Fact or fiction? Exploring the rumored haunts of the Rio Grande Depot
Oct 13, 2023, 3:44 PM | Updated: Oct 31, 2023, 5:56 pm
SALT LAKE CITY — Ever heard of the “purple lady”? A distraught woman from the early 1900s has been known to haunt the premises of the Rio Grande Train Depot.
But who was the mysterious woman? Did she really exist? Or is she an urban legend?
Kevin Fayles is the Assistant Director of the Utah Historical Society, formerly the Utah Division of State History. He’s very familiar with the history of the building because it’s where he’s worked for the last nine years.
The train depot, finished in 1910, was home to the Utah Historical Society offices since the 1980s.
As the story goes, a woman was coming on one train, and her fiancé was coming on a second train and the plan was to meet at the train platform west of the Rio Grande Depot.
“But the meeting did not go well, the couple argued and in a fit of anger, the young man threw the engagement ring onto the railroad tracks,” Fayles said. “This woman was distraught and so she ran to retrieve her ring and did not notice the fast-approaching train and before anyone could stop her, she was struck by the train and killed.”
Since the 1940s, people have claimed to see “the purple lady” around the Rio Grande Depot.
“Now we don’t know the woman’s name, but she is often depicted in a 1940s suit of light violet with a hat and matching shoes. Now other people say she wears a long purple dress from an earlier era and most agree she has black hair,” Fayles said. “She’s said to haunt the hallway passageway between the main station floor and the entrance to the Rio Grande Café.”
So what do people experience in the Rio Grande Depot that makes it haunted?
“Some people saw the purple lady in the women’s restroom right outside the restaurant,” Fayles said.
While there have been a few sightings of the legendary purple lady, mostly near the restaurant or in the bathroom, Fayles said the majority of experiences are of phantom footsteps.
“Supposedly people would hear footsteps. They would be alone in the building and hear running footsteps. They would be in the hallway basement alone and they would hear this sound of footsteps like running past them and continuing down,” Fayles said.
The basement runs the full length of the building and there’s one corridor that’s poorly lit which could provide a spooky atmosphere. Fayles explained that the nature of the building being so old could contribute to the feelings that it’s haunted.
“The whole building, there’s old steam radiators and those hiss and the building would creak so it’s just it is a spooky environment,” Fayles said. “I’ve not seen anything personally but I never like to be alone at night.”
“I have two photos one photo shows this purple mist taken in a woman’s restroom and the other photo is looking down a hallway and you see two maybe three figures. So that’s kind of creepy,” Fayles said.
Fact or fiction?
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the details of when the purple lady story began and if it’s based on anything factual it seems that by the early 2000s, the ghost story had been accepted as part of the history of the Rio Grande Depot.
Fayles said a woman with the Utah Historical Society told him the purple lady had been invented by another society member years earlier.
“She has since retired and she had worked for the Utah Historical Society for 35 years, so what she told me is that back in the early 1980s, a colleague of hers said you know, every old building needs a ghost story and this colleague invented the purple lady,” Fayles said. “…that’s what I was told, I could be wrong.”
Recent articles and websites in the last few years have listed sightings of the Purple Lady dating back to the 1940s, however there are no newspapers from that time period that even mention the term “purple lady” referring to the ghost of the Rio Grande.
The first references to a Rio Grande “purple lady” that KSL TV was able to find were after the 2000s.
However, there was a play that came to the Ogden Theater in 1915 titled, “The Purple Lady.”
Fayles said the historical society had knowledge of reported ghost sightings in the 1940s and then again from the 1980s to present. He said he finds it interesting that there was a spike of sightings in the 80s, around the time he was told the purple lady story was invented.
“Where do these other sightings and times where do those come from? I don’t think they were part of the original story,” Fayles said. “Kind of related to this is the whole idea of folklore, right? Why these kinds of stories get created, what was happening, maybe the environment, what are the reasons what are the needs folklore satisfies?”
When asked if he believed it was haunted Fayles responded, “I don’t know, but to get serious for a moment, I mean that ties into a person’s religious beliefs. So yes, I think there’s life after death, and I think there are some things we should not mock, and I don’t like to be in the Rio by myself at night.”
Ultimately, people have reported haunting experiences in the Rio Grade Depot building so the building’s haunting could probably be considered fact. Whether a specific purple lady haunts the premises? That urban legend appears to be fiction.
The history, then and now
The Rio Grande Depot is one of Utah’s most significant historical buildings and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1906 the D&RG hired a well-known architect, Henry Schlacks, to design the Salt Lake City depot.
Built around a load-bearing concrete and iron structure, the depot has an exterior of limestone (base), brick, and terra cotta, with iron and glass. Originally the glass had a green tint. The interior is covered in marble, terrazzo tile, plasterwork, some internal wood framing, and quarter-cut oak trim.
Furnishings for the building were brought in from all over the country: boilers from Illinois, interior marble fixtures from Kansas City, and ornamental iron from Indiana.
It opened in 1910 with the cost of the building totaling $750,000.
“It’s a competitor because you have the Union Pacific building just two blocks north,” Fayles said.
The depot served as an arrival point for many immigrants and several neighborhoods were created nearby by Greeks, Italians, Japanese, and Armenians.
It was also where many soldiers departed and then later returned for both World War I and World War II.
As travel began to change, and more people began to use planes or cars, the depot became less important.
Still, according to the Utah Historical Society, “the Rio Grande Zephyr train ran passenger service to Denver three times a week into the 1980s. A few years later, Amtrak began running trains out of the Rio Grande Depot until the tracks were pulled up and moved west to Salt Lake City’s Intermodal Hub in 2000, ending the life of the Rio Grande as a train depot.”
The state of Utah bought the building in 1977 for just $1 to create a new home for the Utah Division of State History and the Utah State Historical Society.
“It had been vacant for a while, the state purchased it for like a dollar and they realized it would be cheaper to fix it up than create something else so they fixed it up and the Division of State History moved in in 1980 or 1981 and for a couple of decades we were the only organization in there,” Fayles said.
The building typically houses the Department of Heritage and Arts (parent agency over State History), and the offices of UServe Utah, Multicultural Affairs, and the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.
It was closed for repairs in March 2020 following a 5.7 earthquake and does not currently have a set date to reopen.
Throughout October, KSL TV will be exploring haunts and legends around Salt Lake County. We’ll share with you what we learn – what’s fact and what’s fiction. Other stories include: The Old Mill , Ted Bundy’s cabin/cellar, Sugar House Park and Allen Park.