Living With the Ghost of Orcas Hotel's Own Octavia Van Moorhem
Updated: Nov 20
The other day Orcas Hotel Chef Quinn Thompson went into the kitchen's walk-in cooler to grab some ingredients.
Something caught his eye: At the far end of the well-organized fridge, several small packages of tortillas were no longer on the shelf above. Instead they were laid in a straight line on the floor.
Huh, he thought. That’s weird. But there’s probably a perfectly good explanation for it.
He asked line cook/shamanic herbalist Tara Kim to check it out. When she stepped in to observe, another pack tumbled from the top shelf to the floor.
Thompson could hear her shriek from outside the cooler.
When they checked with staffer Emily Silks, who stocked the tortillas, she was clear: The tortillas were all loaded into a box, well below the edge. No way they could’ve slipped out without jumping.
The three exchanged a look, and the same thought: Octavia.
I can identify. The two months I spent living at Orcas Hotel I thought Octavia a lot.
Before I got to Orcas to serve as the hotel’s first artist-in-residence, I called various local experts to learn more about the island. For intel on the spirit realm, Barbara Market of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau directed me to Robin Jacobson.
Jacobson told me about Alice Rheem, the ghost of Rosario Resort and its Moran Mansion and the subject of short film The Ghost in Red, which Jacobsen consulted on. Rheem was famously social and infamously unpredictable, and well-known for riding a motorcycle in a bright red dress to participate in well-liquored card games at an Eastsound tavern.
“The stories are as colorful as she was in real life,” Jacobsen said.
She also described a wealth of corporeal activity at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and a ghost at Outlook Inn in Eastsound named Millie. (Millie's still looking for a forbidden lover who worked the limekilns that once dominated the island.)
Then Jacobson mentioned Octavia Van Moorhem, whose family operated Orcas Hotel for decades from 1900 until 1945.
Van Moorhem loved to cook up a storm for guests, locals and island visitors who would camp at the harbor; she adored weddings and would attend modern-day ceremonies in ethereal form; and she was known to occupy Room 9 on the third floor.
I tapped in some notes and promptly forgot about her preferences. At the time the plan was for me to live on the staff housing compound in a spacious teepee 10 miles from the hotel. But when I first reported to Orcas Hotel, however, new owner John Cox led me to up two flights of stairs and introduced me to the top-floor room facing the Orcas dock and Blind Island.
Before I went to sleep that night I scrolled through my notes and there it was: Octavia is usually observed or experienced in…Room 9.
I would be living with a ghost.
That first night I heard a loud and deep thump in a far corner of my room that sounded like a body hitting the floor. It was 4am.
Nice to meet you, Octavia?
Jacobsen mentioned one other individual: Longtime local and occasional Jacobsen collaborator Antoinette Botsford.
Botsford is known across the island for officiating weddings and funeral ceremonies. She’s taught playwriting and been active with the Seattle Storytellers Guild. Her recurring “Spooky Tales,” in collaboration with the Orcas Island Historical Society, were an unqualified hit in pre-COVID times.
Most importantly, she sees dead people. Or more accurately, she smells and hears them.
“As soon as I know I’m seeing it, it vanishes,” she says. “That’s my intellect getting in the way. I’m more audible and olfactory.”
When she experienced Millie at Outlook Inn, she heard her voice and detected a fragrance of lilacs. She couldn’t see her but listened when Millie said, “Help me find Jeremy,” the man her father forbade her to see.
The first time we spoke by phone she told me something that lingered: “There are all kinds of spirits around Orcas,” she said. “I’m constantly seeing them.”
When her and her dog Friday met me at Orcas Hotel, she explained why.
“The energy here [on the island] is a little more refined,” she says. “There’s less pollution, less stress. The veil is thinner.”
Having little Friday around helps.
“I think elementals just like him,” Botsford says. “He was always ready for ‘Scary Tales.’ Dogs and animals in general don’t have the same barriers humans do.”
When talk turns to my roommate, Botsford lights up. Octavia loved to cook. Fruit pies, fried chicken and Belgian cookies were specialties. She’d ring a bell to summon those camped on platforms around the dock for $2 whole-family dinners.
“She was very good-natured, and just loved to make people happy,” Botsford says. “She loved to eat, which is one reason she was plump.”
She adds Octavia has been sensed by relatively recent wedding parties prepping on the third floor.
“She loves people,” Botsford says. “She especially loves brides, and loves to watch them get ready. She is always hoping for the best.”
To help me encounter Octavia, she recommended time period music from Octavia’s heyday, violin if possible, as the last Orcas Hotel owner saw her descend the stairs to the lobby and soon heard string music playing in the library—either Octavia was playing or was drawn to it.
So the official soundtrack for Room 9 became 1920s violin.
Marcella Macias is probably the toughest person on the Orcas Hotel staff. She earned a scholarship for softball in college, then switched to rugby. But when it comes to talk of the ghost who shares the third floor with us—Macias lives down the hall—she spooks.
When I told her I was meeting with Botsford, and would be happy to relay any questions, Macias cut me off.
“Don’t tell me anything you learn,” she said. “I don’t want to know. Like for real.”
Botsford's brow furrowed when I passed along that thought.
“She’s not a malicious ghost, ever,” Botsford said, her lips hardening into a line. “There are unfair stereotypes about ghosts and spirits that hang around. We should respect them individually. Most stick around because they want to be here and are kind and good.”
I’d say Octavia is also playful and thought-provoking.
From the lawn below, I could’ve sworn I’d see her in the window on nights lit by the full moon. Every once in a while, the mirror on the wall would quiver when I glanced at it. Several times I heard deep thumps on Room 9's walls. Once she locked me out in my bath towel. Just the other day Chef Thompson heard some mysterious violin music from his room at the hotel.
I could come up with a perfectly good explanation for all of it.
That was just the wind. That was a small earthquake. That was a bird landing on the exterior of the hotel. That was just a weird shadow in my window. That was some guy playing violin in the park.
But it also might be a ghost.
And maybe she’s trying to tell us something.
At least one thing I’m thinking, whether she’s telling me or not, is that I prefer a world where we leave space for an atypical theory. I'm not talking about conspiracies, but about the effects of caring people who came before and might still be watching, about the surprising powers of people stuck on a margin, about movement across thin veils.
Botsford has a great way of articulating that.
“There might be more to reality,” she says. “It’s arrogant to think that’s there’s just one method of understanding.”
Which sounds like a perfectly good explanation.