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The Ghosts of San Francisco

I remember reading a story about a policeman who wandered the streets of the city in a daze just after the 1906 earthquake. He had been on the third or fourth floor of one of the San Francisco hotels when it collapsed and had somehow survived and then dug himself out. Out in the streets he came upon a woman, half her body buried in rubble. She was alive. Barely a block away the fire raged towards them. Pulling other dazed survivors to assist him, he worked for over an hour to pull the woman from the rubble before they were overtaken by flames. They could never free her.

san francisco ca
Photo Courtesy Daniel Schwen.

So that she wouldn’t die a horribly painful death in the flames, he pulled out his service revolver and mercifully shot her.

Her ghost haunted him the rest of his life. That’s understandable. He was traumatized by what he saw and what he was forced to do and could never shake the memory.

But what explains the fact that other people see her too?

Perhaps my favorite San Francisco ghost story involves the SS Tennessee, a square-rigged, two-masted schooner that sails the Bay. The Tennessee had gone down in 1853 off the Golden Gate Straight. In 1942 and under a thick fog, the crew of the USS Kennison, a naval destroyer returning from patrol encountered the un-manned schooner, ragged but under full sail.

The ghost ship left a wake but nothing turned up on radar.

Supposedly, San Francisco police have received numerous 911 calls that the the 1886 windjammer Balclutha – a three-masted, square-rigged schooner permanently anchored at the Hyde Street Pier and managed by the National Park Service was loose and drifting in the Bay. It has never been loose however.

It must be the ghost of the Tennessee.

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I had a ghostly experience once.  It was a whole haunted house.  In the ruins of Victor, Colorado where I spent a huge amount of my childhood, I was out with a gang of kids one night when we came to a house where there was a giant party inside.  There were kids voiced but we were sure there weren’t any other kids in town.  We watched for awhile then went home. In the morning we went back to find the kids but the house was nothing but a burned out shell.  My father told me it had always been like that and that there couldn’t have been a party there.

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Why is San Francisco one of the most haunted cities in America?

At Alcatraz voices have been recorded in the former mess hall cell when no one else had been around. Visitors report footsteps and the sounds of cell doors opening and closing through the empty halls. An ungodly number of San Francisco hotels are haunted. In North Beach there are the ghostly images that suddenly appear on window panes of a number of houses. At the Atherton Mansion the spirits of George de Goni Atherton, is nagging wife Gertrude, his mother Dominga and later owner Carrie Rousseau reside. As the story goes, George died of kidney failure while on a voyage to Chile. His fellow sailors pickled his body in a barrel of rum and delivered the barrel to his mother and wife during a dinner party. At the Curran Theatre there is the ghost of a ticket taker apparently killed during an attempted robbery in the 1930’s. Restless spirits plow around the Sutro Baths and the flying toilet seats of the Mansions Hotel.

Then there is the ghost of the famous Flora Sommerton, a girl who went missing in 1876 after her forced marriage to a much older man. Her body was found 50 years later in a Butte, Montana hotel, supposedly still clothed in the dress she was wearing on the night of her disappearance. She wanders the streets in her ballroom gown, oblivious to traffic.

Yet another one of the “lady in white” stories that seem to exist in every community.

Perhaps the creepiest ghost story in my opinion is that of Stow Lake.

Supposedly, about 100 years ago in Golden Gate Park a young mother was out walking her child around the lake in a stroller. The mother sat on a bench and, becoming distracted by a conversation or something and the stroller rolled into the lake. When she noticed the baby gone she wandered the park, panicked, asking everyone “have you seen my baby?” When she realized the stroller had gone into the lake, she went in after it and was never seen again…..except as an apparition wandering the park asking desperately for help to find the missing child.

San Francisco is incredibly rich in history and much of that history is of the darker side including assassinations, kidnapping, terrorism and serial killing. And it is not all in the distant past of the city. Think of the kidnapping of Pattie Hearst and the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. The horrific Golden Dragon Massacre and of course the Zodiac Killer – who is still on the loose.

There is even a haunted Toys-R-Us in Sunnyvale.  Holy bajeeezus.

From Jack London to Mark Twain to Ambrose Bierce, even the sturdiest of writers have been shaken by the ghosts of the Bay Area.

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Bridges aren’t a thing to be taken lightly.

There are the obvious benefits to bridges. That they allow us to bypass obstacles goes without saying but is it clear that they offer a new path, one less tenuous or precarious and possibly one that takes us completely outside of the box into a whole new way of knowing? In dream interpretation the river can symbolize your emotions and the bridge a way to overcome the emotions and make a choice that takes us to a new phase. In the Tarot, the bridge serves as a journey into a separate realm – the one that divides the living from the dead.

The Golden Gate is not just a man-made bridge. It is a geographic feature, straight, connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. It is itself a doorway from interior North America to the rest of the world and in that sense is a geographic and cultural bridge and, some say, a metaphysical bridge. A portal left open that blurs the lines between the world of the living and the those that have gone before.

Maybe that is why since its opening in 1937, the famous suspension bridge spanning San Francisco Bay has unwittingly hosted an average of twenty-five suicides per year – about 1,300 suicides in total.

Most of the ghostly inhabitants of San Francisco meet the traditional view of ghosts – that they are the spirits of the dead stuck for some reason between here and there by a trauma or tragedy of in their lives.

Ghosts can be mere etchings on the world their human forms once inhabited and they appear as such, like a left-over energy that plays the same tune again and again like a broken record. Still others are more like messengers, appearing just once or twice and bringing words of comfort the ones they left behind. Poltergeists on the other hand are perhaps People who have become ghosts after their death because they had too many unfulfilled desires or who were addicted to anger, fear, greed, or ego. Maybe they had harmed others. These are the ones who make noise. The banging, the music, the turning of faucets or slamming of doors – or the throwing of toilet seats. They are “mean-spirited”.

Or maybe the Bay is not a portal at all and it’s just a bunch of  living people under severe stress.

Regardless…..If you’re driving the Bay Bridge on the lower deck at night towards Oakland and you hear a knocking on your window you might not want to look. The headless man running next to your car may have been a victim of the 1989 earthquake.

If you do look, be sure to report it to the San Francisco Ghost Society.


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