Stories of ghosts and spirits in the Mother Lode are older than the Gold Rush relics found in towns up and down Highway 49, Highway 4, Highway 108 and Highway 120.
It’s Halloween today, the old Hallow’s Eve, which dates back as far as Celtic and Gaelic festivals rooted in pagan traditions, a time for scary stories and costumes, and for visiting haunted attractions.
If you’re in Murphys or Columbia or Sonora or Jamestown or Groveland, you can likely find more than one place that’s said to be haunted.
Columbia Clothiers & Emporium
Some of the haunts date back to miners dead more than a century. At the old Columbia Clothiers & Emporium on Main Street in Columbia State Historic Park, the ghost is a recent arrival. A framed photo of Douglas Joseph Mathers, a former employee at the emporium, sits on top of a curved glass display case at the back of the store.
Mathers, a former resident of Sonora, died just over a year ago in September at age 45, of a massive heart attack, said Jake Matulich, 43, who was in the emporium Tuesday afternoon.
“He’s been seen here some evenings at the entrance,” Matulich said. “One night just a few months ago there were Comcast workers out here digging up the street to put in new internet cable. Next morning one of them asked if we have a night watchman. I showed him this picture of Douglas. His face turned white as a sheet.”
The old emporium stands on ground where preceding buildings dated to 1851, and the current building is said to go back to 1899.
Wells Fargo Express
There are also said to be spirits across the street at the old Wells Fargo Express building, which dates to 1857. Billie Lyons, curator at the Tuolumne County Historical Society says the sounds of children playing can be heard there.
“Back in the 1880s, 1890s, a family that lived above Wells Fargo,” Lyons said Tuesday in Sonora. “As many as a dozen children lived there and died of disease.”
There are also said to be hauntings at the old Fallon Hotel, the ice cream parlor and the theater in Columbia. The building dates to 1859.
“There’s been sightings of a little boy and a man up in one of the rooms,” Lyons said. “It’s very active, upstairs and downstairs.”
At the 1850s Gunn House in Sonora, there’s said to be a ghost or spirit that haunts rooms 10 and 11 up on the second-level balcony. Some people say Gunn House is the most haunted place in Sonora. Some people say they’ve stayed in room 11 and woke up to see furniture moving and hear coins rattling. In room 10, it’s said a guest was physically turned out of bed by an unseen force.
Down the street, the Sonora Inn dates to 1896 and there’s a girl ghost that bounces a ball, some people say. There are stories that the hotel elevator is also haunted, and it moves from floor to floor sometimes on its own or with the help of some other spirit.
At the Sonora Dome, completed in 1909, some visitors have come across the appearance of a sobbing woman on the second floor. She disappeared when they tried to comfort her.
Down in Jamestown, at the 1859 Historic National Hotel there is a spirit or ghost named Flo. She has been seen in most rooms of the hotel. Sometimes lights flicker, doors slam and suitcases overturn, and this is all said to be Flo’s doing. Sometimes sobbing can be heard at night, and some people believe that too is Flo.
Over at the Willow Steakhouse Saloon, there’s been talk of dozens of ghosts. The dining room sits over an old mine shaft that caved in, killing 23 miners many years ago. One of the dead has been described as a balding man in pajamas, and he’s been blamed for several fires at the building over the decades.
On Tuesday, Esther Mosely, the dining room manager at the Willow, showed two occupied booths where she’s been told by some guests of unexpected activity.
“Customers say on different occasions that something pulls their hair,” Mosely said later Tuesday during a break. “Sometimes we get ghost hunters in here and they always say they pick up a lot of energy in one of the corners of the room, at booth 7. Hair pulling, they say that happens at both booth 7 and booth 9.”
Up in Groveland, there is a long-time spirit people know by name. A miner named Lyle used to stay at the Groveland Hotel on Main Street up until he died in 1916. Melony Vance, general manager for Groveland Hotel and the Hotel Charlotte, said Lyle used to sleep in room 15 with a case of dynamite under his bed.
The Groveland Hotel dates to an 1849 adobe and an addition was built in 1914, Vance said. The current owners, Doug and Jenn Edwards, invested more than $500,000 in a renovation earlier this year and late 2017, to modernize the business and to highlight the structure’s Gold Rush-era adobe architecture.
“You could just feel the bones were trying to come out and speak, and we wanted to honor the original history that’s here,” Jenn Edwards, 34, told The Union Democrat back in March.
One thing they didn’t change is Lyle’s old room 15. Vance said when contractors were working on the renovation, Lyle would get active about 9 p.m. each night. Lyle would move their tools and their cell phones.
“They swore he moved their stuff around,” Vance said. “What guests have recently been reporting is their bathroom faucet in Lyle’s room, he will turn it on and off. We just last weekend had a ghost hunter stay here, Ryan Ayres from Modesto. Lyle, we didn’t change his room. We didn’t want to upset Lyle.”
Over across the street at Hotel Charlotte, also owned by the Edwards family, room 6 is said to be haunted from time to time.
In Murphys, there’s said to be a ghost named Eleanor. The story is she came to work there in the early 1860s when it was called the Sperry and Perry House. She was working as a chambermaid when she fell in love with a gold miner who went off to find their fortune, but he never returned.
Eleanor waited at the hotel the rest of her life for him to come back but he never did. She died about 30 years later. Since then, some guests have noticed strange occurrences, including objects getting tossed in the kitchen and at a wait station. She sometimes pushes open closed doors and she has been seen from time to time in a mirror in a hutch in the Gold Room.
At the 1901 International Order of Oddfellows Hall in Murphys, there’s a rumor the place is haunted by victims of a cholera epidemic that struck the town many years ago. Some people have reported seeing shapes or figures, hearing voices and seeing objects move on their own.
There’s also an old boot maker’s place in Murphys, and today it’s home to Murphy's Motorcycle Company, which sells clothing and other goods. Lights go on and off on their own sometimes, and people who work there have said there can be sudden sensations of cold.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.