The headlights on Aaron Burks’ car shone into the small square windows of his Richland restaurant, revealing a man’s silhouette.
Alarmed and curious that a mysterious stranger was sitting at a back table long after closing time, Burks investigated.
The owner of Monterosso’s had heard tales from employees that the old train car he converted into an Italian restaurant was haunted, but Burks didn’t believe in that kind of thing.
Or so he thought.
“I got inside and looked around,” said Burks, who also owns Atomic Ale Brewpub & Eatery in Richland. “There was no one there. It was freaky.”
Numerous stories about a possible spirit roaming around the 1947 Pullman rail car have become folklore to the staff at Monterosso’s since it opened in 1995.
There are reports of the shadowy figure at the back table, unexplainable noises, doors opening and closing, music suddenly blasting from a stereo and lids flying in the kitchen.
“There are a lot of weird noises coming out of the train,” said manager Hannah Ebner.
Longtime restaurant manager Crystal Gjerdevig, 29, started working at the restaurant when she was 16. She recalled one time when a new employee yelled out from the restroom in the back of the train car.
The stainless steel walls of the restroom had just been scrubbed, but out of nowhere the employee apparently saw a phantom hand print appear, only to see it vanish seconds later.
“This was before she even knew about the ghost stories,” said Gjerdevig, who said she’s had several run-ins with the apparition and is convinced the train car is haunted.
Burks bought the nearly 100-foot railcar from Judson Philips, who operated his tailor shop there until 1994.
Philips, who had a hobby of collecting old cars, shipped the train car from Minnesota and moved it to its spot at 1026 Lee Blvd. in 1979. A tailor for 63 years, Philips died in 1998.
Some people have wondered during the years if the spirit could be the old tailor, but Burks said he is unsure if the ghost stories started before he died.
Burks began researching the train car’s history after hearing a few of the odd stories.
The car was used primarily as a dining car on the Northern Pacific Railway, traveling on the East and West coasts. But Burks didn’t find anything unusual.
“I tried to find out any history to see if someone had passed away in it,” he said. “The first few years, employees would tell me stories. I’ve never been much of a believer in ghosts, so I kind of pooh-poohed it.”
Some employees have felt what they believe is a presence , while others say they have experienced nothing unusual.
Burks and employees who say they have had paranormal encounters in Monterosso’s believe whoever is visiting them is friendly and enjoys playing jokes.
One time, an oven just quit working in the middle of a busy dinner service for no reason. Burks thoroughly checked it, finally telling the cooks it was out of order.
At the end of the night, staff saw the power cord was unplugged, something Burks and staff were certain they’d checked.
“It seems to me like a friendly practical joker,” Burks said.
As the years have passed and peculiar things continued, Burks has come to believe there’s something to the stories.
He has accepted it as part of Monterosso’s personality, even working the topic in to conversations with diners.
Burks has not opened the restaurant to ghost hunters yet, but he’s willing to entertain the idea.
“Over 20 years, the amount of stories we have heard with employees of all kinds is interesting,” he said. “There’s someone lingering around here.”