Intrigue at Billy’s Bar & Grill: Separating Truth from Tall Tales of Grays Harbor’s Billy Gohl

Early 1900s residents knew Billy Gohl as a respected secretary of the local sailor’s union, but later headlines would transform him into the stuff of nightmares. And though its been proven reports of his alleged crimes have been greatly exaggerated, Gohl’s infamy endures, captivating Grays Harbor residents and even inspiring the name of Aberdeen’s own Billy’s Bar & Grill!

From the outside, the Crowther-Wooding Building that houses Billy’s Bar & Grill may look like your everyday brick building, but the history behind it reveals so much more. Photo courtesy: Billy’s Bar and Grill

The Infamous Billy Gohl Becomes a True Crime Legend for the City of Aberdeen

Shrouded in mystery, Gohl’s story starts with a failed Yukon gold rush and his return to Aberdeen. Here, fact and fiction blur. Lore spanning over a century portrays him as a murderous bartender who targeted sailors.

Newspaper claimed that Billy Gohl went on a murdering spree from 1902 until 1910 and killed upwards fo 100 people, however he was only convicted of two. Photo courtesy: Billy’s Bar and Grill

Some accounts alleged that he worked and scouted his victims from aforementioned Billy’s Bar & Grill, a myth debunked by the restaurant’s General Manager Jenn Montoure. “When the owners at the time purchased the building, they simply chose to name the restaurant after a historical person from the past,” shared Montoure.

Suffice to say, Billy’s Bar & Grill was never Billy’s personal hunting grounds, but that doesn’t mean his story didn’t captivate Sonny Bridges, John Mertz, and Brian Kolb when they purchased the establishment in 1981 and renamed it so.

Back then, local history books still depicted him as a baby-faced, criminal mastermind behind a murder spree that lasted 8 years, between 1902 and 1910. A trail was held and despite the alleged death toll of 100+ victims, he was only convicted of two murders. Even more shocking, a request for leniency from the jury resulted in Gohl escaping the death penalty as he was sentenced to life in prison at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary.

News clippings like this tell the story of the trail of Billy Gohl, a former union member turned alleged seriel killer who become a favorite tale for Aberdeen ghost stories after his conviction. Photo courtesy: Billy’s Bar and Grill

The True Story of Billy Gohl is a Reflection of Labor Rights and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest

Gohl died in prison in 1927 from lobar pneumonia and dementia paralytic caused by syphilis yet his notoriety transcended death. For decades after, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” terrorized headlines, labeling him as one of Washington’s most prolific serial killers. However, the vast gap between accusations and convictions would prove to be a glaring discrepancy that could not go ignored, prompting modern-day historians and true crime fanatics to uncover the real ghoul of Grays Harbor.

History had painted Billy Gohl as a villain, but the reality reveals a different story. In truth, he wasn’t responsible for sailors deaths but instead fought to prevent them. As a dedicated union official and well respected secretary for the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, Gohl was Grays Harbor’s most vocal advocate for workplace and public safety, and he served during a time when the community was particularly unsafe with little labor rights to protect sailors.

Gohl’s fiery union speeches, critical articles of horrific working conditions, and advocacy for workers angered exploitative employers facing accusations of unsafe practices. Already working to silence the masses and prevent organized striking, when unexplained deaths began to plague Aberdeen’s waterfront, these same figures saw an opportunity to scapegoat their most outspoken advocate.

Historian Aaron Goings is credited to bringing to light these startling revelations behind Billy Gohl’s case, discussed in depth in his book, “The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest.”

The Ghostly History of the Crowther-Wooding Building

While the notion of Gohl lurking behind the bar at Billy’s Bar & Grill as he awaits his next victim is purely fictional, it’s interesting to note that the establishment’s history intertwines with that of Gohl’s. In fact, the building that houses the bar, the Crowther-Wooding Building, was constructed in 1904, just two years after the supposed start of his murder spree. Back then, it was home to the Red Cross Pharmacy until 1933 when it became Evans Drugs until the 1940s.

Newspaper clippings and other historic memorabilia decorate the walls of Billy’s Bar & Grill, with many giving details into the life of Billy Gohl. Photo courtesy: Billy’s Bar and Grill

Eventually under new ownership, the building went from treating the masses with prescribed remedies to self medication with the sale of alcohol. It functioned as Vann’s Tavern for a few years, then as Derby Tavern from 1944 until 1979.

Upstairs, too, transformed. Originally these rooms were used as workingmen’s housing and professional offices, as was typical of buildings on Heron Street. Following the downstairs transformation into a tavern, the upstairs soon mirrored the revelry, embracing its own form of debauchery beginning in the 1950s.

“They became known as the Elenora rooms,” explained Jenn, “named after the famous Madame Elenora who owned and operated the top floor’s working girls’ rooms.”

Said transformations made for a lively past yet sadly details on these former businesses are limited. However, one thing is clear, according to Montoure, “They were known as a rough and tumble bars in the bad part of town.”

Madame Elenora’s presence upstairs only fueled the building’s notorious reputation. Former Police Captain Nick Yanstin recounted a particularly distressing night regarding the upstairs quarters in which a “lady of the night” shot her pimp.

“He was shot through the bathroom door,” Montoure shared, “He ended up passing away in the building while sitting on the toilet; that’s how the officer found him.”

It was the first reported murdered in the building, long after Billy Gohl was dead and gone. So is Billy’s Bar & Grill really haunted? Yes, but not by Billy.

“It’s definitely haunted,” answered Montoure, explaining that a ton of paranormal groups have investigated the restaurant and have bared witness to plenty of spooky activities, “For instance, the silverware and coffee cups regularly fly off the table when nobody is standing by them.”

While Billy Gohl may not be haunting the bar he’s named after, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other entitites about. And with such a creepy doll upstairs in the Elenora Rooms, its advised patrons proceed with caution. Photo courtesy: Billy’s Bar and Grill

Sonny Bridges and His Good Friends Transform Billy’s Bar & Grill into a Family-Friendly Restaurant

The Derby Tavern closed in 1979, but the Crowther-Wooding Building’s reputation continued to intrigue the masses much like the ghost stories of Billy Gohl. This included now owner Sonny Bridges. Undeterred by ghostly rumors, Bridges saw only potential as the building went up for sale. With some savvy negotiation, he convinced his friends to join him as business partners.

“He’s been a proud owner since day one,” said Montoure, “He’s truly enjoyed restoring the old historic building.”

Gone were the rough taverns and dark corners. Sonny’s restoration, like Aaron Goggins’ work on Billy Gohl’s case, brought the brick building back into the light. It’s a “reformation” that mirrors past headlines of its namesake Billy Gohl as later reports described him as a model prisoner. Like Gohl’s story, Billy’s Bar & Grill embodies the power of resilience, community revival and second chances. Today, Billy’s Bar & Grill thrives as a family-friendly restaurant where the food remains top-notch, the bar is always stocked and local beers rotate on tap as the good times flow.

Billy’s Bar & Grill
322 E Heron St, Aberdeen

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