the 1800s, including two brothers who some say still return to this very day.
Scott and John Whitus were Yanks, and being that Florida is certainly not a northern state, the brothers felt strong rivalry from the Confederates while living in Tampa Bay at the time. Knowing they had much to contend with, the brothers begged for protection from the commandant of the federal camp on Egmont Key. Unfortunately, Scott and John had to fight this battle on their own. The Confederates killed the brothers’ livestock and threatened to burn their cabins if they did not vacate the area. Scott and John refused, so the Confederates decided to take action. On one moonless night, as the fishermen brothers sailed their wooden boat into the Pass, the Confederates stood at watchful alert. Camouflaged among the Australian pines at their lookout point, the rebels drew their rifles and fired. The dark night sky lit up with gunfire. Scott and John Whitus laid lifeless in the bottom of their vessel. They were later buried by relatives under cabbage palms at the northern end of Treasure Island.
There are many who have visited the Pass, both residents and out-of-staters, who claim to have seen the spectral fishermen. Most of the reports are of feeling a cold mist or the rancid smell of rotting fish. Two fishermen friends once had a ghostly encounter of their own. One summer night while out casting their lines by the John’s Pass Bridge, the unexplainable happened. As the men stood by the water, an icy cold breeze hit the back of one of their necks. The misty patch of air carried the foul odor of decay, pungent and condensed. The men tried to rationalize the terrible smell, blaming it on dead fish somewhere nearby; yet, they soon realized there was none to be seen. With fishing poles in hand, the confused fishermen then witnessed a most amazing sight. Floating in a strange mist in front of them were the ghosts of two men. They were described by the friends as looking pale and scrawny, with mold and grease stains smudged all over their tattered clothes. The apparitions disappeared under the bridge, towards the north. Needless-to-say, the fishing buddies fled back to their car, as catching a fish just didn’t seem so important anymore.
Some visitors to the Pass have seen the Whitus brothers, on moonless nights, sailing through the dark waters of the bay. As the stories go, the strange little sailing boat will approach the Pass, then suddenly vanish in the middle of the open water.
It was on a chilly autumn night many years ago that I ventured out to the Pass in search of the phantom fishermen. The sky was sprinkled with stars and dolphin surfaced under the tranquil waters. I was in the mood for adventure, so I decided to take a more precarious route to the haunted waterway where the ghostly men are often seen. Walking underneath the bridge was a bit daunting, especially in the dark of the night but intrigue guided the way. As I cautiously tread under the noisy metal, cars humming loudly above, something caught my eye. In a beam just above my head, three little words warned: “They’re Out There.”
As I cleared the bridge and got my feet onto more stable ground, I stared out across the still, silent waters of the bay. Not a soul in sight, or at least, none that could be easily seen.
If you should ever pass through this charming beach town on a moonless night, be forewarned. You just may see a weathered single-mast sailing boat drifting in from Boca Ciega Bay, as the ethereal Whitus brothers return from a night of fishing back into their watery graves.
The Don CeSar
The Don CeSar Hotel 3400 Gulf Boulevard St. Pete Beach 33706
It was January 16, 1928 when 1500 socialites gathered to dance the night
away. Beautifully gowned dames, dripping in jewels, walked arm in arm
with tuxedo adorned gentlemen. Glamour and elegance emanated.
The Don CeSar Hotel had just opened its doors for the first time. The man
of the evening was the Don’s creator, Thomas J. Rowe. Rowe, originally
from Boston, was considered by many to be a “fine gentleman,
hardworking and determined.” He was a man who had a vision of building
a grand hotel.
Rowe began his dream while studying abroad. It was London, in the
1890s, when he met a beautiful señorita. Lucinda was an actress, who
played the lead female role of Maritana in the famous Vincent Wallace
opera. Rowe fell instantly in love with Lucinda. Her parents, unfortunately,
did not agree with the courtship and strictly forbade Rowe from seeing their
daughter. They felt Rowe was completely ill-suited for Lucinda because he
was of a different religious faith, as well as being just a measly student.
Lucinda was, after all, a career woman. Her parents also worried that their
only daughter would somehow be lured away from the opera life.
Everything considered, Thomas J. Rowe was not an appropriate suitor.
However, the couple’s love for one another was so strong that they
continued to meet, albeit, in secrecy. They would often rendezvous by a
fountain in London. At this landmark, they would embrace and dream of
future days together.Rowe would often talk to Lucinda about one day building his dream hotel.
He lovingly would call her, Maritana, after the starring role she played in the opera. Lucinda, in turn, referred to Rowe as starring role she played in the opera. Lucinda, in turn, referred to Rowe as
her Don CeSar, the name of the heroic knight who fell in love with her
Despite their passion for one another, the couple had to eventually stop
meeting altogether. Lucinda’s parents had discovered their secret
relationship. Feeling hopeless, Rowe decided to return to the United
States. Love-stricken, he sent countless letters to Lucinda after leaving.
He continued writing and sending for two long years; yet, every letter was
returned to him, unopened. One day, the silence was broken when Rowe
received a letter sent by Lucinda herself; it was the only letter she was ever
permitted to write. Unfortunately, the news was far from good. Lucinda
had fallen ill and had written to Rowe from her deathbed. The letter
solemnly read, “Tom, my beloved Don CeSar. This life is only our
intermediate plane. I leave it without regret and travel to a place where the
swing of the pendulum does not bring pain. Time is infinite. I wait for you
by our fountain to share our timeless love forever, Maritana.”
Though Rowe was devastated, happy days did lie ahead; fate would
eventually lead Rowe to Florida in the 1920s. After relocating, Rowe
discovered developer Perry Snell’s 80-acre tract of land, just north of Pass-
A-Grille Beach. The selling price was $100,000. Rowe purchased the land,
and after three years of arduous hauling of construction materials from the
mainland on shallow barges and $1,150,000, the hotel was complete. The
structure was built for Lucinda, the beautiful Spanish girl Rowe never
forgot. He even had the hotel erected in the style of Moorish architecture in
honor of her heritage. The tribute to his unrequited love continued on when
he decided upon the hotel’s name. The Don CeSar seemed to fit perfectly,
as it was the name Lucinda so adoringly called Rowe from their favorite
The grand hotel was no longer just a dream… it had become reality.
The Don CeSar was most certainly the place to be. The elite of the era
frequented the glamorous hotel. Lavish balls were held for Florida’s high
society and evenings were spent sipping champagne from the roof
gardens. Carey Grant, Lou Gehrig, the VP of MGM, The Gambles of
Bloomingdales and many of the nation’s presidents were among the
famous guests that visited the hotel over the years. Novelist F. Scott
Fitzgerald, who stayed at the Don for a few nights, was rumored to have
been writing a mystery about the hotel. Notorious gangsters, such as Al
Capone, roamed the halls; it was said that they found sanctuary at the Don.
Fan dances were performed in the grand ballroom, and in the 1930s,
fashion shows were all the rage at the luxurious hotel. Standing ten stories
tall and glowing pink in the radiant Florida sun, the Don CeSar (also known
as The Pink Lady) was elegantly decorated inside. Chandeliers sparkled
and rich velvet draping added the perfect touch to every room. There was
expensive oak flooring in the grand ballroom and guest rooms boasted
porcelain tubs. Rowe also included a replica of the courtyard and fountain
where he had his secret meetings with his love. Two hundred and seventy-
five guest rooms went for rates of $12 to $30 a day during the Don’s first
There was no doubt that the Don CeSar was a magnificent structure and
that Thomas J. Rowe was responsible for it. Rowe earned great respect
and admiration from his employees and guests; he treated them like
royalty. After all, the Don was his castle. In 1940, Rowe’s health began to
decline, and on one hot summer day while walking through the lobby, he
collapsed. Able to get himself up, Rowe staggered back into his room and
it was there that he suffered a heart attack. Refusing to leave his beloved
hotel, a medical team was sent in to take care of him. On May 5, 1940,
Rowe suffered a second heart attack in bed. This time it was fatal. He was
later buried at St. Petersburg’s Royal Palm Cemetery. Rowe left behind a
wife, who in turn, would later take over the Don.
In 1941, the military introduced itself to the hotel. On the ground floor,
offices, clinics, and labs moved in. The once elaborately decorated guestrooms
turned into wards and two operating rooms took up occupancy on
the eighth floor. The grand ballroom became a war department theater. In
1944, the Air Force Convalescent Center took over. The Don served as a
haven for battle fatigued airmen. Psychiatric care was provided to men
who suffered from nervousness and emotional conditions. The airmen
were treated to dances with girls who lived nearby in town and could sun
tan on the beaches just behind the hotel.
By 1945, the Center was phased out and later it metamorphosed into the
VA Regional office. The interiors of the elegant Don were stripped of their
beauty and painted government green. Nearly everything that had once
lavishly decorated the hotel, was hauled away. Even Rowe’s special
fountain was destroyed because it was considered unsightly and in the
way. The grand ballroom became a storage space for veteran records.
The hotel had taken on a whole new look. What was once ornate and
inviting had now become cold and stark. The Don also wasn’t aging very
well and that caused the government to vacate and move to a new building.
At this point, no one could predict the hotel’s fate.
By the late 1960s, the Don was totally abandoned. Vandals and seabirds
had made the dark, dusty structure their home. Young pranksters began
sneaking in. Once, a teenager was spotted hanging out of a top floor
window. Action needed to be taken as the Don had become not just an
eyesore, but dangerous. It was even considered to be risky to walk near
the old hotel, due to its crumbling pink exterior. The Don was set to be
destroyed until a group of passionate townspeople was able to save it. On
November 24, 1973, the hotel was brought back to life and re-opened as a
grand and lavish beachside resort. In the mid-90s, it was completely
renovated by way of a $15 million makeover. No doubt Rowe would have
been proud to see the resurrection if he was still around.
Then again, who said he ever left.
Many guests and employees at the Don CeSar have attested to seeing the
ghost of Thomas Rowe. In fact, some have even spoken with the former
hotel owner himself. Certain guests eating dinner at the Don recall being
asked by a thin, older looking man how their meal was, while overnighters
were checked on to see if their stay had been satisfactory. Before the Don’s
guests could even answer their attentive host, the mysterious man would
be seen walking away, often disappearing into a mingling crowd never to
reappear. Curious to know the man’s name, perhaps thinking him to be the
concierge, they would ask one of the hotel’s employees. After the guests
would describe his physical appearance, they were then led to the ground
floor of the hotel. Here, they’d find a photograph on the wall of the same
man they had just encountered. The caption under the image: “Thomas J.
On one occasion, Southern Bride was shooting a photo spread for their
magazine at the Don, using it as a backdrop. Rowe’s ghost actually made
an appearance to one of the magazine’s editors and warned her not to take
pictures in a specific area around the hotel. She did not heed the warning.
A huge black crow strangely appeared and caused great problems for the
models and camera equipment, ruining the session. Ghostly sightings
have been reported quite often on the fifth floor, which was where Rowe
spent much of his time while he was alive. Rowe used to frequent the
rooms on this floor and also enjoyed spending time with his guests at the
floor’s dining room. Hotel employees have also seen the apparition near
the fifth-floor elevator. According to one employee, she had her hands full
while getting into the elevator and claimed that somehow the down button
got pressed for her. Rowe’s ghost has also been seen in the downstairs
lobby. Some guests and employees have reported the phantom-like image
of the hotel’s founder staring back at them in a mirror. During renovations
in the 1970s, a man in an old-fashioned suit was often seen walking around
the hotel construction sites by workers.
Back in the later part of the decade, sightings of Rowe became so frequent
that the manager of the Don felt the ghost was posing a problem. The
ghost was never malevolent or threatening, yet the manager was
concerned nonetheless. According to lore, this social spirit had to be asked
to confine himself to the fifth floor. He was not allowed to move about
through the remainder of the hotel. If the manager decorated the fifth floor
in the style of the 1920s or 30s to Rowe’s liking, there would be a deal
made. Supposedly, the ghostly owner agreed. Some guests and
employees beg to differ. Many sightings of Rowe occur all throughout the
Don, and not just limited to the fifth floor.
As another story goes, an exterminator was brought in to make his usual
rounds. The bug buster walked into to the Don’s darkened ballroom one
evening. Upon entering, he noticed the silhouette of a man sitting at a
table. Thinking him to be a hotel guest or staff member, the exterminator
decided to say hello and proceeded to turn on the ballroom’s light. As soon
as he did, the man vanished; not a trace of him to be had. Needless to say,
the exterminator raced out of the room, went straight to the front desk and
reported what he had seen. As stated by the front desk clerks, that was the
last time the terrified bug man would ever return.
In the 1980s, an additional spirit was seen walking the halls of the grand
hotel. The first report came from a guest who saw “a woman in a very
lavish dress as if in an opera costume” wandering the beach behind the
Don. The phantom female, reported by many, has been described as
being “theatrically dressed.” For a while she was often seen wandering
alone, until one evening a couple on the beach reported seeing the ghostly
beauty walking alongside a male spirit. Could it be that Lucinda and Rowe
finally reunited in the afterlife, just as promised in the letter? There have
been frequent sightings of the spectral sweethearts, strolling along the
sand hand in hand. It is said that the ghostly couple has been seen in the
courtyard of the Don enjoying a lover’s stroll under a starlit sky. The most
recent report came from a hotel guest who was sitting on the beach at
sunset. She claimed to have seen “an oddly dressed couple” walking away
from the pink hotel. According to the report, they kept on going and never
once looked back, the sun just melting into the warm ocean waters behind
If you are searching for a scary way to spend the night, The Don CeSar is a
dead ringer. In fact, USA Today ranked it as one of the “Ten Best Places to
Sleep with a Ghost.”
Just picture yourself on a stormy night, snuggling in under the hotel’s
heavenly soft linens, lightning flashing off the waves and thunder vibrating
the old window panes. Slumber, deep and heavy, ushers you into peaceful
Upon awakening, you begin to wonder if Rowe and his beloved Lucinda
came to visit in the middle of the night. Perhaps they were just too busy
walking the shoreline into the wee hours of the morning.
But then again, why are there sandy footprints at my bedside …