Dan Leger, aka “Savannah Dan,” sports a crisp seersucker suit and a bowtie as he leads a walking tour through seven of Savannah’s 22 picturesque squares, each representing a different page in the city’s long history. He seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the city, but unlike an encyclopedia, his version of history is fun and entertaining. Anybody can read the inscriptions on the plaques and monuments in the squares, but Savannah Dan digs up the back stories, serving them up with a healthy dose of wry wit and down-home humor.
At Oglethorpe Square, named for Georgia’s founder, Dan quips that the colony was settled in 1733 by “deadbeats.” British politician and social reformer James Edward Oglethorpe was outraged by the British practice of imprisoning debtors, and he was granted a charter by King George II to give these unfortunate souls a fresh start in the new royal colony of Georgia. They did get a new start, but life wasn’t easy. Today Savannah is a thriving seaport rife with genteel charm, but when the early settlers arrived, it was a mosquito-infested swampland prone to yellow fever outbreaks and a haven for pirates, what Dan calls, “one tough piece of real estate.”
The group strolls past Colonial Park Cemetery, the resting place for many notable Savannah citizens, and several antebellum house museums. Tales of Civil War generals, Revolutionary War heroes and modern-day Savannah eccentrics, make the afternoon fly faster than the group’s handheld fans.
As the tour moves down East Harris Street, the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Baptist seems to beckon everyone inside its cool, cavernous interior – a welcome break from the afternoon sun. More than 70 glowing stained glass windows and an impressive collection of Renaissance-style murals invite a moment of meditation.
Then it’s time to hit the street again. There’s much more to see. At Chippewa Square, Dan does a remarkably good impression of Forrest Gump, the title character from the 1994 film starring Tom Hanks. For much of the movie, Forrest sits on a bench in the square telling his life story to various passersby.
Savannah sightseeing tours are plentiful. Visitors can explore cobblestone streets adorned by grand antebellum architecture by trolley, horse and carriage, even on a Segway, but Savannah Dan’s slightly irreverent look at history makes his walking tour one of the most popular.
Oglethorpe Haunted Tour-Savannah’s Dark Side
Savannah Dan showcases the lighter side of Savannah’s history, but the Oglethorpe Haunted Tour takes visitors to the dark side.
A group of tourists curious about Savannah’s reputation as America’s most haunted city rattle through the historic district’s shadowy streets on a trolley, listening attentively to chilling tales of voodoo curses, restless spirits, murders and suicides. A super-sized orange moon seems to glare down on the trolley disapprovingly, as if to warn that some mysteries are best left unexplored.
Joan, a knowledgeable tour guide and Savannah native, points out Wright Square. By day, it’s a verdant, inviting oasis, shaded by towering, Spanish moss-draped oaks, but there’s nothing inviting about the gallows, and that’s the only thing that stood there in the early days of colonization when it was just a foreboding, dry patch of dirt known as Percival Square.
In her beguiling Southern drawl, Joan tells the story of Alice Riley, the first woman executed in Georgia. Alice, an Irish indentured servant, was convicted of murdering her master, William Wise, who had a reputation for cruelty toward his servants. Because she was pregnant when convicted, her execution was delayed, but she was ultimately hanged in 1735, shortly after giving birth.
Alice’s anguished ghost is said to haunt the square, searching futilely for the child she didn’t live to raise. One of the strongest presences in Savannah, she often appears to pregnant women.
As the trolley turns on to President Street, the group is greeted by the cheerfully illuminated windows of the historic 17 Hundred 90 Inn and Restaurant, but beyond the glowing exterior is a sinister presence that resides in room 204.
Anna is the ghost of a young bride unhappily married to a much older man. In the early 1800s, the inn was a boarding house and Anna was a servant who married the owner. She fell in love with a young sailor, and the two made plans to run away together. When the jealous husband discovered the plot, he locked Anna in room 204 where she jumped to her death, or some say, was violently hurled to her death.
The tour concludes at the old Warren Candler Hospital, founded for indigent patients in 1803 and removed to its current site in 1819. Everyone departs the trolley and cautiously follows Joan down a flight of musty-smelling stairs into “The Dead House,” the morgue tunnel beneath the hospital. Some are openly apprehensive, but they soldier on, slowly squeezing into the narrow tunnel that ends abruptly in a space as oppressive and pitch black as a tomb – which in a sense it was. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Premature Burial” comes to mind.
Joan explains that when an indigent patient died, there was rarely any family to claim the body, so doctors came to the tunnel to surreptitiously perform autopsies, illegal at the time, on a steady supply of cadavers to further their medical training.
A few paranormal believers take out cameras and cell phones, hoping to capture orbs of light that represent restless spirits.
Even if you’re a skeptic who thinks there’s not a ghost of a chance of seeing a ghost in Savannah, the Oglethorpe Haunted Tour is an entertaining way to get acquainted with the history and folklore of one of America’s oldest and loveliest cities.
The Mansion on Forsyth Park is a 126-room, luxury hotel in a Victorian mansion in the historic district. Even if you aren’t a guest, it’s worth stopping by just to see the vintage hat collection in the lobby. 700 Drayton St., Savannah, 888-213-3671, www.mansiononforsythpark.com Rates: $179-$329
Named for the year it was built, the 17 Hundred 90 Inn and Restaurant is the city’s oldest restored inn. 307 E. President St., Savannah, 912-236-7122, www.17hundred90.com. Rates: $119-$179.
The Pirate’s House restaurant serves Southern seafood specialties in a historic tavern. 20 E. Broad St., Savannah. 912-233-5757. www.thepirateshouse.com. Open for lunch and dinner.
Savannah Dan Walking Tours begin at Johnson Square. Mon. - Sat. at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. 912-398-3777. www.savannahdan.com Pets are welcome. $15 per person.
Oglethorpe Haunted Trolley Tours offer guest pick-up for those staying at hotels in the historic district. 912-233-8380, www.oglethorpetours.com. Adults $22, children 6-11 $10.