Campus Life

Penn State's historic University Park campus is replete with ghost lore

This image of "apparitions" haunting Penn State's "ghost walk" was taken in the 1890s, a double-exposure image made by Professor William Buckhout of his daughters and their friends. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With "spooky" season upon us, it's time revisit the rich ghostlore of Penn State's University Park campus. More than half a dozen sites on campus offer visitors stories of ghosts, spirits and apparitions.

The Quarry — southeast corner of Old Main lawn

A simple stone marks the spot of the limestone quarry where crews chiseled out what would be the building blocks of the original Old Main. One of the hardest working members of that crew was a mule named Old Coaly. When Old Coaly died, the students, who had often worked alongside him in the campus' fields and neighboring farms, lobbied to preserve his skeleton as a tribute to their old colleague.

They may have also preserved his spirit.

Over the years, Old Coaly’s skeleton has been displayed and stored at various locations around the campus. In nearly every building where he rested, including Watts Hall, people said they heard what sounded like hoof beats plodding down the dark halls. Others claimed to hear the distinctive braying of a mule.

Believers aren’t surprised Coaly keeps haunting his beloved campus. They say that Old Coaly was such a hard worker that he would never rest in death.

The HUB-Robeson Center — East Pollock Road

You can see the skeleton of Penn State’s original spirit — Old Coaly — on display on the on the first floor, near the entrance to the HUB gallery in the HUB-Robeson Center.

However, to date, there have been no reports of mules haunting the HUB. Although, usually during finals week, you’ll see more than a few downtrodden spirits plodding the HUB halls weighed down by books and haunted by the thought of lower GPAs.

Atherton’s Grave — East Pollock Road

Penn State's reputation as a haunted campus is probably bolstered by an on-campus grave. George Atherton, Penn State's influential seventh president, was buried in a grave on Pollock Road, right next to Schwab Auditorium. Atherton served as president from 1882 to 1906.

Atherton is credited with rescuing the institution from financial collapse, introducing engineering into the curriculum, leading the University’s first building boom, and securing regular annual state funding among his many other accomplishments. During his term he fought hard to expand the subjects taught at the school and boosted student athletics.

Upon his death in 1906, General James A. Beaver, former Pennsylvania governor and president of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, suggested that Atherton be interred in front of Old Main, but Atherton’s family preferred the then-quieter location beside Schwab.

Atherton's influence is still felt on campus. His supernatural influence, some say, is mainly felt at the grave and especially at our next stop, Schwab Auditorium.

Schwab Auditorium — East Pollock Road

Atherton doesn’t have far to walk to haunt Schwab Auditorium, named after industrial tycoon and Penn State trustee, Charles Schwab.  

However, he apparently has some company in the building.

In addition to — possibly — Atherton, Penn State ghostlore experts say the ghost of Charles Schwab, himself, and perhaps the ghost of a Revolutionary war soldier — or an actor portraying that soldier — may haunt the building.

Schwab's spooky specters, by the way, are often referred to affectionately and collectively as Schwaboo.

Old Botany — East Pollock Road

Old Botany is the oldest standing building with its original facade on Penn State’s University Park campus. A few ghosts reportedly room at Old Botany, including the wife of one of the University’s most admired presidents. Frances Atherton, some say, can be seen looking out the window of the building, keeping an eye on the grave of her husband, George Atherton.

Other stories have a much more sinister bent. Some claim that a spirit wreaks havoc on workers and students who stay too late in what was once the original home of Penn State’s botany department. Witnesses have claimed to see carpets roll up on their own and heard the sounds of shattering glass.

Ghost walk — Pattee Mall

A single Norway spruce remains of the Ghost Walk, a path that once led students through a forested area — where Burrowes Building now stands — to the northern end of Old Botany. A story spread among the students in the late 1800s that a student froze to death as he walked to class during a sudden winter storm. His spirit was said to still haunt the patch of woods.

Some folklorists suggest that the appearance of a ghost in the walk may have been a clever way to keep students from using the path as a lovers' lane. On the other hand, the story may have prompted couples to walk a little closer together during dark, autumn evening walks.

Pattee Library — Pattee Mall

Students who visit the stacks — the nickname for Pattee Library’s snaking, multi-tiered maze of bookshelves — have no trouble believing that the library is haunted. Lost souls are nothing new there.

Indeed, a few stories have spread that students have experienced cold chills blowing down on their necks while they were walking through the stacks, or they felt the presence of an energy or force while exploring for a needed book or text. There are even one or two tales of people spotting the apparition of a young woman, too, which they connect to a 1969 murder that occurred in the library.

And more ... if you dare

Other University Park haunted occurrences include a friendly spirit named "Gumshoes," supposedly haunting Atherton Hall. And the rumor of a poltergeist outbreak in Runkle Hall began to spread through the campus in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And that's not all. Penn State's Commonwealth Campuses have rich ghostlore of their own — read their stories here:

'We (Sc)Are': Creepy Commonwealth Campuses share a spirited Penn State tradition

Last Updated October 27, 2021