July 6, 2014 12:00 AM
By Wesley Yiin / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"If you want to find out if a place is haunted, you don't ask the owners," Haydn Thomas advised, as if he's had to learn it the hard way. "You ask the people who work there at night."
Gesturing toward Downtown‘s Gulf Tower, Mr. Thomas, 64 — dressed in a black beret, a black "Haunted Pittsburgh Tours" T-shirt and black pants — regaled one ghost story after another to his audience of 30 plus.
And for a moment, Mr. Thomas pulled off the scary tone. He spoke quickly, his eyes darted from person to person and his grin was ominous, if not downright sinister. But, when he finished, he beckoned playfully with his finger and pivoted off on his way to the next stop. The illusion was broken.
But Mr. Thomas didn't get this job by being frightening. On the contrary, he came to it through his talkativeness, his passion for history and his love for the city of Pittsburgh.
"My kids had been telling me for years that I should be a tour guide," Mr. Thomas said shortly before he began his tour. "It took me 60 years to find something I was good at."
Mr. Thomas was born and reared in Pittsburgh, and he attended Thiel College, graduating in 1972 with a degree in history before getting his master's in the same field. He tried teaching for a while before switching to a career at General Motors, which lasted for 30 years until his retirement at age 56.
Six years later, a friend who he had met through the St. David's Society, a Welsh heritage group, recommended him for the job at Haunted Pittsburgh tours during the Halloween season.
In the interim between leaving his full-time job and starting as a tour guide, he spent some time visiting his grown daughters in faraway places, like Abu Dhabi.
But Mr. Thomas, who now lives in Munhall, always returned home to Pittsburgh. He found it difficult to describe why.
"It's sort of like homesickness but more than that," he said. "Pittsburgh never leaves you."
Instead, he listed things about Pittsburgh that he loves, which include the hills, the greenery and the beautiful views. He spoke about Steelers Nation to describe the presence of Pittsburgh pride all over the country. And yet, at multiple points both before and during the tour, he would say, "It's such a small town" after bumping into someone he recognized or explaining a coincidence or connection.
It's a small town that Mr. Thomas has close ties to. While stopped at PNC Plaza, he told the story of Henry Clay Frick and the Homestead strike, which his great-grandfather had been a part of.
"It's like I was born to tell this story," he whispered just before he began to speak.
This speech took longer than most others and was more historically driven, with the only ghostly component being the alleged appearance of Frick's deceased daughter, 6-year-old Martha, saving him from being mortally wounded by a gunshot. But after Mr. Thomas finished, for the first and only time before the tour's finale, he received a small round of applause from the impressed guests.
Mr. Thomas, however, did not wait for the applause. He was already on his way to the next stop — eager to scare, eager to entertain and, above all, eager to educate attendees about the history of his favorite city.
Haunted Pittsburgh tours run in three locations: Downtown ($15) on Fridays and Saturdays, in Mount Washington ($18, including the incline ticket) on Saturdays and in Oakland ($15) on Sundays. Booking is online at www.hauntedpittsburghtours.com.
Wesley Yiin: firstname.lastname@example.org.