SAVANNAH, Ga. - It is never a typical Saturday night on President Street.
Glancing down from the second-floor window of 17Hundred90, a restaurant and inn, flashbulbs bombarding the building mimic the sporadic heat lightning flashing across the threatening skies above.
It's high tourism season in Savannah, but the guides below aren't talking about just any history. They are talking about ghost legends. They are talking about room 204.
It's the room supposedly haunted by a woman who either jumped in despair or was pushed to her death - her sad past still haunts that room. The stories can make nonbelievers in the crowd chuckle and the faithful hope, but either way, the stories come at a price. It's these stories that are selling Savannah.
The number of ghost tours throughout the city is increasing every year. The timeless fascination with ghosts and philosophies about the meaning of life and death have piqued in Southern regions, where history is still well preserved in buildings and local storytelling.
One tour company joined with an Internet ghost tour company to cash in on those stories. The endeavor offers clients a chance to hear and experience haunting stories - starting with room 204.
Gathered around the queen-size bed, the seven people listen intently to the tour guides talk about the equipment laid out before them - free for their use.
For $450 per couple, clients get dinner, a walking tour and an overnight stay at a haunted bed-and-breakfast. The draws for many are the after-hours access into buildings where sightings have been reported and the opportunity to search for proof of paranormal activity.
"We are just as skeptical as everyone else," said Sam Salstrand, a tour guide for Savannah Walks. "But we are going to use scientific evidence to check it out."
On this first excursion, guests will check out the inn of the 17Hundred90, the entire building of the Moon River Brewing Co. and then the restaurant area at the inn.
Mr. Salstrand and SouthernGhosts.com, whose owners are certified by the American Institute of Parapsychologists, want to offer overnight investigative tours quarterly and hope to find more proprietors receptive to late-night excursions.
The interest is there, they say. The Web site has received many hits and the company keeps a database of past clients from other tours.
The result is a prime example of niche tourism.
"Some people get their adrenalin rush with roller coasters," said Nicholas Richberg, of Miami. "I get mine looking for ghosts."
His friend Lisa Paul added, "It's fun to be scared."
The two havedriven to New Orleans and St. Augustine, Fla., to check out places where haunting stories originated.
Ghost traveling is a common thread connecting all the guests.
Allison and David Hammer's fascination started when they stayed at a bed-and-breakfast at Culp's Hill in Gettysburg, Pa. Their room had a drifting, damp smell of pipe smoke in spots and their window looked out to the woods where lights flickered in the evening.
The Hammers later learned that their room was previously occupied by Confederate snipers. The lights in the woods were reputedly from loved ones endlessly searching for those who never came home.
"For the last couple of years we try to stay at haunted bed-and-breakfasts," Mr. Hammer said.
The Hammers and tourists like them have businesses in Savannah trying to keep up with the paranormal demand.
According to the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, the number of ghost tours has grown significantly. In 1991, the chamber counted 18 tour companies as members, none of which conducted ghost tours.
Now there are 53 tour companies, and 27 conduct ghost tours.
The group started its ghost quest with electromagnetic sensors and maps of the inn, marking X's in spots where they felt "a presence."
The pairs split off in different directions with yellow notepads, maps and pencils in hand. One could almost determine "readings" based on facial expressions.
When the electromagnetic reader blipped to red, an indication of a high wave of electromagnetic forces, the clients would begin a flurry of serious note-taking. After an hour or so, they reconvened. The guides were impressed.
"That's really cool when they get the same reading in the exact places, and they didn't even have a chance to talk to the other groups," said Ray Couch, a paranormal field investigator with Southern Ghosts.
As the tour headed to Moon River Brewing Co., the group seemed like any other. Its members made small talk about the weather and where they're from, but the equipment the guides carried raised eyebrows of bystanders.
Gene Beeco, a co-owner of Moon River, said the interest in ghost tours has been fairly high, but interest has definitely picked up in the past 10 years.
"You'll have guests coming in not just for beer," he said, "but to ask you stories that have happened here."
Stories abound of servers getting poked by unseen fingers, of a curious little boy darting around the basement and of sounds of a giggling girl around the bar.
Mr. Beeco said even he would be interested in a group tour.
"But I would really rather not find anything," he said. "In a way, it's like the thrill of tornado chasing. If you had the opportunity to come to Savannah and research paranormal activity, have a meal and a place to stay, why not? I could see tourists eating that up."
Rachel John, a former server, said the overnight excursion sounds better than some tours she saw stumble into the bar.
"Half the time, the guides are drunk by the end of the night, and so are the tourists."
MOON RIVER BREWING COMPANY'S HISTORY
In 1819, Elazer and Jane Early began construction of what was to become The City Hotel, on the south side of Bay Street on property Mr. Early had purchased two years earlier.
The project faced several setbacks. In June 1819, Mr. Early was fined for blocking Bay Street with construction materials. A year later, the unfinished building was damaged by the huge fire that swept through Savannah. Undaunted, he continued his project.
From the time it opened, the City Hotel played a unique role in the social and commercial life of Savannah. The hotel's barroom was a popular gathering place, and from midday on, the young men of the city collected there to talk, drink and engage in argumentative conversation that all too often ended in senseless "affairs of honor" - duels on the Carolina shore across the river.
Older natives referred to the nattily dressed fellows, who were regulars of the City Hotel's bar and who usually carried fancy knives at their belts, as the "sporting crowd."
The activities of this group influenced the formation of two new organizations on the Savannah scene: the Anti-Dueling Association and the Temperance Society. Needless to say, these two groups did not meet at the City Hotel.
One such "affair of honor" had its beginning in the barroom of the hotel. This event was most unusual in that it was started and ended at the City Hotel.
In the spring of 1832, James Stark expressed his dislike of a doctor, Philip Minis. Not surprisingly, word got back to Dr. Minis, who, although angered, considered the source and let the matter simmer until midsummer.
In August, Dr. Minis, no longer able to tolerate the mounting accusations of cowardice, demanded that Mr. Stark either apologize or duel.
When the two men could not agree on terms of the duel, Mr. Stark continued to ridicule Dr. Minis' courage.
On Aug. 10, Mr. Stark and a friend were coming down the stairs in the City Hotel just in time to hear Dr. Minis say, "I proclaim James Stark a coward!" Mr. Stark put his hand in his pocket as if to draw a pistol and advanced toward Dr. Minis, who drew his pistol and fired.
Dr. Richard Arnold examined the body of James Stark and said "the ball passed through the upper left thorax, behind the top part of the scapula, and through, into the side of the kitchen door."
Dr. Minis was tried and acquitted of murder and then went on to become an Army surgeon and father of seven.
The City Hotel continued in operation during the Civil War. After the war, the City Hotel succumbed to the economic malaise that gripped the South. Its doors were closed, and it traded hands a number of times.
It was used as a moving and storage facility for 70 years, until 1959. It sat empty and in disrepair until the mid-1990s, when the main floor and the basement were renovated as a brew pub.
The upper floors are still vacant, and not much has changed in more than 170 years.
STORIES OF 17HUNDRED90
Margaret DeBolt, the author of Savannah Specters and Other Strange Tales, did research for her book in the 1970s, "when Jim Williams was still alive and people were still playing music at the Hamilton Turner House."
The story Ms. DeBolt tells is that there are two presences on the property. Ms. DeBolt and local psychic "Stephen" toured the property and didn't sense Anna, the girl who haunts room 204, but they did happen upon a young servant girl who was sad and lonely, and a second presence in the kitchen. The owner relayed to the pair how, in the kitchen, she "felt a real strong push from behind and heard the jingle of bracelets."
"Stephen said it was a cook who had been there in the early days who had dabbled in voodoo," Ms. DeBolt said. "And the cook still felt territorial. That story was told to me firsthand and a lot has happened in 17Hundred90 since.
"'The first for-profit tour was Ghost Talk Ghost Walk in 1986," Ms. DeBolt said. "But it's been in the last two years that it's become very popular up and down historic coast."
ON THE WEB
The story behind hauntings at Myrtles Plantation:
Web site of Myrtles Plantation: