Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there are millions of people who do. Shows such as “Ghost Hunters,” “Ghost Adventures,” “Most Haunted” and “Paranormal State” have legions of fans searching for proof of ghostly behavior on Earth. The ghost hunters travel to exotic locations – castles in Europe and ruins in Mexico – to seek supernatural spooks and find evidence of alleged hauntings, but California has a wealth of its own haunted hot spots. The Queen Anne Hotel in San Francisco and the Winchester House in San Jose are paranormal fan favorites, but East County residents needn’t go far to find a ghost story. A plethora of spooky legends are floating around right here.
Stories of apparitions, mysterious whispers, creatures and supernatural forces have weaved their way into East County culture, entertaining and scaring locals and tourists for years.
“Everyone has heard of the spirits at Black Diamond Mines,” said East Contra Costa Historical Society member Doreen Forlow. “Teenagers have been going out there forever looking for the white witch. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, it’s fun to go out in the dark and scare each other. That’s what ghost stories are – they’re fun.”
Historian Kathy Leighton used to take friends to the roof of the Byron Hot Springs Hotel for sleepovers when she was young. The girls would stay up all night telling ghost stories, and their laughter and screams would rouse guests, who would spread stories that the hotel itself was haunted, said historian Carol Jensen.
“It’s all a bunch of malarkey,” Jensen said. “The Byron Hot Springs are not haunted. That was just Kathy and her friends. That’s how these stories start. There is one pinch of truth and then the story evolves into something else entirely.”
True or not, these stories spread and are passed down to each generation. With the advent of the Internet and the evolution of social media, it’s easier for spook seekers to share information and delve into the histories and legends of things that go bump in the night. Here are a few classic East County legends:
Black Diamond Mines
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch is considered one of the most haunted places in California, according to The Shadowlands website, an inventory of haunted locations throughout world. Since Black Diamond is open to the public and easy to access, it’s a local fan favorite. In the 1860s, workers in the mines suffered from black lung and were susceptible to hazardous working conditions. It’s rumored that the spirits of those who perished in the mines have stayed behind – many of them Welsh immigrants, accounting for tales of invisible men speaking in a variety of dialects. Some ghost gossips even swear they’ve heard the sound of shovels in the mines.
Black Diamond Mines’ most famous apparition, however, is Sarah Norton. Reputed to be visiting the area regularly since she died in 1879, Norton was a midwife who lived in the mining area. On the way to deliver a baby, her carriage overturned and she was killed.
The legend goes that Norton was not a religious woman and didn’t want a funeral, but the locals were so grateful for her services to the community that they decided to host a memorial anyway. In both attempts to give her a proper burial, storms ravished the town, so they quietly laid Norton to rest at Rose Hill Cemetery, located near the mines, without incident.
For more than 100 years, witnesses claim they’ve seen a spirit in a flowing white dress moving about the cemetery at night. Other say she appears as a mist that drifts throughout the cemetery and the mines through the Antioch hills in search of children in need.
While the legend of Sarah Norton and Black Diamond Mines is well known in East County, most people aren’t aware of the ghost that reportedly hangs out at Sweeney’s Grill and Bar in Brentwood. Peter Charitou is the current owner of the establishment that first opened in the 1880s, but some people believe the spirit of James “Jimmie” Torres, who owned Sweeney’s – then Torres’ Saloon – from 1888 to 1917, is still hanging around.
According to Leighton, Torres, an Italian immigrant, was playing a game of poker in the back booth when he was shot twice in the back. The shooter was on horseback and shot Torres through the window, so by the time patrons rushed outside to see what had happened, the killer was gone. It’s believed that Torres’ ghost remains at Sweeney’s, roaming around the bar and restaurant keeping an eye on customers.
“Some people say they’ve seen him at the back table near where he was shot,” Leighton said. “Some say you can spot him sitting on a bar stool late at night, but after a few drinks, I’m sure people claim to have seen all sorts of things there. Jimmie was known as a pretty cheerful guy, so he’s not known for playing tricks on staff or customers, but people say he’s trapped there because they never found his killer.”
Odd Fellows Hall
East County spirits are believed to haunt the places where their bodies died. Leighton said another of East County’s little-known haunts is Odd Fellows Hall in Byron. When the building was constructed in the 1880s, it was one of the largest edifices in town. In 1902, a train wreck just outside town turned the hall into a temporary morgue. It’s believed that the spirits of some of the 29 people who died in the accident never left.
“It’s a two-story building,” Leighton said. “I’ve heard that the doors and windows open and shut on their own, particularly on the second floor. Others say they hear footsteps and just have that feeling of being watched. It’s the kind of stuff that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick up.”
Leighton said others have reported hearing children laughing and seeing the image of a woman in a flowing dress moving along the tracks where the train was wrecked.
Byer Road Ghosts
Most ghost stories mention visions and sounds that are seen and heard only at night or during dark, stormy weather. East County is famous for its forbidding fog, courtesy of the Delta, which dredges up its own mysterious images. Every time Leighton drives down Byer Road in Byron, she’s reminded of a woman who called her a few years ago asking about paranormal activity on Byer Road near the corner of Bixler Road.
Leighton said the woman recalled traveling down the road when she was young. She’d use Byer Road at night as a shortcut to Discovery Bay after visiting friends in Tracy. As she’d slow down approaching the turn to Bixler Road, she suddenly saw five people standing in the road right in front of her. She had no time to stop, but it didn’t matter – she drove right through the figures, which vanished into the mist.
During a second trip, she saw the figures again and noticed that they were dressed in Victorian clothes. The most distinct figure was a man wearing a top hat. She passed them several times in her youth and eventually forgot about the apparitions. But a few years ago, the woman was driving down Byer Road on a foggy evening with her daughter in tow. Not wanting to scare her daughter, the woman decided not to say anything when she saw the figures, but as they passed by, the daughter gasped and asked what people were doing standing out in the fog.
Leighton said she has no information about any deaths in that area, but she suspects the spirits might be members of the Byer family. She hypothesizes that the man in the top hat is John Richard Byer, one of East County’s famous settlers. “Maybe he’s trying to hitch a ride to Discovery Bay,” Leighton said.
A ghost that Leighton is more certain of is the spirit that wanders near Kellogg Creek. Accused of stealing cattle in 1870, Kellogg was hung from a tree near a creek that passed through Byron, so when settlers reshaped the creek to redirect the water toward the ranches, they named it Kellogg Creek, since most people knew the story of the man who was killed there. Leighton said Kellogg’s ghost is rumored to haunt the creek during the full moon. Some say they’ve seen a man walking by the water, while others say a man on horseback rides up and down the creek all night.
Byron Hot Springs
Jensen said there are many reasons people believe ghosts haunt the Byron Hot Springs. Today the Hot Springs is run down and essentially abandoned, so visitors like to walk through the building looking for ghosts and other creepy things. But it’s mainly those with mixed knowledge of the area that are drawn to it for its supernatural influence.
When people learn that the Byron Hot Springs was an internment camp during World War II, many think that prisoners were tortured for information, but Jensen said that’s not the case. Prisoners were kept at the hotel, and government officials bugged the rooms to listen in on conversations rather than coerce information from inmates.
But the possibility of encountering a tortured earth-bound spirit keeps the curious venturing out to the property – at night, of course – to investigate. Ghost-centric websites are filled with message boards featuring conversations about the Hot Springs. While many report that a creepy atmosphere pervades the property, some believe they’ve seen a spirit at one of the fourth-floor windows. Others claim that a mysterious fog appears – and disappears as quickly as it came.
The Byron Hot Springs is private property patrolled by local law enforcement, so ghost hunters are discouraged from touring the property on their own.
Empire Mine Road
If East County has an epicenter for weird juju, it’s Empire Mine Road in Antioch. Forlow said this is another popular place that has drawn bored teenagers for decades. Today, Empire Mine Road is closed off, which piques interest even more. What’s out there, anyway?
The main attraction of Empire Mine Road is Gravity Hill. There are several locations like this throughout the state. It’s said by many that if you put your car in neutral at a certain point on Empire Mine Road, the car will begin to move forward and uphill.
While the Gravity Hill legend often includes a spirit who wants to push drivers to safety, Antioch’s Gravity Hill is one of the more complex versions, according to www.weirdca.com. Legend has it that a school bus filled with children lost control on Empire Mine Road and overturned into a pond. The children were trapped and drowned.
The Antioch legend implies that when you stop at Gravity Hill, the children from the accident push an automobile forward to protect the driver and passengers from a watery grave. Some people say if you sprinkle baby powder on your back bumper before you stop at Gravity Hill, you can see small handprints left in the powder from the spirits that moved the car forward.
While the tale of Gravity Hill has remained consistent over the years, the legend of the abandoned slaughterhouse is a constantly shifting affair. Hundreds of posts from those who’ve visited the slaughterhouse litter the Internet. Some say, as with Byron Hot Springs, it’s just a rundown building with a generally creepy vibe. Others say the spirit of a man and his dog patrol the property at night to keep people away. “Away from what?” is unknown. Some say the facility was a place where cattle were butchered, while others say it was simply a feeding mill for the livestock. And other variations claim it was a feeding mill – but the doctor who owned the property conducted experiments on people. Some interpreters combine the two legends, claiming that Gravity Hill is inhabited by the spirits of the doctor’s victims trying to get you out of harm’s way.
The latest legend is that a group of people who live in the Antioch hills meet at the slaughterhouse at night to perform satanic rituals. This story has evolved from another story that suggested members of the Ku Klux Klan met at the slaughterhouse.
Since Empire Mine Road is a breeding ground for mysterious energy, another story has arisen online about a mutant rodent, large enough to be bear, that escaped from the Livermore Laboratory and now calls Empire Mine Road its home. Like all good legends, the creature is said to come out only at night. But since it roams the interior hills, only a handful of sightings have been registered.
Sometimes ghost stories are born of history. Sometimes it’s all just talk. One of the greatest hoaxes in Northern California is the legend of the Giant Snake of Antioch. In 1934, several residents reported they encountered a huge snake slithering through the streets as they drove through the city at night. It was rumored to be a hundred feet long and large enough to swallow a man whole. In November, a group of men caught a 30-foot python suspected of causing all the excitement, but as it would turn out, the snake was made of old inner tubes and moved across the road with the help of ropes. The hoax was revealed shortly after a photo was released of seven men pinning the “snake” down.
Jensen, who doesn’t believe in ghosts, looks at legends from a historical perspective. “Ghost stories often originated as a way to keep people out of trouble and scare them off from different places. This happened a lot during prohibition. People generated ghost stories to keep average people away from speakeasies. Mothers tell their children stories of a white witch to keep them from staying out after dark.
“But these stories live on, and with each telling, the story changes. Do I believe in these stories? No. I’ve never embraced the idea ghosts or spirits, but people like to be scared, so the stories move on to the next generation. Who knows what these stories will be like years from now?”
Jensen plans to partner with Leighton and write a book about local legends and stories of the supernatural.