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Coloma, about those ghosts - you're kidding, right?

The first thing you must understand is that this was not a dark and stormy night. It was, rather, one of those balmy, moonless spring evenings you can luck into in California's Gold Country. The sky was full of stars, crickets and frogs were singing, and the air was warm and as sweet as honeysuckle.

I should also point out that when my family and I set out for an after-dinner stroll along a deserted, darkening road in Coloma, ghosts were the last thing on our minds.

Go ahead, roll your eyes. But even now I can recall the eerie chill that enveloped us as we passed the steep hillside of the Pioneer Cemetery. There was something up among the mossy granite tombstones, and that something got me to wondering if maybe, just maybe, there is some truth to all those stories about ghosts in the Gold Country.

Although the supernatural isn't yet touted on Mother Lode tourist brochures, ask around, and in almost every old mining town along State Highway 49 you'll hear accounts of mysterious rattlings, unexplained lights, and haunting apparitions.

Gold Country writer Nancy Bradley insists that this is one of the nation's spookiest regions. Over coffee one afternoon in Coloma she explains: "With its history of hardship, greed, and violent death, the Gold Country was charged with so much spiritual energy that it's not surprising so many strange phenomena are reported."

Of course, Bradley used to write for the National Enquirer. Most other Gold Country denizens I talked to were less evangelical, repeating their tales of ghostly run--ins with a smile that warns listeners to take their words--as longtime Coloma resident and veteran park ranger Alan Beilharz says--with "a large grain of salt." They seem aware, certainly, that reports of mysterious incidents can't hurt the popularity of "ghosting" trips or the bookings at local bed-and-breakfast inns (see "Where to stay: a ghosting guide," on page 39).

But this delicious folklore thrives even when the tourists have departed. Up in Downieville, restaurateur Jerry Cirino has heard locals talk about the ghost of a young murderess named Juanita who has appeared on the Highway 49 bridge over the North Yuba River--the same bridge where, in 1851, the woman was lynched by a mob of miners.

And Placerville resident Marcus Wells insists there are happenings (open drawers, misplaced objects) on the second floor of the town's old theater building that "rate a 7 or 8 on the creep meter." In fact, most people I spoke with during a recent tour had at least one story to share. And the most persistent stories seem to focus on two separate areas: Coloma, where gold was discovered, and Nevada City, where the big mines lasted longest.


Barbara Weaver, her white hair carefully coiffed and her handshake firm, would rather deal with historical facts than paranormal phenomena. And yet even she, the director of Nevada City's Firehouse Number 1 Museum, can't explain the 1880 photograph displayed at the top of the stairs. It shows a Mr. Carrigan, then president of the local Malakoff Mine, in formal seated pose, with the faint image of a boy standing at his shoulder--a boy Carrigan claimed was a younger version of himself.

According to Carrigan's story, just before the shot was taken he was reminiscing about something that had happened when he was 12 years old. When the photo was developed, the boy's image appeared. Begrudgingly, Weaver concedes that photographers who have examined the picture say it hasn't been tampered with, and that she has found nothing to indicate that Carrigan was making the whole story up.

The museum, at 214 Main Street, is open 11 to 4 daily through November 1, then Thursdays through Sundays.

Nearby, in Grass Valley, docent and retired teacher Evelyn Bachand gives tales surrounding the old Empire Mine a little more leeway. As she leads a tour group from the bright sunlight into the dark, cool confines of the mine's main shaft, Bachand recounts how miners came from Cornwall to work these gold mines in the 1860s, and how they brought with them some impish characters the miners called Tommyknockers.

The capricious Tommyknockers, "little men sort of like Irish leprechauns," might lead the miners to gold one day and torment them with pranks the next. But their mischief was tolerated, because, in exchange for the crusts that miners left from their meat pie lunches, the Tommyknockers warned of dangerous bracings or buildups of lethal gases by knocking on the shaft's walls. As the group peers down the timbered hole to the subterranean tunnels dug by these miners, Bachand says, "Sometimes when you're really quiet, you can still hear them tapping."

I love it. Our group, relieved to be out of the sun, listens obediently as the cool, heavy air washes up the shaft. But suddenly, the lights flicker and from down the shaft comes a loud creaking. Next to me, a little boy's eyes get big, and he whispers, "What was that?"

Bachand doesn't say. But later 84-year-old Bob Paine, onetime mayor of Nevada City, tells me (and yes, he's got that smile) that the sound was indeed Tommyknockers. "I used to hear them all the time when I was working near the mines," he says. And when I press him, Paine keeps up his front: "To be honest, the only reason you don't hear much about them anymore is because, with the mines closed, they're all unemployed."

The mine's historic park is open from 10 to 5 daily; admission is $2 for adults and $1 for ages 6 through 12.


James Marshall, who discovered the first nuggets of gold, would still recognize many of the old buildings edging the meandering streets of Coloma. There is the original post office and a gun shop; John Sutter's lumber mill (it's been replicated); and even Marshall's own cabin, monument, and grave site. (The visitor center at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is open from 10:30 to 4:30 daily except major holidays; park admission is $5 per car.)

All told, the place is filled with history, which around here often includes reports of ghosts. Mysterious voices in the old Chinese store. Strange lights in Emmanuel Church around Thanksgiving. And all the goings-on (wine-glasses inexplicably sliding along the bartop, bumps and screams in the night, "presences" wandering about in period costume) inside the brooding, pale lavender Vineyard House.

"The Vineyard House is a local topic of conversation," says ranger Beilharz. "When we get tired of talking about the weather, we talk about old Mrs. Chalmers." It is these stories about the hotel's first residents that get me curious enough to spend a night there--alone.

Louise Chalmers and her second husband, Robert, built the four-story hostelry in 1878, and it became known throughout the mining camps for its good meals and elaborate festivities. But within a few years, Robert began going insane. Once he was reportedly found lying in an open grave in the cemetery, to see how it fitted; later, he became violent and paranoid. Legend has it he was finally locked in the cellar, where he starved himself to death believing Louise was trying to poison him.

As the B & B's only guest on a recent Sunday night, I have the upstairs rooms to myself. When I climb the stairs at 11, the building is quiet except for the ticking of a clock. Perfect conditions for restless spooks. I proceed down the long hall, enter each room in the dark, sit on the bed ... and wait.

First is room 1, Louise's bedroom, where honeymooners have complained of strange noises and missing underwear (not so strange, considering). Nothing happens. I look under the bed in room 3, where one patron insists she saw the ghost of a young boy named George who once asked a restaurant patron to mash his carrots. Nothing there. And then room 5, a small, dark, twin-bedded room where screams have reportedly been so loud that guests once called the police to report a murder. I wait in this room the longest, sitting so quietly I can actually hear my heart beating. Nothing.

It is nearing midnight, but before heading to my room (where I would sleep like the dead), I go to the window and look out across the street to the Pioneer Cemetery. As the moonlight glimmers on the pale tombstones, I remember the family walk that got me wondering about ghosts in the first place.


It was several years ago that my wife, Jill, and two children, 11-year-old Scott and 8-year-old Kate, and I had dinner at the Vineyard House. Because it was such a mild evening, we decided to take a walk into town. We had just started down the hill when Kate noticed the change.

"Dad, I'm cold," she said. "I want my sweater." We stopped and, strangely, it was noticeably colder. There seemed to be a mist among the trees, and the crickets, which had been chirping raucously when we left, were suddenly quiet. In fact, the night was deathly still.

"Are we alone?" Jill asked, a little louder than necessary. We looked around. "I feel like someone is following us ... or watching us."

Up and down the road there were no cars, no other walkers, nothing. It was dark beneath the trees, and on the hillside above us the thin, wraithlike wisps of mist seemed to be collecting among the twisted black trunks. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight on end. Was it some kind of a reflection, or was part of the mist--some vague, almost human shape--faintly glowing?

"What is it?" Jill whispered, as we pushed the children on down the hill. "Is something up there?"

Author Bradley says yes, something was up there, probably the Lady in Burgundy, the image of a woman in a flowing skirt of that color who is often seen near the family tombstone of Charles Schieffer and two of his children. Who is this woman? When Schieffer died at age 42 did he leave a grieving wife? A relative? A mistress?

Park rangers and local volunteers restoring the cemetery can't help. All Bradley knows is that the Lady in Burgundy seems agitated when she appears (she beckons to those who see her), and that across the cemetery is the very modest grave of a woman named Catherine Schieffer, who was born in 1862 (two years before Charles's death) and died in 1916, her life also a complete mystery.

Placerville history buff Davey "Doc" Wiser thinks our wisp of mist could have been Louise Chalmers herself. The bushy-bearded Wiser, a weekend regular at the Vineyard House who often cooks breakfast in red long johns, feels especially close to Louise because they share the same birthday (November 11). After Robert's death, he recounts, Louise's fortunes declined. She was buried in the family's Coloma plot when she died in 1900. Wiser likes to visit her grave on their birthday to toast their respective health, and he cheerily reports that more than once he has felt her presence in the damp, cold autumn air.

What does it all mean? After hearing lots of stories from lots of Gold Country residents, I'm still not sure about any of this, particularly what we saw. Was it Louise, or Ms. Burgundy, or, to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, simply the effects of an undigested piece of beef? Or was it just a weird quirk of weather? When it comes to ghosts, the line between simple truth and a good tale seems pretty thin. All I can really tell you with certainty is that the fun is in the search. Oh, and bring large-grained salt.

Where to stay: a ghosting guide

Inkeepers at these B & Bs don't advertise ghosts, but they all tell of strange occurrences they or their guests have experienced. For more stories, try Nancy Bradley and Vincent Gaddis's Gold Rush Ghosts (Borderland Sciences Research Foundation, Garberville, Calif., 1990; $9.95), or Antoinette May's Haunted Houses of California (Wide World Publishing/Tetra, San Carlos, Calif., 1990; $9.95).

And whatever you do, don't look in the closet. Red Castle Inn, 109 Prospect Street, Nevada City; (916) 265-5135. Elegant seven-room, barn red Gothic revival Victorian. Five rooms have private baths. Prices run $70 to $110, with buffet breakfast. Guests have reported that the spirit of Laura Jean, gray-frocked governess of long-gone children, tucks them in at night. Vineyard House, 530 Cold Springs Road, Coloma; (916) 622-2217. Huge seven-bedroom Victoria. Only one room has private bath. Prices range from $80 to $99, including a full breakfast. Restaurant and cellar bar open for dinner from 5 to 8:30 Tuesdays through Sundays through December. See main text for more information. Sutter Creek Inn, 75 Main Street, Sutter Creek; (209) 267-5606. Comfortable, unostentatious residence built in 1859 has 4 rooms in the original building and 15 cottage-style rooms in the back. All have private baths. Prices run from $50 to $115. Owner Jane Way has seen several ghosts, including the spirit of a state senator, who told her, "I will protect your inn."
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Coloma, California
Author:Phillips, Jeff
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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