The Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed

I have written previously about the Niles Canyon Ghost, who supposedly has appeared on Niles Canyon Road every February 26 since 1938 (or 1940), trying to hitchhike to San Francisco. The couple who stop to pick her up proceed to the Dumbarton Bridge Toll and pay for three people (before 1951, the bridge toll was based on how many were in the car), but the tolltaker says they’ve paid for too many: the woman has vanished from the back seat. Those who continue onto the address in San Francisco meet a sad woman who says that the same thing happens every year. The ghost is the spirit of her daughter, who was killed in an accident on Niles Canyon Road, and on the mantel is a photograph of the woman who flagged them down.

This story is now known to be one of many variants of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker,” a common urban legend that was first researched in 1942 by American folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey.

As a teenager, I had first read about the Ghost in The History of Washington Township—indeed, that was usually the reason I opened the book. But I also enjoyed studying the old maps on the endpapers, trying to figure out where our modern-day suburban house would be. The story of the Ghost appears in the 1950 second edition, but not in the scarce 1904 first edition. I very much doubted that the compilers of the History invented the story. Where did it come from? One day, I thought, I would research this and find the truth—but others have beaten me to it (A Place Called Sunol, by Connei DeGrange and Allen DeGrange, DeGrange Publishing, 1995, pp115-116). The first detective work was done by Tri-Valley Herald reporter Liam Pleven in 1991 (Tri-Valley Herald, 26 February 1991), with further sleuthing by Victoria Christian (Around Sunol, 26 February 2007). The true story of the Niles Canyon Ghost can now be told.

The story was probably invented about 1942 by a local journalist as a ploy to sell newspapers. Nothing much happened for the next few years, but in 1947 radio announcer Mel Ventner repeated the story and it began to capture the public’s attention. On 24 February 1950, an article about the Ghost appeared in the Township Register. Two days later on the 26th, many drivers reported seeing a white figure waving from a railroad trestle: it was 19-year-old Clarence Chivers wearing a white sheet. Alameda Country sheriff’s deputies William R. Rose and E. B. Pavon responded and fired warning shots, then proceeded to arrest him. The next day, one newspaper led with the headline “Shivers Shakes as Sheriff Shoots” (although my headline would have been “Chivers Shivers as Sherriff Shoots”). In 1952, officers arrested a 22-year-old for a similar prank, and reported that twenty or thirty kids were hiding along the roadway. Clarence Chivers passed away in 2007 at the age of 75.

It’s no surprise, then, that the 1950 edition of The History of Washington Township, published during the heyday of the Niles Canyon Ghost, would include the story. Tonight raise your glass to the memory of the Ghost, invented on this day about 68 years ago.

Update: In October 2021, almost ten years after I posted this, I received an email from Mike Chivers, nephew of the late Clarence Chivers. Mike confirmed that his uncle Clarence did indeed stage the legendary prank, and often recounted it to family members over the years. Mike also reports another interesting angle: Deputy W. R. Rose, who arrested Chivers in 1950, was the son of another Sheriff William Rose who responded to a carriage crash in Niles Canyon in the late 19th century. Rose found the overturned carriage and a drowned horse, but no human remains were ever recovered.

The Incredible Invisible Milky Way

The Milky Way over Switzerland, (c) Stephane Vetter

Arlene and I just returned from three days in Mendocino, on the northern California coast. It had been foggy recently—a very common thing in Mendocino—but during our stay it was completely cloudless. And no moon! A stargazer’s paradise. I walked down the street to where there weren’t any nearby lights and looked up. And there it was! The magical mystical Milky Way: the combined glow of billions of stars in our own galaxy.

The Milky Way is magical to me because I can’t see it at home. There is so much artificial nighttime light in the Bay Area that only the brightest stars are visible. The Milky Way is still there, of course, RIGHT THERE, EVERY DAMN NIGHT, AND I CAN’T SEE IT.

My brother and I were both interested in astronomy at an early age. Every weekend we went around the neighborhood collecting used newspapers in the old red wagon, which we stacked up in our garage. Once we had accumulated a carload, we’d pile them into our Chevrolet station wagon and Dad would drive us into Oakland to the recycle yard. (I’m sure Dad spent more in gas, not to mention in his time, than we made selling the newsprint. He was generous that way.) After about two years, we took the money we had saved and bought a small telescope. I still remember the first night we used it and saw Saturn.

But we couldn’t see the Milky Way! Suburban Fremont in the mid-1960s already had way too much light pollution. Pretty much the only time I got to see the Milky Way as a lad was during Boy Scout summer camp, far from the city lights.  And as an adult, I still have to journey far to see it: this week was the first time I’d seen the Milky Way in several years. It’s one of the prices we pay to live in the city, and one of the reasons I often fantasize about living out of it.

Make your earthquake preparations TODAY

Folks, we live in earthquake country. My heart aches for the victims of today’s massive 8.8 earthquake in Japan. One day soon, this will happen to us:

The toll in Japan could have been far, far worse—but the Japanese have taken earthquake preparations seriously. They have modified their architectural standards. They do regular earthquake drills.

Make your preparations TODAY. Buy food and water. Make go-bags for each family member. Keep extra go-bags in your car. Make sure you have extra prescription medecines. Don’t forget about your pets: they need food too. You may be on your own for up to 72 hours.

Visit for more information. Do it today!

Today is not the day to pick up a hitchhiker in Fremont

If you’re driving through Niles Canyon in Fremont today, don’t pick up a hitchhiker—unless you like talking to spectres. For today, February 26, is Niles Canyon Ghost Day, when a young woman will flag you down and ask to be driven to San Francisco. But by the time you arrive at the Dumbarton toll plaza, she will be gone.

Alas, the story is just a variant of the well-known “Vanishing Hitchhiker” myth. Too bad, for Niles Canyon is the perfect place for ghosts—steep canyon walls, hardly any development, two-lane highway, old railroad trestles—all of the classic features for a ghost story.

Giving a lift to the Senator

David and Mike
With former Alaska senator Mike Gravel at the Hillside Club

It’s not every day you have a United States Senator in your car.

The featured speaker at last night’s monthly Fireside Meeting at the Hillside Club was former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. I work nearby his home, so I volunteered to give him a ride to the Club. We had a very enjoyable chat on the drive over, and we arrived in Berkeley early enough for me to give Mike a quick architectural tour.

Gravel served two terms in the Senate from 1969-81, and is remembered for his attempts to end the draft and for reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. There was a pretty good turnout for Mike’s talk, and he answered many questions both supportive and skeptical of his ideas. I fall into the skeptical camp, but if there’s any lesson to be learned from our polarized times, it’s that learning to be friends with those with whom you disagree is a great virtue.