Today is Niles Canyon Ghost Day!

You might think that a planned suburb like Fremont, California wouldn’t be haunted, but you’d be wrong. Niles, which became part of Fremont in 1956, has its very own ghost:

In 1883, a historian commented that Niles “has nothing much to boast of” but its beautiful location, which justified a promise of a thriving town. In the 1850s, it was “Gopher Town.” In the 1860s, a mill. In 1877, it was fourteen acres bound by two railroads and a creek. It was then that the railroad bought two hundred acres and laid out the present town. In 1910, it had a population of 1,500. By 1914, Niles had justified its promise, and had three churches, three hotels, a bank and every appearance of a thriving town.

It also has a ghost, perhaps the only one in Washington Township. Many years ago, on the twenty-sixth of February, a young girl was killed in the canyon. Every year, on that day, she appears on the roadside, begging to be taken to her home in San Francisco. Invariably, when her kind deliverers reach the Dumbarton Bridge toll gate, she is gone. Drivers who go on to her San Francisco address are told that the same thing happens each year. Credence ranges from those who openly scoff to those who fear to drive through the canyon on February twenty-sixth.

History of Washington Township, 2nd edition, 1950

Several more versions of the story can be found online: some give her name as Lowerey, some call her the “White Witch,” some say she was killed on her wedding day in a fall from a carriage. I was most amused by a comment proclaiming the Niles Ghost a hoax (well of course the ghost is a hoax! You were expecting a real ghost?).

As it turns out, The Vanishing Hitchhiker is a well-known urban legend, first studied in 1942 by folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey. There are four main story lines of the Vanishing Hitchhiker; the Niles Canyon Ghost is an example of story “A,” the most common variant. Forty-nine versions of the story “A” were recorded across America! I somehow doubt that the excerpt above is the earliest print record of the Niles Ghost, but I haven’t had time to research it further.

Next post: more about Niles, the canyon, and how Charlie Chaplin filmed his first movies here before moving to Hollywood.

Drawbridge, California

There are many ghost towns in the American West, but perhaps just one where thousands of commuters zoom past every day. It is Drawbridge, in south San Francisco Bay, and it sits directly on the Amtrak line between Fremont and San Jose. I went to high school in Fremont, and I remember hearing rumors of a ghost town down on the railroad tracks. In fact, at the time it wasn’t yet a ghost town: the last resident didn’t leave until 1979. I wish I had gone out there while I still had the chance: today Drawbridge is strictly off-limits.

Drawbridge was named for the two railroad drawbridges that used to span Mud Creek Slough and Coyote Creek Slough. The hamlet’s heyday was in the early 1900s, when there were two hotels and the trains stopped five times a day. By the 1960s only a few residents were left and the trains no longer stopped for passengers. Vandalism grew common after the San Jose Mercury incorrectly stated that Drawbridge was entirely abandoned. The last two residents were Nellie Dollin and Charles Luce. Nellie left in 1974 after tiring of scaring off vandals with her shotgun. Luce was bought out by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1979. Both their cabins burned down, probably by vandals.

Perhaps two dozen wooden buildings remain, in various states of decay. The only way to see Drawbridge today is from an Amtrak or Capitol Corridor train. For the best views, sit in the upper level of the carriage. There are buildings on either side, but they will zip past very quickly so have your camera ready.

Update: A Tale of Two Ghost Towns

Further reading: