Haunted History of the Red Onion

Posted by carrieh in Canary Ghosts

The haunted history of the Red Onion makes the building one of the 10 top haunted places in Aspen, Colorado. From a murdered Madame to barroom brawls to a knife fight between two employees, the Red Onion is genuinely an establishment to label the phrase “If walls could talk.”

Established in 1892 by Thomas Latta, the restaurant began its days as a saloon. It was formally known as the Brick Saloon but was referred to as The Red Onion. Allegedly upper floors of the building were used as a brothel, adding to the stories and intrigue of the establishment.


Ghost can be found at the Red Onion
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

History of the building

Aspen was established in 1880 during the Colorado Silver Boom. Snowballing, the town reached a population of nearly 10,000 by 1890. Two years later, Councilman Thomas Latta built an unnamed red brick building that he opened as a gambling hall and saloon. At its opening, the bar was christened as the “New Brick Saloon”; however, old-timers of the area had their own ideas about what to call this colorful building. It was nicknamed “The Red Onion,” meaning something rare and unique or out of the ordinary. Something that is the likes of nothing that could ever be found on earth anywhere else.

Thomas Latta

Thomas Latta’s family came from Greenburg, PA, and was a very proper family. The kind of proper that you needed a calling card that you gave to a butler when you visited.

Thomas was a wild and free-minded entrepreneur that earned the reputation as the “Black Sheep” of the family. His ideas took him out west to find his fortune as so many others did. He ended up building and running The Red Onion as a dancehall, gambling saloon, and brothel.

Interestingly, Tom Latta was an alderman or councilman. And obviously, he enjoyed that old wild west.

The popularity of The Red Onion

The saloon grew popular nearly overnight, and it was one of only three eateries in the area. However, the goings-on and things allowed but overlooked made The Red Onion the most popular. Its patronage in the early days was miners and the local men into sports which in those days was bicycling, boxing, and wrestling.

After the silver boom crash, it managed to stay open through what is now referred to as Aspen’s “quiet years” after the silver boom crash. People had moved away, and the economy collapsed. Buildings and homes were left vacant and neglected, some even burning down. However, The Red Onion kept its door open and survived through it. Already many stories under its belt, the next life of The Red Onion came in 1918 when it was bought by Tim Kelleher. He kept the restaurant operating through the prohibition by selling sandwiches.

The Red Onion’s next phase

Although interest was shown in the Alpine Ski area in the 1930s, the sport was held until after World War II. When the war ended, a veteran John Litchfield of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division bought The Red Onion in 1946.

The building was the only building still standing on the street a year later. With now only 700 residents, Aspen was pretty much a ghost town. You can see why a saloon would be the hub of the city.

In 1947 Aspen opened the ski resort and built the world’s longest ski lift. Aspen became the first U.S. state to host an international competition, and its reputation continues to flourish to this day.

nal competition and its reputation continues to flourish to this day.

Old photo of the Aspen Ski Lift
Aspen Ski Lift
Photo: Wikimedia

After completely renovating the building, John Litchfield reopened the restaurant in January of 1947. He had the name formally changed to “Red Onion,” which it is called today. The club began hosting musical performances as well.

Red Onion comes back to life

As Aspen’s ski resort became popular, so did the Red Onion. In the early 1950s, the restaurant again changed hands and was bought by Werner Kuster and Arnold Senn.

Werner Kuster brought the Red Onion back to life, adding big-name performers Like Louis Armstrong, Freddie Fisher, and Billie Holiday.

In the 1970’s John Denver sang his hit song “Country Roads” for the first time at the Red Onion, and he continued to perform there throughout the years.

Lady Day and the Red Onion

Billie Holiday was an American blues, jazz, and swing music singer known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills. Her friend and music partner Lester young gave her the nickname “Lady Day.” Young was a well-known tenor saxophone and occasional clarinetist. He and Holiday became friends when Young was a boarder in Billie’s mother’s house.

After her turbulent childhood, Billie took to singing in nightclubs in Harlem. Producer John Hammond, a well-renowned talent scout and record producer, heard her performance and liked her voice. From that point, her professional and personal life started on its roller-coaster ride.

Billy Holiday in 1947
Billy Holiday 1947
Photo: Wikimedia

In the late 30s and 40s, Holiday Billie’s life was tormented with drugs and alcohol to the point of arrest and prison time. Because of this, she lost her permit to perform in New York City. She continued her music career performing concerts where she could get booked, but the drugs and alcohol took their toll on her voice in time.

Although Aspen was not the place sought out by performers to entertain, Billie Holiday accepted the booking to perform for two nights at the Red Onion when the 2nd Annual winter festival was celebrated.

Aspen locals remember that year not only for the success of the Wintersköl as it became known from that year on but also for the riveting nights of Billi Holiday’s performances at the Red Onion.

Sadly, Billie Holiday succumbed to her addictions at the young age of forty-four in 1959.

Haunted History of the Red Onion

The Red Onion is said to have nine lives, and each life is filled with stories and tales. Changing hands over the decades, many have stories of ghost happenings and the unexplainable and speculate who they might be.

In the 1970s, William Doyle Dean and Billy Joe Richards were two Chefs that worked at the Red Onion and lived above the restaurant. One evening during their meal break, the two got into a heated argument, and Dean grabbed a knife and stabbed Richards in the chest. The fight began in the kitchen but ended out behind the restaurant in the alley. Billy Joe Richards died in a pool of blood on the ground. William Doyle Dean was arrested and sent to prison.

Ten or fifteen years ago, a cleaning lady who cleaned the bar early in the mornings had experiences where she would see footsteps on her freshly mopped floor. After re-mopping the floor, the footsteps would reappear. She also said she would often see a man in the back of the kitchen out of the corner of her eye. Could this be the ghost of Billy Joe Richards returning to finish his shift after his life was cut short in the fight with William Doyle Dean?

The Murdered Madame

Although no official records of the account, stories have been passed down for over a century about a Madame that ran the brothel in the upper levels of the Red Onion being brutally murdered. Some claim to have seen a woman of the era hanging around the bar.

A bouncer for the bar reports being alone in the building on several occasions. When he would go down to the basement for supplies to restock the bar, he would hear someone walking around upstairs. Quickly running back up to the main floor to see who it was, he would find the bar empty, and no one was there.

Could it be the Madame downstairs for a drink to scope out potential customers for her illicit business?

Ghost of the little girl

Past employees of the Red Onion report the presence of a little girl though it isn’t known who she is or why she hangs around the restaurant. A woman also who cleaned the restaurant in the mornings won’t work alone in the building. She claims on one occasion, she set aside on the bar some blank coloring pages given to the kids to color and left to retrieve something. When she returned to the bar area, one of the pages was colored. No one was there.

Stories filtered through the years of things moved, noises of dishes when no one was in the kitchen and even the sound of dancing above the bar on the second floor when it was empty.

If walls could talk

A building over a hundred years in existence, once filled with people, entertainment, celebrities, guests, and more, is bound to have some who have returned in the afterlife. A place where they enjoyed life and made memories that they took with them when they passed.

The Red Onion. Truly a place that can be labeled “if walls could talk.”

Read more about the 10 top haunted places in Aspen, Colorado, and see how the lives and stories are intertwined from the pioneer days to today. Take a look into other cities we cover in the United States. If you are ever in the area, plan one of our ghost tours. You can even book a virtual tour from the comfort of your own home!


Ghostly Aspen: City full of spooky tales, old and new | AspenTimes.com

Macabre Mountain Tales Abound On ‘Aspen’s Dark Side’ Tour | Aspen Public Radio

‘Lady Day’ at the Onion ” Wintersköl 1952 | AspenTimes.com

Red Onion – Aspen, CO | Historic Bar and Restaurant

Peeling the layers of the Red Onion’s nine lives in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s Oldest Historic Restaurant & Bar | Red Onion

The Red Onion – Wikipedia