Camp Helen State Park is a peaceful little wayside just off U.S. Highway 98 at the western edge of Panama City Beach. It's a good place to pull off the road, park and stretch your legs. There's a small visitor center that tells the history of the 183-acre property, and the hike down to the beach rewards visitors with amazing views and a quiet stretch of breathtaking white sand.
It's hard to believe that such a peaceful place could be haunted, but park volunteer and local historian Emily Smith enjoys regaling the curious with tales of not one, but three, specters said to inhabit the grounds. She says that for seven years, between 2006 and 2013, the Friends of Camp Helen State Park held popular "ghost walks" at the park. The tours came to an end when costs became prohibitive, but that doesn't stop Smith from telling ghost stories to anyone eager to listen.
The first ghost in the park is the spirit of Rose, a young slave girl killed by Indians in 1843. Smith said Rose was a passenger on a ship that had run aground nearby during a New Year's Eve storm.
"While repairs to the ship were being made, they made contact with Indians who they thought were going to be friendly, but they weren't," Smith says. "First, they made friends, but one day when the captain was out trying to secure food, the Indians attacked, and Rose was killed. They buried her in a shallow grave and it's said that on moonlit nights she sometimes walks the beaches."
The second ghost is said to be Margaret Hicks' only grandson who ventured away from his nanny one day and drowned in Lake Powell. Smith says the little boy, called "Gigi," was left in the care of the cook and a nursemaid while Hicks was on a grocery run to Panama City when the accident happened. Tragically, he managed to wander down to the boat dock in front of the family lodge and fell into the water.
"He went out playing in the courtyard garden while the cook and maid were preparing his lunch, and when his lunch was ready they called for him and couldn't find him. Now, where do you think a little boy would go with all this water around him? He went down to the lake, and didn't know how to swim. He went to the end of the boat dock, fell in, and drowned," Smith says. "If he had only known how to swim!"
The ghost of Gigi was first seen in 1996 when a passing fisherman saw a little boy playing on the beach. That seemed unremarkable, but the caretaker assured him that nobody lived on the property anymore. Sightings continue to this day, Smith says.
"Sometime, fishermen on the lake still see a little boy sitting on the old pier," Smith says. "I have told this story for seven years and on two occasions I have had people tell me they had fished and seen what looked like a child on the pier down from the house."
The third and final ghost is known to have actually talked to a guest of the former Hicks family lodge. Smith says that right after the property was sold to Donald Comer of Avondale Mills, Hugh Comer-a prim and proper Sunday school teacher from Birmingham-was invited down for a visit to check the place out. He stayed in the Hicks' log home.
"He had dinner, went to bed early and slept in Margaret Hicks' old room, and when we went to sleep during the night, this ghost appeared beside him," Smith said.
Legend holds that this was the ghost of Captain Phillips, the namesake of nearby Phillips Inlet. Captain Phillips loomed large in the darkness and intoned in a grave voice, "This is my house, get out of my house!"
Quite apart from the paranormal, there's much to see and do at Camp Helen State Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can take a walking tour of the historic grounds, enjoy birdwatching, swimming, beach combing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking along the dunes and scrub forests, and picnicking. The Hicks House and recreation hall are available for weddings, meetings and other functions.
For more information, call the park office at (850) 233-5059.