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 husband and wife 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 W. 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 who stood atop a train trestle in 1950 wearing a white sheet.

Welcome to your new country

My grandparents on their wedding day in 1916

One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Domenico Mostardi arrived in America. When he stepped off the steamer S.S. Königin Luise at Ellis Island in New York, he was 29 years old, single, and spoke no English.

Domenico was from the sleepy hill town of Amandola in the region of Le Marche. I know nothing about what motivated him to leave; all but one of his eight siblings stayed in Italy. In contrast, my grandmother, whose immigration centennial was last year, left to escape the bleak poverty in Sicily; over a 20-year span almost all of her eight siblings immigrated to America.

My grandfather died before I was born, so I must ask my father for stories about him. Several years ago my brother and I have formally interview my father and asked him all the questions we could think of: it’s all recorded on tape and transcribed. Too many times I have waited until too late to interview an aged relative, and have lived to regret it. Do not take your elders for granted! Use your time.

I have since visited Amandola several times. In fact, I know the very house he was born in, and have visited the woman who now owns the house. Amandola is a beautiful hill town with a stunning view of the Sibillini mountains.

To the memory of my grandfather, Domenico Mostardi, 1882-1954.

Seven score and ten years ago

The American Civil War began one hundred and fifty years ago today, 12 April 1861, at 4:30 in the morning, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The only casualty was a Confederate horse, but by the end of the war in 1865 more than 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were dead. Virtually every family in America suffered losses, and mine was no exception: my great-great-grand uncle Christopher Warren died in the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro).

Ken Burns’s seminal series The Civil War remains, in my opinion, one of the finest television shows ever made. I still have the VCR tapes I made at the time, and though I still have the machinery to play them I will probably watch when PBS replays the series later this spring.

I can scarcely add to the mountain of eloquent words about the Civil War. That we still talk about it 150 years later is evidence that we believe it to be perhaps the most important event in American history. Let us never forget.

A Tragedy That Made a Difference

triangle fire
The scene at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Saturday 25 March 1911

One hundred years ago today, 146 people died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. The victims were primarily young immigrant Jewish and Italian women. Many died when they jumped from the upper floors to the concrete sidewalks below. At the time it was the largest industrial accident in the history of the United States, and was hugely reported on by the press. Over 400,000 New Yorkers watched in the funeral procession in the pouring rain.

The company’s owners were prosecuted but got off quite lightly. This, coupled with the enormous tragedy, marked a turning point. Unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union became stronger. New York passed laws  increasing workplace safety, and other states followed suit. In a very real way, many future lives were saved in the safer workplaces that resulted from the tragedy of the Triangle Fire. The names of these 146 men and women have not been forgotten.

More coverage of the Triangle Fire centennial: