The Haunted Swannanoa Palace of Afton, VA

One of Virginia’s many haunted locations is Swannanoa Palace, where reported sightings of orbs, EVPs, ghostly footsteps, and the Holy Grail of the paranormal world: full-body apparitions, are regularly experienced. Swannanoa Palace is one of the five most haunted locations in Virginia. 

A Brief History of Swannanoa Palace

Situated high atop Alton Mountain, part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, Swannanoa Palace is a magnificent Italian Renaissance Revival villa and was the summer home of Richmond-based millionaire and philanthropist James H. Dooley from Limmerick, Ireland, and his wife, Sarah “Sallie” Dooley

Built as a love offering to his wife in 1912, Swannanoa Palace required the expertise of over 300 gifted artisans worldwide and took eight years to complete. Its magnificent Carrara marble structure, 590 acres, terraced English gardens, 52 rooms, elaborate door handles, Tiffany window installations, and carved wooden paneling throughout are rivaled only by the paranormal activity reported and recorded here. 

Sallie Dooley’s love of swans gave the palace its name. And the fact that swans mate for life symbolized the passion and devotion she shared with her husband. Her love of these graceful creatures is mirrored everywhere within the mansion. They are painted into frescoes and carved into cornices, furniture, and above doorways throughout the estate. Her sacred connection with these waterfowl was so otherworldly and transcendent that she even died in the Swan Room in 1925, three years after her husband’s death. 

Swannanoa Palace Exterior
Swannanoa Palace in Afton Virginia, Image Credit: Wikipedia

Swannanoa’s legacy includes having its own power plant, making it the first home in the country to have electricity. And the 4,000-piece Tiffany window of Sallie Dooley rising over the grand staircase is the largest privately-owned residential stained glass window in the United States and a testament to the opulence of Richmond’s Golden Age.  

The palace changed hands over the years and was once used as a country club in its many incarnations. It sat vacant during the Great Depression and World War II.

A Legacy of Conspiracies and the Occult

Swannanoa Palace
Exterior View of Swannanoa Palace Entrance

Swannanoa reportedly served as a meeting place for the Illuminati when leased to the famous sculptor and American Painter Walter Bowman Russell in 1949. After his death, his wife Lao received a charter from the Commonwealth of Virginia to convert the palace into the University of Science and Philosophy, a correspondence school of philosophical thought closely aligned with Illuminati principles.

The palace and the University attracted many well-known visitors, including Ted Kennedy, Pope John Paul III, Queen Elizabeth, Henry Kissinger, and Margaret Thatcher. 

In 2012, the metaphysical group, The Star Borne 11:11, held a ritual at Swannanoa Palace, intending to open the doorway between our world of duality and the greater reality. 

UFO and Bigfoot sightings have also been reported on Alton Mountain. 

Swannanoa Palace is a paranormal investigator’s heaven. Although no definitive data is recorded concerning the number of sightings the palace has generated over the years, Swannanoa’s ghostly inhabitants are well-known in Alton and the international paranormal community. 

One of the many paranormal teams to investigate the palace caught images of orbs shooting up stairways and through rooms, heard footsteps and moaning, and recorded spectral voices responding to questions from team members. Although some of the reported activity is anecdotal, numerous pieces of evidence using spirit boxes, dowsing rods, light meters, flashlights, and SLS cameras are all recorded and on video by various paranormal investigative groups. The evidence there is undeniable. 

Ghostly inhabitants of Swannanoa Palace

One of Swannanoa’s ghostly inhabitants is reportedly Sallie Dooley, who now, after death, lives on the third floor, where the current owner’s cats refuse to visit. She doesn’t communicate as frequently as some of the other ghostly inhabitants, but she makes herself known, regardless. On the lower level of the house, visitors have also reported the sweet scent of her expensive perfume wafting throughout the rooms. 

Mr. Dooley has also made his presence known in his study via the spirit box and dowsing rods. When asked by one investigator why he chose to remain in the palace after his death, he quickly replied, “Beauty.” The same beauty that attracted him to Alton Mountain during his life and inspired the building of Swannandoa continues to captivate and enchant him from the other side.

A full investigation there in 2021 by a paranormal group from Maryland claimed to speak with one of the Dooley’s servants named Anthony. According to investigators, Anthony is the most active and communicative among the departed who still reside at Swannanoa Palace. 

According to Anthony, he fell from the palace’s central tower to his death. He also said he enjoyed working for the Dooleys. Apparently, Anthony enjoys the frequent investigations and tours of the palace and is known to communicate to public tour groups via dowsing rods. He also easily turns flashlights off and on in response to yes or no questions and physically moves them short distances. 

It may sound contrary to reason, but Anthony is the liveliest of all the dead who still call Swannanoa home. 

Others include other ghostly servants and groundkeepers who worked there, their voices being the most recorded phenomenon at the estate. However, the library is reportedly the most haunted room among the 52. One spirit contacted viz spirit box, said there are ‘several’ ghosts who have found comfort within the gardens. 

Walter Russel, who leased the estate in 1949 and died in 1963, demonstrates his continued presence at the palace. His wife Lao is there as well, and both respond to yes and no questions from paranormal groups and investigators. 

Present-day Swannanoa

Owned by James and Sandi Dunaley since 2000, parts of the palace have fallen into disrepair. The current owners have invested 3 million dollars into the renovations of one of the five most haunted locations in Virginia. You can find hosting tours of the palace during the warmer months to help with the cost of continuing renovations. Call the palace for their tour schedule and admission price.

Get Travel Directions

Looking to travel to the haunted Swannanoa Palace?

Use the Google map below to plot out your route, and browse our list of paranormal conventions and events to see if there are any happenings in the area!

Leave a Comment