The Official Ybor Ghost Tour was named the No. 1 ghost tour in the U.S., and with sites featured on “The Dead Files” and “Ghost Hunters.”
D’Ann Lawrence White , Patch Staff
A former hospital turned inn, The Don Vincente, aka “Hotel Hell,” was rated one of the top episodes of “The Dead Files” when the television show visited Ybor City in 2011.
Eager tour-goers line up for the Official Ybor City Ghost Tour.
TAMPA, FL — It’s the season of the witch — and ghosts, zombies and everything else that goes bump in the night.
To add an extra dose of fright to the Halloween season, the Official Ybor Ghost Tour , named the No. 1 ghost tour in the U.S. by City Traveler , has added extra tours in October to meet the always-high demand during the Halloween season, including special 10:30 p.m. tours from Oct. 25 through Oct. 31.
“This whole place has a uniqueness to it that you really can’t find in any other city,” said Lonnie Herman, founder of the Official Ybor Ghost Tour , adding that the city’s infamous storied past makes it rife for hauntings.
“This city in 1885 was nothing but a godforsaken hellhole of a swamp,” said tour guide Greg Milton said. “There were 700 people here in 1885. The biggest population was snakes, mosquitos and alligators.”
A City Of Immigrants
Ybor City was built on the backs of Cuban and Italian immigrants who came to America seeking a better life. Many ended up working in one of the city’s many flourishing cigar factories, making their homes in shotgun-style houses and hastily constructed, overcrowded wood-frame tenement buildings, where they perished in fires and from the yellow fever epidemic in the 1900s.
During the height of the cigar industry, Ybor City was producing about a half a billion cigars a year for which the immigrants were paid literally pennies for rolling while the wealthy factory owners built mansions on Davis Islands and Bayshore Boulevard, according to Jeff “El Jefe” Hartzog, who works for the management company that runs the Cuban Club.
The largest fire in Tampa’s history occurred on March 1, 1908, at 1914 12th Ave., according to Tampa Fire Rescue. The fire originated in the wood-shingled roof of a boarding house and quickly spread to more than 17 city blocks. An untold number of adults and children perished in the blaze. Store owners swear they can still hear the laughter of the fire’s youngest victims.
The Mafia Comes To Town
During Prohibition in the 1920s, Ybor City became a notorious hangout for gangsters. Gambling czar Charles Wall used political connections to set up a bolita gambling racket in Ybor City and opened the lavish sporting parlor, the El Dorado Lounge, at 8th Avenue and 14th Street. It became a refuge for underworld figures and the scene of drive-by shootings at the hands of Wall’s rival, Salvatore Trafficante Sr.
Additionally, the upper floors of the El Dorado were rumored to be the “largest house of ill-repute outside of New Orleans.”
Between 1930 and 1959, Tampa witnessed more than 25 gangland killings, most of them in Ybor City. Among them, on Nov. 10, 1936, George “Saturday” Zarate, a drug trafficker working for New York gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was gunned down in front of the El Dorado. A year later, Joe Vaglichi, whose brother was Al Capone’s bodyguard, died in a hail of bullets from another passing car in front of the gaming parlor.
Ghostly Happenings At Casa Ybor
Ybor City’s former Don Vicente Hotel, now the Casa Ybor residential and office building, has been called one of the most haunted buildings in the United States by Haunted Rooms and was featured on one of the top-rated episodes of The Travel Channel’s show, “The Dead Files ,” in 2011.
Built in 1895, the structure served as a hotel, a meeting house (El Bien Publico) and a hospital.
Dr. Jose Luis Avellena Jr. and his disembodied nurse are said to haunt the basement of the Don Vicente. There are also reports of appearance by a mad doctor who experimented on patients and then burned the bodies in the basement incinerator.
When the hotel was operating, Room 305, in particular, was a reported hot spot for paranormal activity. A number of guests reported seeing the apparition of a man at the foot of the bed. Other creepy happenings in the Don Vicente include flickering lights, creaky footsteps, doors opening and closing, and faucets turning on and off.
Ghost Hunters Visit The Cuban Club
Another infamous haunted venue is The Cuban Club , built in 1917. The Official Ybor City Ghost Tour is the only tour permitted in the building.
Among the hauntings at the historic club is one attributed to Dr. Cooley, president of the club’s board of directors, who was murdered by a rival at the club during a heated argument.
Visitors have also reported seeing a ghost named Jamie or Jimmy, an 8- or 9-year-old boy who reportedly drowned while swimming unattended at The Cuban Club’s indoor pool in the basement.
In 2009, the television show, “Ghost Hunters,” visited The Cuban Club and claimed to have made contact with the boy.
“With a building that’s been around this long, there’s always going to be some intrigue, and that’s the case here,” Hertzog said. “I’ve heard elevators running by themselves, footsteps, doors opening and closing, or pushing against me as I’ve tried to close them, and many other strange, interesting things.”
“When I first started doing the tour, I didn’t give it much stock,” Milton said. “But after four years, I can tell you it’s real. I know ghosts are real.”
Among the stories Milton tells on his tour is of a young actor who was performing a play he’d written himself on the stage of The Cuban Club when he forgot his lines.
Out of embarrassment or shame, he returned to the club after hours, draped a rope across the catwalk of the stage, put it around his neck and jumped to his death.
On his tours, Milton said visitors have seen flashes of light and orbs floating around the theater. He, himself, has witnessed a man with no face sitting in the front row of the empty theater and an ethereal woman wearing period clothing with strange, glowing orange eyes.
He said the fourth floor of the club is also haunted by a famous dancer who dismissed the advances of an infatuated fan. One night, the man got drunk and pushed the dancer over the balcony to her death.
Other Ybor City Haunts
Another reportedly haunted site is the old Florida Brewing Company at 1234 E. 5th Ave.
In 1896, Vicente Martinez-Ybor decided to try his hand at brewing beer and built his brewery on the site of the Government Spring. Discovered in 1824, the spring provided water to Fort Brooke. Later, a swimming pool and ice factory were built on the site.
One ghost story dates back to the opening of the brewery. To celebrate, the brewery offered free beer and a fight broke out between two men who imbibed a bit too much. One man of Cuban descent sustained severe head injuries in the fight and died. Visitors now claim to see a drunk man with a Hispanic accent hanging around the building.
In 1999, the Swope Rodante Law Firm spent millions to restore the old brewery but the renovations failed to discourage the spirits that continue to haunt the building. Those working in the building continue to report strange sightings.
The tour also stops in places like Rock Brothers Brewing at 1901 N. 15th St., and Cerealholic Cafe & Bar and Afterholic Speakeasy at 1909 N. 15th St., both of which have reported close encounters with the dead.
Cerealholic is located in a former church where owner Lisa Lawson claims to have heard windows banging and has had things go missing and then mysteriously returned.
She’s allowing visitors to have their own ghostly encounters every Thursday through Sunday at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. during October when the upstairs breakfast cereal-themed cafe and bar and downstairs 1920s-style speakeasy bar host “The Haunted Tavern: A Dark Pop-Up Cocktail Experience.” Tickets are $55 and include four cocktails. Click here.
Like Milton, Herman said he started out as a skeptic.
“Eventually, I really became a believer of how haunted these buildings really are,” he said. “I’ve come face to face with some of these entities. I’ve talked with them, I’ve conversed with them, I’ve even made them laugh sometimes. I’ve also made them mad once in a while.”
While Herman makes no guarantees that visitors will spot a ghost on the tours, he said they will be entertained with some interesting stories about Ybor City’s colorful history.
“People ask me all the time if they’re going to see a ghost. I can’t guarantee that. It’s up to the ghosts,” Herman said.
But more than a few who have taken the tour say they’ve glimpsed restless souls dressed in immigrant clothing or zoot suits and Fedoras.
“There are no smoke and mirrors on my tour,” Herman said. “The ghosts just seem to come out on their own.”
Since COVID-19 restrictions remain in effect and tour sizes are limited, early reservations are encouraged by visiting the website or calling 813-386-3905 24 hours a day.
The tours are $25 for adults and $10 for children age 8 to 12. There is special pricing available on Tuesdays. The tour is not open for children under 5 years old and children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.
For times and reservations, click here .
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